Why are so many of us wrong about so much? From COVID-19 to climate change to the results of elections, millions of us believe things that are simply not true―and act based on these misperceptions. Dannagal G. Young is a Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Delaware where she studies the content, audience, and effects of non-traditional political information. Her book Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laugher in the U.S. examines satire and outrage as the logical extensions of the respective psychological profiles of liberals and conservatives and her new book project, Wrong: How Media, Politics, and Identity Drive our Appetite for Misinformation with JHU Press is available now. Dr. Young’s 2020 TED Talk explaining how our psychology shapes our politics, and how media exploit these relationships, has been viewed over 1.9 Million times.
In this interview, I speak to Professor Dannagal Young, one of the world’s foremost social scientists, about the role of politics in shaping our identities as individuals, groups, and nations. We talk about the role (and power) of misinformation and media and talk about how we can work together to create healthier democracies and institutions.
Q: What is the role of politics in shaping our identity and beliefs?
[Dannagal Young]: Being an Americanist, my perspective is largely shaped by the lens of American politics. With a career spanning 25 years in this field, I’ve observed a growing awareness among scholars of American politics and political psychology regarding the significant role social identity plays in voter behaviour and public opinion dynamics. Social Identity Theory illuminates the importance of group affiliations and classifications in human thought and action. Group identities become particularly prominent when they are tied to fundamental aspects of our being. Common group categorizations, which resonate deeply and are often used, include race, religion, culture, and geography.
I find a pivotal moment unfolding in the United States over the past four decades, where all these facets of identity have increasingly intertwined with political party affiliations, fostering a compelling dynamic that paves the way for political sectarianism. Following the realignment of America’s political parties around racial equality issues in the 60s, a sorting phenomenon emerged. Individuals who were white, Christian, lived in rural areas, and held culturally conservative views gravitated towards the Republican Party, while those who belonged to racial or ethnic minorities, resided in suburban or urban areas, were secular or agnostic, and had culturally liberal views, found a home in the Democratic Party.
As political parties began to echo these fundamental aspects of identity, our emotional responsiveness and engagement with politics heightened, viewed through the prism of our affiliations or what my colleague, Lily Mason, refers to as our political ‘mega identity’. This ‘mega identity’ acts as a proxy, intertwining our core beliefs and values with our political teams. Consequently, our worldview, beliefs, and values are significantly influenced by our team, embracing how our team perceives the world and what it cherishes and upholds.
Q: Why do we love misinformation?
[Dannagal Young]: Despite an initial inclination to resist, there’s a sense of begrudging acceptance: while we may despise misinformation, there’s a part of us that is drawn towards it, although often unbeknownst to us. The crux of the matter is, the human journey is fraught with challenges. It’s frequently marked by pain, confusion, and a feeling of helplessness. Herein lies the allure of fiction—it provides what reality often withholds. Fictions grant us a semblance of understanding, a hint of control, and a sense of community during times of solitude. This makes misinformation appealing, as it fulfils these basic human desires: comprehension, control, and community. However, these desires are melded by the social identities we discussed earlier. What we seek is to understand the world as our group does, exert control in the manner our group does, and foster community with our group. Hence, if a falsehood facilitates these objectives, its empirical accuracy becomes secondary. What truly propels us are these underlying desires. And this opens up a discussion about the potency of groups, which is central to this narrative.
Q: What are the consequences of ingroups and outgroups?
[Dannagal Young]: It’s important to highlight that one of the perilous facets of group identity, when magnified to an extreme, is apparent in moments of discord such as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where dehumanization of the outgroup occurs. The more pronounced a group identity is, especially when an identifiable outgroup exists, the more likely individuals are to dehumanize those not in their group. When asked to describe oneself, if the first identification that comes to mind is that of the group, the likelihood of outgroup dehumanization increases, seeing them as less than human.
This phenomenon piques my interest, and I find the lens of evolutionary psychology quite elucidating in understanding it. At its core, we are social beings—this isn’t merely a casual statement. Our survival hinges on social interdependence. Circumstances that engage with, or pose a threat to our social group, invariably emerge as potent influencers of our behaviours and belief systems. Reflecting on the lifestyle of our ancestors many millennia ago provides a perspective. It’s conceivable that survival odds were higher for ancestors who embraced false information endorsed by their tribe, compared to those who acknowledged empirically accurate information but were thereby alienated from their group. This historical premise resonates with our present-day dynamics, illustrating a continuous thread through the tapestry of human social interaction.
Q: How do we inoculate ourselves against manipulation?
[Dannagal Young]: In dealing with the intricacies of political and media technology organizations, the pathway to disruption, as viewed through my social scientist lens, begins with understanding, followed by forecasting, and finally devising control mechanisms. The challenge arises from the inherent logics and affordances of our media institutions, notably social media, which while connecting us, also selectively reward content that stokes the flames of our social identity. This content is typically emotionally charged, morally oriented, and delineates clear in and out groups, making it a fertile ground for clicks, likes, comments, and virality.
