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Interesting paper by Peter Nelson, Digital Neural Amplification in Academic Letters, October 2021. It relies upon an earlier paper in which Nelson argued that paranoia developed as a means of survival and entailed telling ourselves stories (“self-stories”) which ascribed a threatening force even without clear empirical evidence.

This system works much better when the threats are closer at hand, in “far less complex social systems.” Before I continue, I am not quite sure that is an accurate evaluation of our ancestors. While we certainly live amidst far more human beings and find ourselves routinely affected by the conduct of people in countries we have never seen, I don’t think that is the only environment in which our ancestors lived. The common animist and polytheist worlds in which most people lived involve enormously complex environments with extremely powerful figures at work. Their intentions and behaviors are difficult to ascertain, and they are easily offended.

I recall the testimony of a man in the 20th century who had been born into such an animist polytheistic world. He explained what a fearful world he inhabited. But Nelson’s theory was based upon an evolutionary premise that a maladaptive behavior present in contemporary society must be the hold-over from an earlier adaptive behavior.

I do think his second theory, in Digital Neural Amplification is on much firmer ground because is based upon a world we have experienced. He explains that we tell ourselves stories about the world around, to explain the people and circumstances we meet.

When we are fearful, when our “danger alert system is activated”, the self stories reflect that fear. We begin to add paranoid element even without conscious awareness. The fear becomes part of the explanation. Thus, increasing stress and fear will cause us to incorporate ever increasing stress and fear into our “self-stories.”

In pre-social media world, we could gossip to regulate and correct our self-stories. We would vocalize our beliefs which would then be tested by another. Moreover, gossip could alert us to actual threats which might be present but unseen. In social media we receive the various reports coming from a thousand sources as would previously received gossip. But this social media gossip comes to us without the additional social cues and full knowledge of the source. What we receive is the bare communication given in apparent seriousness.

These stories come to us in an overwhelming barrage which we cannot properly regulate and evaluate. The sheer number of such stories causes its own sense of fear and anxiety — which then causes one to create and to gravitate toward ever more similarly fearful stories.

The very nature of the medium creates the basis for the generation and perpetuation of paranoid explanations. As he writes,

The Facebook system, for example, intensifies the input into our paranoid ‘self-story’ production by increasing the rate of alerts and the perceptual complexity of the situation. This, in turn, drives the process into continuous looping for more input required to clarify and resolve the increasing cognitive dissonance caused by the variety, frequency, and ambiguity of input. A positive feedback loop is thus maintained as we are rewarded by incoming fragments offering partial resolution as well as being given ‘likes’ for our affirmative participation.

I would add that our inability to judge the value of the information is significantly increased by any number of cognitive limitations, or various cognitive biases, our inability to properly evaluate complex information.