Wednesday, December 3, 2008


If I was to talk about Radio Lab, most of you would say, "What?" Which is a shame, because Radio Lab, at least on my podcast list, is one of the smartest programs on any media as well as the most creative. And I say that as a die hard This American Life listener. My inner Ira Glass is right now trying to subtly remind me that its not a competition, but we all know better.

A few weeks back, hosts Robert Krulwich & Jad Abumrad, put forth a great program on Choice, which was late in some respects because the election was 12 days before it aired. The choice of the year, guys!

I can hear Krulwich now - "But Id, why did we need to say a thing about the election?" Well, Robert, bear with me . . all shall become apparent.
Jonah Lehrer helps us understand why by introducing us to George Miller's classic paper "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two", which explains the ability of the average human to hold about seven pieces of discreet information in working memory at any given time.
Classic is almost an understatement - we all interact everyday, some of us every hour, with the most famous application of the paper: the telephone call routing system. Miller found that the average normal human can handle or juggle about 7 pieces of discrete data at once in foreground memory, plus or minus 2 in variance. Its because of Miller that my phone number is (515)557-1785 (it's really not) - we not only give our number in in local terms as 7 digits, and then also in two or three chunks. You can also see derivation on Miller's work in the Web address system - this chunking also applies to single words or other simple datums.

Robert X. Cringely, a technology journalist, wrote about Miller's work in Accidental Empires, postulating that the people whom could hold more data in RAM (so to speak), more than 7-9 numbers, were likely to be gifted individuals.
It is the 0.15 percent . . we're interested in - the 3 out of 2,000 people who can remember more than nine numbers. There are approximately 375,000 such people living in the United States, and most of them would make terrific computer programmers, if only if we could find them.
It's more than about computer programming, of course, because being able to hold transitory information in short-term memory at the very least could be a great asset at parties, much less in board rooms or even the White House.

So if seven, with a little fudging, is the magic number, what happens when we give someone more than 7 pieces of data and expect them to make a serious decision?

How many times have we stood in a shopping aisle and muttered that our brain hurt?

In my case, I've stewed for weeks on certain decisions or purchases, wanting to assess all the variables and correctly identify all the needs or wants I want to fulfill. This plotting and planning sometimes takes on a senseless life of it own as my brain chases its tail around and around. Some of that is information overload.

A very devious guy, Baba Shiv, at Stanford put together a little experiment based off of those numbers. He showed that if you give someone a data set like a phone number with the implied intention for said person to reguritate it a little later, and then interrupting that person, you can bend their judgment away from good to worse choices.

How often have we stood in a voting booth and muttered about down-ballot candidate races?

Now remove that decision-making process one step further. How does someone, whom isn't a politics and news junkie like the fair readers of this blog, whom doesn't commit talking points and positions to long-term memory, and whom doesn't watch the election cycle for months on end, come to a decision? Whom on average, has only five to nine slots available to stick the datum of the moment.

Yeah. Scares me too.

The marketers, advertisers and their close relatives in political communications know this very well. In certain respects, they want to overwhelm the low-information voter and bend the decision-making process with less-than-noble talking points and appeals. In the age of 24/7 news and the Information SuperFirehose, it's then pathetically easy to blow away a person's judgment.

That flood of information can lead to avoidance and anxiety, and even to people refusing to make any choice whatsoever - and not ultimately voting.

Coincidentally, the next program to come off my randomized playlist was TAL's Ground Game episode. In Act One, it featured the Democrats for McCain stumping door-to-door in Scranton, PA. Listening to it, and the Radio Lab just previously, made you really think about how we form choices - and rationalize the ones that we feel so strongly about that we sacrifice our time and money for.

That's the story you didn't go for, Robert.


Anjha said...

Excellent post Id. Nice job connecting the dots.

He showed that if you give someone a data set like a phone number with the implied intention for said person to reguritate it a little later, and then interrupting that person, you can bend their judgment away from good to worse choices.

Interrupting that person with shit like, I don't know, Hannity and Colmes arguing about some extraneous nonsense?