The commercial backbone of social media and partisan media, rooted in advertising within an attention economy, hinges on targeting ads based on our online behaviours. This necessitates a trail of digital breadcrumbs, which are more likely to be scattered in the wake of emotional activations, often triggered by appeals to or threats against our social identity. Reflecting on everyday life, recognizing identity threat emerges as a crucial step. It’s about catching that surge of emotion, be it offense or anger, usually incited by someone attempting to ignite your social identity or signal an outgroup threat, with a likely aim to shape your thoughts or actions.
While sometimes these signals point to genuine threats, with members of “your team” alerting you, discerning the real from the manufactured threats becomes a complex endeavour. It essentially boils down to a signal-to-noise ratio dilemma. How can one aptly respond to actual threats while sidestepping the fabricated ones? The antidote lies in introspection, a slowing down of reaction, coupled with a continuous questioning of the messenger’s motivations and potential gains from the message relayed.
A particular individual trait that has piqued my interest through research is intellectual humility. Embracing the possibility of being wrong enhances the likelihood of being right—a somewhat magical paradox. This notion dovetails with the scientific ethos, where the quest isn’t about proving oneself right. Any assertion of attempting to prove a theory instantly disqualifies one from the scientist tag. The scientific endeavour is about challenging our theories, a process that nudges us closer to truth. Adopting this approach in life, harbouring a perpetual curiosity to discover if we might be wrong, ironically, propels us towards being right. This ethos, akin to a quest, embodies the essence of scientific inquiry and holds the promise of navigating the muddied waters of our contemporary digital discourse.
Q: Where should we go to find intellectual discomfort?
[Dannagal Young]: … the crux of the issue stems from a media system that often side-lines intellectual humility. Your observation about how we, as a society, tend to chastise intellectual humility in each other rings true. The prevailing narrative, especially in recent weeks, seems to stress the necessity of voicing opinions. There’s a pervasive sentiment that silence or a lack of immediate response equates to complicity, and this is seen as an endorsement of a particular viewpoint. These demands for instant opinions are concerning as they overlook the individuals who are earnestly seeking to grasp the full picture, delving into the nuances of age-old issues before formulating a stance. They are cautious of the thin line between insightful and uninformed remarks. Therefore, deriding intellectual humility is a misguided approach.
As I delve into my current research, the focus is on exploring avenues to foster a culture of intellectual humility among political and media figureheads. The societal norms we uphold are often a reflection of the behaviours exhibited by individuals we revere or consider exemplary representatives of our community. By establishing mechanisms to applaud and reward the acknowledgment of potential wrongness, we may be nurturing a conducive environment for the cultivation of intellectual humility, not just among the elites, but within ourselves and the younger generation. There are practical exercises that can be employed in educational settings to encourage intellectual humility, which is an intriguing prospect. However, the existing system, as you rightly pointed out, is not tailored to promote such a practice, and that’s a narrative we ought to challenge.
Q: What do we need to do to encourage healthier democracies?
[Dannagal Young]: Navigating towards a milieu that nourishes democratic institutions, processes, and overall democratic health poses a nuanced challenge, especially given the deliberate pace, complexity, and inherently multidisciplinary nature of democracy. My suggestions aimed at journalism, although not radical, aspire to temper existing dynamics. A significant concern with a market-driven journalistic framework is its subservience to the whims of audience attention. Numerous hypotheses circulate within news organizations regarding the focal points of audience attention, shaping industry norms in the process. The prevailing narrative in the United States, characterized by a right versus left dichotomy and personalized conflict, tends to spotlight individuals exhibiting heightened emotional reactivity or those residing at the polar extremes of discourse, especially among political and media elites. They often command the lion’s share of airtime and press coverage.
However, this narrative isn’t set in stone. Discussing public media infrastructure in the United States is a steep uphill battle, given its relatively short legacy and its politicized perception as a left-leaning entity. Yet, global research insights affirm that robust democracies often have a solid foundation of independent public media systems, backed by long-term infrastructural plans. The United States finds itself trailing in this aspect. Transitioning towards such a model could be a step in the right direction, sidestepping the pressures inherent in market-dominated paradigms. While market-based capitalism excels in numerous arenas, it may fall short in consistently delivering high-quality, democratically enriching information to citizens. This pivot could serve as a conduit to foster a more conducive environment for the democratic discourse, steering away from the ephemeral attention-driven journalistic practices to a more stable, impartial, and informative media infrastructure.
[Vikas: and what about the role of media reporting with this- for example, how gun violence is reported?]
[Dannagal Young]: The examination of gun violence coverage presents a fascinating case, as media portrayal significantly varies based on factors such as the location of the incident, whether it’s urban or suburban, the nature of the event, be it a mass shooting or not, and the profile of the victim. Often, what emerges is a complex interplay between media norms and human psychology, leading to unfavorable outcomes. Media norms tend to chase the most graphic narratives, aiming to provoke emotional reactions from the audience, as it often guarantees sustained engagement. On the other hand, human psychology is predisposed to prioritize and retain information that elicits strong negative emotions, given its potential importance for survival in what might be termed a benign information environment—one unaffected by market forces and strategists.
