There 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:
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.