Internet flamewars explained by SCIENCE!

Well, not exactly, but while I was reading Steven Pinker’s excellent book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, I came across a section that, while not directly about the internet, seems to explain a lot some of the things that happen here.

Pinker first describes a study by Roy Baumeister where participants were asked to “describe one incident in which someone angered them, and one incident in which they angered someone.” Not surprisingly, people tell these kinds of stories in very different ways. Then:

In an ingenious follow-up, Stillwell and Baumeister controlled the event by writing an ambiguous story in which one college roommate offers to help another with some coursework but reneges for a number of reasons, which leads the student to receive a low grade for the course, change his or her major, and switch to another university. The participants (students themselves) simply had to read the story and then retell it as accurately as possible in the first person, half of them taking the perspective of the perpetrator and half the perspective of the victim. A third group was asked to retell the story in the third person; the details they provided or omitted serve as a baseline for ordinary distortions of human memory that are unaffected by self-serving biases. The psychologists coded the narratives for missing or embellished details that would make either the perpetrator or the victim look better.

The answer to the question “Who should we believe?” turned out to be: neither. Compared to the benchmark of the story itself, and to the recall of the disinterested third-person narrators, both victims and perpetrators distorted the stories to the same extent but in opposite directions, each omitting or embellishing details in ways that made the actions of their character look more reasonable and the other’s less reasonable. Remarkably, nothing was at stake in the exercise. Not only had the participants not taken part in the events, but they were not asked to sympathize with the character or to justify anyone’s behavior, just to read and remember the story from a first-person perspective. That was all it took to recruit their cognitive processes to the cause of self-serving propaganda (pp. 489-90).

Pinker calls this the “Moralization Gap.” And furthermore:

If revenge evolved as a deterrent, then why is it used so often in the real world? Why doesn’t revenge work like the nuclear arsenals in the Cold War, creating a balance of terror that keeps everyone in line? Why should there ever be cycles of vendetta, with vengeance begetting vengeance?

A major reason is the Moralization Gap. People consider the harms they inflict to be justified and forgettable, and the harms they suffer to be unprovoked and grievous. This bookkeeping makes the two sides in an escalating fight count the number of strikes differently and weight the inflicted harm differently as well. As the psychologist Daniel Gilbert has put it, the two combatants in a long-running war often sound like a pair of boys in the back seat of a car making their respective briefs to their parents: “He hit me first!” “He hit me harder!”

A simple analogy to the way that misperception can lead to escalation may be found in an experiment by Sukhwinder Shergill, Paul Bays, Chris Frith, and Daniel Wolpert, in which the participants placed their finger beneath a bar that could press down on it with a precise amount of force. Their instruction was the press down on the finger of a second participant for three seconds with the same amount of force they were feeling. Then the second participant got the same instructions. The two took turns, each matching the amount of force he or she had just received. After eight turns the second participant was pressing down with about eighteen times as much force as was applied in the round that got it started. The reason for the spiral is that people underestimate how much force they apply compared to how much force they feel, so they escalated the pressure by about 40 percent with each turn. In real-world disputes the misperception comes not from an illusion of the sense of touch but from an illusion of the moral sense, but in both cases the result is a spiral of painful escalation (pp. 537-538).

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