Thursday, May 01, 2003

Emotional Selection In Memes - The Case Of Urban Legends

Every now and again, I'll post an article related to my interest in selective perception, attitude change, and cognitive dissonance. It sounds technical, but it really isn't. As time goes on, I'll elaborate on these models of the mind, and try to relate them to everyday occurrences. Especially involving political attitude change and reinforcement. This one is an interesting one, and I'll post my analysis of it a little later on, or perhaps in a brand new post about urban political legends.
This article explores how much memes like urban legends succeed on the basis of informational selection (i.e., truth or a moral lesson) and emotional selection (i.e., the ability to evoke emotions like anger, fear, or disgust). The article focuses on disgust because its elicitors have been precisely described.

In Study 1, with controls for informational factors like truth, people were more willing to pass along stories that elicited stronger disgust.

Study 2 randomly sampled legends and created versions that varied in disgust; people preferred to pass along versions that produced the highest level of disgust.

Study 3 coded legends for specific story motifs that produce disgust (e.g., ingestion of a contaminated substance) and found that legends that contained more disgust motifs were distributed more widely on urban legend Web sites. The conclusion discusses implications of emotional selection for the social marketplace of ideas.

This emphasis on disgust, and emotion winning out over reason, is very interesting, and the scenarios and research credible. Even more compelling, the authors of the study extend their ideas to the social realm and see a method to the madness of fear-mongering.

In legal and public policy circles, researchers have expressed repeated concerns that the media may skew public policy by provoking irrational fears. By provoking such fears, the media may cause society to skew public policy toward trivial but emotional "problems" and away from legitimate problems that are less emotional ( Bailis & MacCoun, 1996 ; Edelman, Abraham, & Erlanger, 1992 ; Glassner, 1999 ; Marsh, 1991 ). Although the media may deserve all the criticism it gets, irrational fears often propagate in the form of informal contemporary legends that use as experts only the ubiquitous "friend of a friend." Until we understand more about emotional selection, we are unlikely to understand the social implications of a marketplace of ideas that competes not only over truth but also over emotion.

There are ramnifications on political discourse and campaigning as well. Will virtual urban legends be spread throughout the people by their participation in political blogs? By overreliance on emotion and skewed stories and facts? Or will the availability of instant research and fact checking powered by Google be able to counter this? I'm not sure. I know the emotions are already running high on political blogs, and on many sites, and in many comments threads, the mob rules and independent, thoughtful opinions, and especially dissent to the consensus view, are not welcome, or are misconstrued to be the work of "trolls" from the "other side" (i.e. the enemy, other party).