Historically, in such benign environments, emotionally charged information could be crucial for survival, making this psychological inclination quite logical. However, the modern information landscape is far from benign, yet our cognitive processes haven’t adapted to this reality. Consequently, we find ourselves inundated with negative stimuli, prominently placed in our consciousness. This constant barrage tends to skew our perception of reality, leading to an overestimation of the frequency of such events and an inflated sense of danger in the world around us.
From a public policy perspective, this distortion poses a formidable challenge. How do we navigate governance when public opinion is shaped by a media environment laden with disproportionate exemplars? The media narratives, driven by market incentives, paired with our psychological tendencies, create a distorted lens through which we view critical societal issues such as gun violence. This distortion, in turn, complicates the formulation and implementation of public policies aimed at addressing the root causes of such societal challenges, thereby perpetuating a cycle of misrepresentation and misperception.
[Vikas: and we see quite a lot of difference in reporting between large-national and local newspapers too!)]
[Dannagal Young]: It’s insightful that you’ve highlighted the role of local newspapers, referencing the intriguing research from scholars at Syracuse University. This research delves into the multifaceted impacts of local newspapers, not only as informational hubs and political watchdogs within local communities but also as activators of a distinct social identity compared to that triggered by national news. Local news, by covering neighbourhood-centric issues like school systems, infrastructural developments, or community projects, cultivates a communal, neighbourhood-based social identity as opposed to the polarized left-right identity often seen in national discourse. The essence of being part of a cherished local community is underscored, diverging from the national culture war narrative.
The mentioned quasi-experiment, comparing towns with locally-focused newspapers against those engulfed in national disputes, unveils a promising decrease in political polarization and outgroup hostility in communities where local issues take centre stage. This subtle shift in narrative, steering attention towards local communal concerns, is indeed a treasure. It fosters a sense of pride and belonging, a sentiment I share as I too take pride in supporting my local newspaper, finding it a conduit to a deeper connection with my community.
The erosion of local independent newspapers in the US, often succumbing to buyouts and subsequent closures, is a sorrowful trajectory. Yet, the endeavours to rejuvenate this sector are worth noting. The crux of the matter transcends merely supporting local journalism; it’s about disrupting and diversifying the monolithic social identities, breaking free from the shackles of mega identities that often oversimplify our complex policy stances.
Our discussion on social media’s pressures and cancel culture segues into a broader narrative on self-representation in public discourse. Even if outwardly we appear as emblematic members of a particular “team,” our policy inclinations are far more nuanced than what these mega identities suggest. Embracing this complexity, being candid in our public personas even amidst potential backlash, is a daring yet necessary stride. It may initially invite ire, especially when expressing diverging opinions, yet it’s a stepping stone towards normalizing honesty and nuanced discussions.
The willingness to step into the arena, acknowledging and respecting differing views, fosters a conducive environment for nuanced dialogues. The reactions aimed at silencing or quelling differing opinions underscore the existing dysfunction within our information ecosystem. Addressing this issue head-on, engaging in open dialogues about these dysfunctional dynamics, is a pathway towards a more robust, inclusive discourse. This journey of reshuffling societal narratives begins with each one of us, embodying honesty in our public personas, and advocating for a more nuanced, respectful exchange of ideas.
Your insight also opens the door to innovative thinking on diversifying identity. The prevailing concern in the US is the oversimplification of political identity into a binary left or right mega identity. The call of the hour is to carve out space for a democratic citizen identity, one that transcends partisan labels. This identity should embody our roles as citizens within a democratic society, portraying what that identity entails. Embracing this identity leads us into challenging conversations, disagreements, and a refusal to be pigeonholed.
There seems to be a growing resonance for this perspective. The trend of Americans distancing themselves from traditional Democratic and Republican affiliations, instead identifying as independents, is telling. Although many of these independents still lean towards one party, the reluctance to fully align with either party underscores a certain discomfort. The current political climate has left a sour taste, leading many to disengage from politics altogether.
The necessity now is to cultivate a realm where individuals can express and explore their identity as democratic citizens, as individuals invested in the democratic ethos. This shift could rejuvenate political engagement, offering a platform for nuanced, constructive discourse beyond rigid partisan boundaries. It’s an invitation to redefine political identity, fostering a more inclusive and reflective democratic dialogue.
Q: What does legacy mean to you?
[Dannagal Young]: Having grown up in New Hampshire, a state renowned for its primary standing in the nation, I was fortunate to encounter numerous political candidates from a young age. This proximity ignited my interest in politics early on, endowing me with a sense of voice and stake in the political landscape, even as a youngster. The closeness made the stakes feel real and accessible, instilling a belief that my voice mattered.
My aspiration now is for my work to nudge those at the helm of political and media landscapes to acknowledge a fundamental truth: institutions are a collective of individuals, and the essence of these institutions is shaped by the people constituting them. Hence, there’s always a degree of agency vested in these individuals. They possess the capability, at any given moment, to make choices that could either propel us towards a more democratically healthy society or steer us further away. Through my endeavours, I aim to foster a recognition of this agency, encouraging decision-makers to opt for paths that contribute positively to our democratic health.