In the age of 24/7 news and the Information SuperFirehose, it's then pathetically easy to blow away a person's judgment.

I have had this argument before (maybe only in my own head, I do not remember) but the argument goes something like this:

Our Founders argued that people who are uninformed and uneducated cannot live in a democracy. That without education and access to information, people are more easily subjected to tyranny.

Oh, but how can we say that people are "uneducated" in this 24/7 news cycle.

People are not lacking in information...they are suffering from information overload and most of the information is bogus.

24/7 people are slammed with BS data and arguments and crap and lies and myths and propaganda. Bad, bad combination...

It is a bad combo to take people already overwhelmed with their lives, struggling just to make ends meet, working two or more jobs, exhausted, trying to take care of kids, trying not to lose the house, trying to maintain some level of "relationship" with their spouse...and then throw at them a bunch of infotainment that has so much BS smeared atop the actual information that no one could possibly have enough time or energy to separate what is real from what is not - and bingo, you get your standard "low information voter."

But really, it is not so much "low information" as it is bogus information overload.

Now, take your theory to practical terms:

1. Obama is a secret Muslim manchurian candidate.
2. Obama is a radical leftist Christian.
3. Obama was not even born in the US.
4. Obama is a Facists.
5. Obama is a Communist.
6. Obama will raise your taxes.
7. Obama is a flip-flopper who only tells people what they want to hear.

Nevermind that many of those seven "facts" (BS talking points) are contradictory. Those are the top seven BS myths that Faux News and the RNC and Limbaugh want you to take away from all of those hours of programming.

Perhaps there are a couple more: 8. Pelosi, Reid and Obama are a dangerous, radical threesome. 9. Obama is not qualified. 10. Obama is the AntiChrist. Blah, blah, all know the myths, the point is that they are easily memorizable, they are easily spread and they are the kind of myths that supplant all of the other information with great efficiency.

We can all see the RNC talking points dribble out through the "news". If we pay attention, it is easy to rewrite that days memo based on what the "pundits" and "Republican Strategists" say each day.

Whilst I toodle around in my pajamas working and trying to take care of my house and living on my couch - I usually have MSNBC on (alternating with AAR and the SPAN) - point is, I always am listening to information...until nighttime when I watch my fiction shows. So, I always am listening and I can tell anyone what the talking points are for that day based on what the "Republican Strategists" regurgitate. It is amazing - they all dutifilly repeat the BS. They say it in their own words, their own way, so that they are not all reading off of the same scripts - but they are all reading off of the same script.

After a few hours, I can tell what it is that each of these assholes will say for that day. It is actually a kind of fun game to play with the Right Wing Dickwads.

iamcoyote said...

Great posts, both of you. I just wanted to add that other studies have shown that in a long set of things to remember, you remember the first and last. That's why the blowhards repeat the things they want to get across at the beginning and end, and use filler in between to try to get the responder to miss the actual meta message by going after more outrageous claims in the middle. That leaves the message unchallenged and the interruptions help derail any challenges that may happen. Fuckers.

Seven of Six said...

Yeah that's exactly why we need to re-enact the Fairness Doctrine!

And that is why the trolls are so fucking afraid they will lose command of the airwaves. They want the dumbing down of America to continue, it helps keep them in power!

Anjha said...

Hey, mainsailset, will you please send one of us an email?

Anjha said...

Hey, does anyone recommend a good website from which to send free ecards? Blue Mountain makes you register now, and I do not want to!

Seven of Six said...

Shit, did I get the scare of a lifetime this morning, the bus behind my boys was involved in a crash on it's way to school. Made the Phoenix news, video and pictures... fucking scary!

Anjha said...

Jeebus SoS - that is frigging terrifying. We live extremely close to my kids school...everytime that an aid car or fire truck goes by lights a blaring, I listen a little to make sure that it is not stopping in front of the school. I hate that kind of paranoia - but it is my kid and I have a right to worry like mother's worry.

I am very glad it was not his bus.

BTW - I am just sending an email because I do not trust any of these ecard companies. And I spent too much time researching them and I am ready for a nap.