Truth Vs. Trend

Spy Vs. SpyThere is often a difference between what “everyone” believes and the truth. Some of social science models of behavior include assumptions of feedback loops that allow us to quickly modify our behavior to be in tune with the reality of situations.

Feedback loops take time, aren’t 100% accurate, and are subject to manipulation. Even pursuing the truth is (for many people) only as useful as long as it serves other goals. And sometimes pursuing a commonly held untruth is more personally profitable.

In other words, the truth isn’t sexy.

Feedback Loops Take Time

When we believe things that aren’t true, and we either share or act on that information, eventually the world will let us know. That’s a feedback loop. But it’s important to recognize that feedback loops aren’t instantaneous.

To start with a simple, even silly example:

A cup of coffee, black
I take my menko black.

Let’s say I wake up one morning believing that coffee’s not called coffee anymore; it’s called menko. I get up and make myself some menko: no feedback since I don’t even read the label.

Next, I’m talking to some people and I mention that my menko is great, and that I really need my menko in the morning. Sure, these people think I’m weird as heck, but they might not say anything. They might just think, “Smile and nod at the strange man waving a coffee cup.

Worse, the people I’m talking to might figure it out from context, and give me feedback, “Yeah, yeah, I need my menko in the morning, too.” Maybe they even think it’s a brand name, or something.

Finally, I head to a coffee chain and ask for a small decaf menko with soy milk. Maybe, just maybe, this kind stranger will let me know that I’m using the wrong word. It’s their business, and it’s in their interest.

Eventually, someone will give me feedback: the word is coffee, not menko. But that takes time, and it takes someone willing to make the effort to correct my mistake.

Some Feedback Loops Are Bigger Than Others

On a larger scale, the social feedback loop is pretty important for checking information. Most people, normal people, don’t do independent research on everything. Instead, they look for social feedback on “facts.” As long as our beliefs are common enough to “work” for our purposes, or at least don’t get in the way of our goals, we’re not going to get feedback to correct them.

Bransfield Iceberg
How about some iced menko?

The menko example is pretty silly, and it’s a situation where negative feedback’s going to come pretty quickly. But what about larger questions, like “Is there such a thing as human-caused climate change?”

Climate change isn’t a topic that really fits well with social feedback. All that will tell us is whether our friends believe that the world is getting warmer. If, instead of relying on specialists (you know, the science-y folks with their labs, samples, and data), we subject the information only to social feedback loops, we’re going to have to wait until things have gotten so bad that nearly everyone has a terrible story of climate change that they want to share.

Most people don’t use scientific data in their everyday feedback loops, relying instead on existing connections–social, political, religious, and so forth–to inform their opinions on topics. In most situations, this doesn’t matter all too much. The data we receive socially is good enough, especially as we primarily act socially, anyway.


Sometimes, the acceptable “facts” are at odds with the actual facts. This happens all the time. Let’s say that we work for a company, PerkyCorp, which prides itself on having an awesome corporate culture. It’s always a party and everyone gets along. But somewhere, hidden in the recesses, something is wrong.

“I’m Cassandra, the Archetype of the Bearer of Bad News, and I approve this message.”

While everyone at PerkyCorp is busy getting along awesomely, and getting promoted for being good team players, decisions might be getting made that are taking the company off the rails of competitive success. What? How?

If everyone’s busy getting along, and getting rewarded for it, there’s no advantage for them to close the feedback loop. Now–there are two sides to this:

  1. Being part of any group, from a  business to a political party, involves a certain amount of “drinking the Kool-Aid.” As long as things don’t get too bad, the social-feedback loop is going to be the primary method of decision making. If the Kool-Aid tastes awful, those who can smile while they drink it will rise to the top.
  2. People who choose to address burgeoning problems do so at their own peril. Making changes in the group, assigning responsibility, and generally being hierarchical is seriously un-fun.

Solving problems that a group doesn’t know they have doesn’t make someone a devoted employee with the interests of the company at heart (even if they are)–it makes them a Cassandra. Being a Cassandra with data and proof isn’t good enough, either. If PerkyCorp can’t see that the feedback loop’s closing around their collective necks, telling them isn’t going to help.

