Brains, The Allure of Narratives, and Clickbait Media


Yeah, I'm reusing this old drawing yet again. I'm lazy, alright. Get off my back (and pretend "#MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter" are scribbled on the wall among the posters).
I recently made the following post on social media:
Brains don't want drab, informative news. Brains want stories. Brains want heroes, villains, underdogs, sex, violence, tragedy, humor, and excitement. Brains like emotions. That's what makes brains care, remember, and share information. That's why fiction goes viral and facts don't. Reality bores brains. Beware of brains.
I got a bit of a seemingly nonsensical response to this which I didn't quite understand. However, it did inspire me to elaborate on what I meant by the original post. Here's what I wrote:

I was referring to the literal bias our brains have toward narratives. Toward stories. It's the reason we're more likely to donate to an animal shelter if we see a commercial featuring the story of an individual abandoned puppy rather than if we were to see statistics on how many puppies are abandoned per year. The anecdote from the commercial is less informative, but it triggers an emotional response in our brain, results in us dwelling on the topic, and ultimately leads to us acting on it. If we only had the statistics alone, which are clearly more informative and give a better view of the actual situation as a whole, our brains aren't wired to be as moved by that. Or even to be interested in that. Thus, we're less likely to act on that. This way that our brains work is helpful in a lot of ways (such as this puppy example) but it can also result in us making much more out of anecdotes if those anecdotes aren't actually representing a larger problem (or if the puppy story turned out to be exaggerated for dramatic purposes). We may be acting on the notion that puppies are being abandoned every day when, in reality, this anecdote was a rare occurrence.
[NOTE: Obviously, the current situation with the exaggeration of police violence/racism is the analogy I really have in mind here; however, I avoided bringing that up due to it having the tendency to trigger people's emotional reasoning and miss the overall point.]

The actual news plays on this. It's why clickbait exists. The news is a business that relies on clicks, ratings, and eyes. Since people have the aforementioned mental states, they aren't likely to click, tune in, care about, or spend time watching anything if it's not interesting enough, emotionally evocative enough, and, generally speaking, doesn't have a "story" of some sort that's entertaining enough to lure us in and keep us invested. As stated in the post, that's what our brains like (we get a literal dopamine rush from it). The news plays on this for the same reason movies do; because that gets our attention. If a news outlet doesn't do this (while other news outlets are) it won't get the viewers it needs to survive. It'll go out of business. So all we're left with is news that's more concerned with entertaining us (playing on our emotions and giving us what we like) rather than informing us. It's very Darwinian. And it's also the reason that an exciting rumor gets reported on too early and will get the headlines, meanwhile, the boring correction will only get a small mention that no one hears about nor cares enough about to spread.

Studies have been done showing that we're more likely to retain information if it's in a story form, if it's exciting, if it has good guys and bad guys, if it makes us feel rage, happiness, sadness, et cetera. Due to this, we remember the weird stuff, the exciting stuff, the scary or depressing stuff, and those aforementioned headlines. It's the reason so many people believe that humans only use 10% of their brains, the reason people think gum takes seven years to digest, the reason people think hair grows back thicker when you shave it, the reason we hear Einstein failed his math class, etc. This is all widely believed, but none of it's true. But it's interesting. And it being interesting results in people talking about it more, remembering it better, and the information being widely shared. Whereas the boring correction isn't. Because of how our brains work, bad ideas have the upper hand and go more viral. The sickness spreads rapidly while the cure doesn't.

To make matters worse, beliefs are an extremely difficult thing to shake. We tie our identities to our beliefs; we develop communities around our beliefs; our egos make it difficult to admit when we're wrong about our beliefs; we develop cognitive dissonance when we're faced with information that contradicts our beliefs. This makes our brains uncomfortable. To battle this, we tend to rationalize why the contradictions are wrong, quickly accept information that supports what we want to believe, and become highly skeptical of information that doesn't support what we believe (i.e., we give unfair scrutiny to our opponents whereas we don't for our allies).

Religions, conspiracy theories, old wives' tales, urban legends, and the various narratives of different political parties all spread because of this.

So, again, beware of your brain.