Hello there 🙂
Welcome to issue thirty four of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.
This newsletter is free to receive, but if you’d like to support me in this odd little endeavour you can buy me a coffee 🙂
Speaking of coffee, grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…
Part I: Things I’ve Encountered Online…
Last week I read The Bad Ideas Our Brains Can’t Shake, an article in which Charlie Warzel explores the reasons why false information stays stuck in our brains, and we often find it very difficult to process new information. It’s written through the lens of COVID, but its applications go way beyond that, and ever since I read it, I’ve found that my thoughts keep returning to it.
Warzel kicks off with a quote from Mike Caulfield, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public:
“The biggest info lesson for me re: COVID is that first information is just *ridiculously* sticky…”
This feels right, huh? If you’re new to a subject the first thing you read or hear tends to stick in your head, even if you later find out that information was wrong, potentially misleading, or otherwise in need of revision.
But why does that information stick with you?
In psychology circles, this is known as the “continued influence effect.” A recent paper in Nature described it like this:
“When information is encoded into memory and then new information that discredits it is learned, the original information is not simply erased or replaced. Instead, misinformation and corrective information coexist and compete for activation.”
Maddy Jalbert, a postdoctoral scholar and Caulfield’s colleague at the University of Washington, explained it like this:
“When you give humans a piece of information, we are very good at connecting it to things we already know. But if you retract that piece of information and people have already made these connections, you can’t go back and magically take that information out of a person’s head because then that whole understanding of the information they’ve connected it to is different. So people will then rely on their original understanding of things they’ve incorporated.”
Warzel elaborates further on this point:
“What Jalbert is saying is that once we’ve yoked a new piece of information to something we already know and still believe to be true, the new piece of information becomes structurally important to our understanding of the world around us. It is load-bearing and thus not easily removed.
It’s one reason why, in trial settings, even if a piece of evidence is ruled inadmissible, it may consciously or subconsciously sway a jury.”
Jalbert goes on to note:
It’s not only first-heard information that is sticky. Details or facts that make you feel safe or in control might be naturally sticky. Information that is repeated frequently is more likely to be internalized as true, even if, deep down, you know it isn’t, Jalbert said.
And one’s own personal experiences and environment will also shape how persistent a morsel of new knowledge might be. Especially when a subject is polarized or politicized (like masking), an important determiner of sticky information is social norms.
“When people hear new information and think, What should I do? most look around and copy people similar to them or those in their social circle. And when everyone around you is doing something one way, you develop a false sense of consensus around an idea.”
Jalbert told me that the way our brains work is quite utilitarian. In any situation—looking at a landscape, conversing with friends, reading the news—there’s too much information to take in at once. So we use practical tricks to process.
“We employ all these mental heuristics and shortcuts because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do anything in our lives,” she said. “The idea behind peoples’ beliefs is that they help you perform tasks. But to do that doesn’t require you to deeply understand every single thing you learn. You’re drawing on shortcuts.”
These shortcuts, Jalbert said, are incredibly useful, but they’re also a vulnerability, because if one of them is based on a piece of outdated information, it could steer you in the wrong direction. These mental heuristics, she told me, are the reason why everyone is susceptible to believing wrong information.
What can we do about all this?
It is possible to correct even sticky information that’s wrong. But it requires being deliberate. Jalbert told me that when you retract or debunk a piece of information, what you’re doing is leaving a gap that needs to be filled in a person’s cognition—otherwise, the false information will just pop back in to take its place.
“We need a coherent understanding of the gap,” Jalbert said, “which means if you’re going to correct some wrong information, you have to explain in very clear and simple language why you’re updating.”
Jalbert used the example of changing guidance around wearing N95s or hospital-grade masks instead of cloth ones during the Omicron wave.
“The messaging was, ‘Okay, now we’re requiring better masks. Get on that.’ But a lot of that messaging was missing the reason why,” she said. “Why was it the case that cloth masks were okay before? And now what’s changed? Those things are really critical to get people to understand and receive new explanations.”
“It’s not good enough just to replace the information—you need to also account for the way that that piece of information serves as a shared connection in a given community,” Jalbert said. “To expect people to change their beliefs without an idea of how to replace it or foster other connections is missing the key component.”
What happens when we don’t communicate effectively?
“If you create a feeling of deep uncertainty, it can give people the sense that something is truly unknowable,” Jalbert said. “When it feels like you can’t discern whether anything is true, you disengage from the information. This is likely happening to people when rules change in ways that don’t make sense to them. They say, ‘It’s not worth my time.’”
I feel weird taking an article which concerns the way people think with regards to an important public health issue like COVID and then relating it to my own work, but reading it clarified a whole host of things for me.
A bunch of the work which I do in terms of Digital PR training ultimately boils down to attempting to identify, and then correct the many and varied pieces of misinformation people have absorbed around what types stories appeal to journalists and why.
On paper that doesn’t sound too difficult, right? And yet, in reality, it really is.
Because it’s not enough to simply introduce new information to correct people’s misunderstandings – it’s about helping them absorb it – to fill the gaps the previous information has left behind, to enable them to make new connections in their brains, and to update the mental models they rely so heavily on, and yet don’t even realise they have.
Reading this article has made me better understand where I might be going wrong. I suspect that I’m often guilty of leaping too quickly to attempt to correct people’s misunderstandings, and not spending enough time on seeking to understand how they’ve absorbed those misunderstandings, and the extent to which that information has become embedded in their mental processing.
I guess my take from all of this is that if I really want to change people’s minds, I need to pay far more attention to how they actually think.
Moar serendipitous finds:
Click on the link above and take ten minutes out of your day to watch the delightful video from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Featuring dozens of sea creatures, this mesmerising footage is taken from the organization’s ROV dives, which range from the water’s surface to its 4,900-foot-deep floor.