In short, if the PerkyCorp’s GroupThink isn’t telling them that there’s a problem, trying to solve the problem isn’t saving the day, it’s harshing their buzz.


4 thoughts on “Truth Vs. Trend”

  1. Yes—–I certainly need my menko in the morning. I could be wrong—it has been many years since I lived in Japan, and longer than that since I inquired about regional dialects, other than Osaka (which I understand)—but I seem to remember that ‘menko’ was ‘manko’ in one or more of the regional dialects of Western or Southern Japan. Manko, as a noun, is a rather impolite way of referring to a specific part of the female anatomy (even when it is accompanied with the honorific ‘o~’ in front of it). As a verb (usually with the honorific o~), it is a rather impolite way of referring to the act of physical love.

    I would like mine black, or any other way I could get it, (even with cream and sugar), but I am sure my wife would protest terribly if I tried to get it in any other variety than the way it currently comes.

  2. In Japan the negative feedback would come right away for this word–there would be embarrassed giggling at the funny mistake that the foreigner made, and they would probably repeat the story to all their friends, even when you are present, with lots of giggling and laughter, and certainly a bit of pointing at you.

    However you could ask for Reikoh, which the younger Japanese, even in Osaka would probably say “What?” Reiko is a girls name, so they would probably say, “Who?” But in the Kansai region around Osaka, the older people would know what you are asking for—Reikoh is ‘Ice Coffee’ in the older Osaka dialect and the surrounding dialects. Only the older ones say it now, and it probably fell out of common use in the 60’s or 70’s or earlier.

    As a joke, I would use the word, ‘benpi’ meaning ‘constipated’ instead of, ‘genki,’ healthy, in the phrase “O-genki desu ka?” meaning, ‘how are you doing?’ My Japanese was very good by this time, so I could easily explain that I was joking if someone tried to correct me, and that I already knew what benpi meant when I was asking them if they were constipated. Surprisingly, not many people tried to correct me. They would just answer, ‘genki desu’ (I’m doing fine), or some other appropriate phrase. I often wondered if they did not actually hear me, as the culture is extremely assumption dependent, and they probably heard genki anyway. A few people would catch it, but they generally knew me enough to know that I was joking…

  3. One more comment and then I’ll stop bugging you—–this problem about social feedback loops, which you pointed out in regards to global warming, has become so much bigger with the internet and modern technology. The analogs that search engines use to track our searches and try to provide relevance to what we type into the computer (as well as to sell us products) is creating such powerful positive feedback loops around individuals confirming their own beliefs and ideas, regardless of how irrational they may be, that it is certainly contributing to the growing fragmentation of the world around us. The last election in the US was so polarized I couldn’t believe it. But it wasn’t just here, it is happening all over. One European country, struggling with economic crisis voted in both communists and fascists last year.

    I know a few people that are caught up in conspiracy theories and so forth. One of these friends is in his 20’s and just recently got a computer he can spend a lot of time on. The world around him has grown far more sinister than what I perceive, and it seems that every time he gets online, his fears are confirmed, and he learns more about this group and that group that are seeking world domination. It is interesting to have him do a search alongside myself, and see how different the results are.

    But this polarization and fragmenting of society are pretty scary things. I try to keep my friend grounded in reality, but he brings over videos that pretty scary—-especially when you realize that many people believe wholeheartedly in this stuff.

    P.S. I was the Cassandra in my last job. The upper management literally changed its feedback loop (e.g. employee surveys) to avoid the negative feedback it knew its new Apollonian direction would produce if it touched upon the truth. I thought it was very fascinating, like an example of repression into a corporate Jungian shadow. But being an old hippy, I was to wrapped up in the truth, and I didn’t enjoy being pushed. Eventually they resorted to some bogus means to get rid of me.

    1. Yeah, “self” and “truth” have been superseded in some corporate cultures by “blind loyalty” and “kool-aid.” It’s no wonder people are shocked and surprised when things go wrong…no one warned them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s