When information makes you numb
Engagement is not a conscious action. It occurs without our awareness, pulling us into a story, and lowering our cognitive resistance to persuasion.
The pandemic, politics, and social protests make this a particularly volatile time: Emotions are on edge and tension is high. This is a time when we are all vulnerable to embracing stories based on our emotions and fears - stories that confirm our beliefs and rationalise our behaviour. When it comes to stories, we are all prisoners of our neural structures. Recognising the innate power of story-telling and our instinctive response is an essential defensive skill in a chaotic environment when we're most in need of certainty and reassurance.
How we tell those stories has evolved to take advantage of changes in technology. Marshall McLuhan famously argued that "the medium is the message," where technologies influence culture by forcing social adaptations over time to new systems and information flows that impact meaning.
The fluidity and capabilities of technology today present new challenges and opportunities for storytelling far beyond what the cave painters and wandering minstrels could imagine. Media content is delivered through a technology-enabled mashup of ancient traditions with the power and leverage of current communication networks. Where McLuhan claimed that the printing press led to the rise of the scientific method by forcing a linear progression on arguments. People now tell and consume stories across platforms and in non-linear spaces that McLuhan might argue spawned systems and network theories.
The ubiquity of technology means that all narratives are transmedia and immersive, with parts and wholes circling around our awareness from multiple sources. This is cognitively efficient because this synthesis of sources is, in fact, how the brain builds understanding, models, and beliefs.
The barest structure of a story that triggers emotion and images can wrap itself around us, framing our reality. Stories call up other stories, each serving to validate the whole through familiarity, leading us to believe fiction over fact and rhetoric over science. Technology adds to the persuasive impact with rich media that make things feel real, limitless channels that increase frequency and amplification validated by word-of-mouth sharing.
Technology may be increasingly sophisticated, but consumer tools are moving in the opposite direction, empowering an army of storytellers. The ability to capture, edit, create, and share is less expensive, more accessible, and very user-friendly. The boundaries are blurring not just across technologies but in all directions, as people assume multiple roles--creating, using, producing, augmenting, distributing, hacking, mashing, and self-promoting.
Stories have the ability to stick and persuade by triggering several psychological mechanisms: social connection, comfort, familiarity, reassurance, identification, imagination, and emotion. Engagement is not a conscious action. It occurs without our awareness, pulling us into a story, and lowering our cognitive resistance to persuasion. This quality makes entertainment satisfying but makes us vulnerable to narrative manipulation. Recognising this can show us what we're up against in the media battles for our hearts and minds.
Pamela Rutledge is the Director of the Media Psychology Research Center. - Psychology Today
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