Olga Khazan conducted a 3-month experiment to see if she could change who she was.
“A little more than 10 years ago, I began looking back at the diaries I had kept over the previous decade. I wondered if I’d changed. So I loaded all 500,000 words of my journals into Excel to order the sentences alphabetically.
Perhaps this would help me identify patterns and repetitions. How many times had I written, “I hate him,” for example?
With the sentences untethered from narrative, I started to see the self in a new way: as something quite solid, anchored by shockingly few characteristic preoccupations.”
I am a huge fan of folks who disappear down rabbit holes, so I was delighted to read Annie Rauwerda’s article on the story behind the photos of Wikipedia’s ‘high five’ couple:
“Thanks to an overabundance of time alone with my laptop and a growing pile of responsibilities that I wanted to push off, I found myself fixated on these photos recently. I became increasingly convinced that there was nothing platonic about this high five — I mean, you can feel the chemistry through the screen.
I couldn’t help but wonder what their story was — and what had happened to them.”
Dear reader, the photo above was taken fourteen years ago. Nevertheless, Rauwerda tracked them down and managed to catch up with them. It is a delightful story.
I recently signed up to receive Sean Usher’s newsletter, Letters of Note, and this one’s an absolute delight:
“For some time now, I’ve been assembling a long list of sign-offs deserving of a wider audience—a tangle of valediction too interesting to hog—and today is the day I begin unleashing them on you.
Some are elegant (Gellhorn), some are sad (Battersby), some are painfully relatable (Kubrick), and some are just nuts (Dali, what on earth?). But literally all are preferable to the dull, lazily placed sign-offs the vast majority of us slap beneath letters and emails each day without a care in the world.
Next time you send someone a message, please consider using one of these instead.”
I particularly like this sign-off from Virginia Woolf:
Love Virginia (imperative)
Love Virginia (absolute)
Love? Virginia? (interrogative)
Mine was the 1st. Virginia
~Virginia Woolf’s sign off to Vita Sackville-West, 7th January 1928
This one of Moe from the Simpsons is ace:
You can find more of his work on Instagram.
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
I have been enjoying reading Letters of Note – Art, compiled by Shaun Usher (yep, that’s the same guy whose newsletter I included a link to in the section above).
As the title of the book suggests, it’s a collection of letters about art, and includes missives written by Michelangelo, Frida Kahlo, Artemisia Gentileschi, and more.
Here’s an excerpt from a letter Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about fearing the blank canvas, which resonated strongly with me:
“I tell you, if one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes.
To be good – many people think that they’ll achieve it by doing no harm – and that’s a lie, and you said yourself in the past that it was a lie. That leads to stagnation, to mediocrity.
Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.
You don’t know how paralysing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerises some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves.
Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares – and who has once broken the spell of ‘you can’t’.”
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
I watched The Power of the Dog, (Netflix), a western gothic psychodrama, written and directed by Jane Campion. It’s based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name.
The film is set in 1920s Montana, in the home of two brothers, who run a profitable ranch. There’s Phil (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) who is boorish and menacing; and George (Jesse Plemons), who appears more refined. The brothers have a complex relationship – Phil calls his brother “fatso”, and frequently mocks him, and yet despite Phil’s posturing you get the sense that in reality it is George, rather than Phil who truly holds the power.
Phil is outraged when George marries a widow from the town called Rose (played by Kirsten Dunst) and moved her and her teenage son Peter (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the ranch.
This film is tense, slow-burning, and often difficult to watch, so it won’t be for everyone, but I loved it.
Unlike many viewers and critics I enjoyed Inventing Anna (Netflix). Created and produced by Shonda Rhimes, the miniseries is inspired by the story of Anna Sorokin (who posed as a wealthy heiress and was arrested in 2017 after allegedly defrauding banks, hotels, and acquaintances in the United States for a total of $275,000).
Whilst it’s definitely not without its flaws, and I’d acknowledge its inaccuracies, overall I found it to be slick, compelling, and pretty fun to watch.
Part IV: What I’ve been up to…
It’s been busy, but good busy – I’ve managed to stick with the four-day work week, and have been continuing to work on various short stories which feels pretty great. I also got another rejection, but as with the first one I continue to be pleasantly surprised that it doesn’t bother me; and I’ll be continuing to submit things over the next few weeks.
Assuming you’re reading this newsletter on the day it arrived in your inbox, I’m emceeing WTSFest today! If you’re attending please come and say hi 🙂
Next week, I’m starting a six week short story course online with London Lit Lab which I’m hoping will help me keep up the momentum on the fiction writing front.
On April 6th I’ll be running a training course in Brighton which I’m very excited about. Here’s a primer to help you figure out if this course might be right for you:
You’ve been tasked with gaining linked coverage on top tier sites like the BBC, the Guardian, USA Today & more; but how on earth do you do that?
Perhaps you’ve seen the success of others, and are wondering why your campaigns languishing, unlinked to and unloved. Or maybe you’ve seen some success but it all seems to be a bit hit and miss, and now you’re now under pressure to deliver results more consistently.
If you’re struggling to figure out what to do next, this is the course for you.
In this course you’ll learn:
- What makes a good story from a journalists’ perspective
- How to identify compelling topics and gain a deeper understanding of the media landscape
- How to come up with ideas
- How to figure out whether or not an idea is likely to generate coverage
- Whether or not it’s a good idea to remake that campaign that got a bunch of coverage a few years ago
- When and how to go about “saving” a struggling campaign, and when it might be best to just move on
- & much, much more…
Attendees will leave the course:
- With a renewed confidence in their own skills
- In a happier and more productive mindset
- Feeling rejuvenated and excited about their work
You can find more details on the course, and book your spot here.
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