The Jussie Smollett story showed America the danger of instant certainty. How can we slow all the hot takes?

The Jussie Smollett story showed America the danger of instant certainty. How can we slow all the hot takes? April 4, 2019
Wikimedia Commons

Jussie Smollett, Dianne Feinstein and Nick Sandmann aren’t teachers, but in recent weeks, they’ve given Americans a lesson in the danger of jumping to conclusions — particularly if you’re prone to spreading your conclusions on the internet.

The actor, the congresswoman and the Covington Catholic High School student made news for vastly different reasons. Smollett has been charged with faking a hate crime, Feinstein had feisty exchange with visiting students, and Sandmann was part of a videotaped protest that went viral.

Yet each incident ignited a fiery chain of responses known as “hot takes,” which Merriam-Webster describes as “published reaction or analysis of a recent news event that, of because of its time-sensitive nature, doesn’t offer much in the way of deep reflection.”

Sometimes, hot takes can also turn out to be wrong, or a mischaracterization of what actually happened, resulting in apologies, deletions and retractions, and in the case of the Covington Catholic teen, a lawsuit.

Americans’ embrace of instant certainty, a phrase coined by Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson, has both immediate and lasting effects, none of which are beneficial, according to the Rev. Mark Schaefer, an American University chaplain and scholar who has studied why people are quick to jump to conclusions.

But there are evolutionary reasons why we do this; the tendency isn’t necessarily a sign of bad character.

And while social media and other aspects of a culture addicted to speed have made it easy to spread dubious information quickly, the internet also has given us a solution to the problems that stem from our desire to be right, right now, and to let everyone know.

“The same medium that’s demanding these instant reactions with certainty is also the medium that’s allowing us to eventually get the context,” said Annie Duke, a Philadelphia-based consultant on decision-making.

To stop contributing to the problem, next time you you find yourself tempted to offer a hot take, wait 18 seconds and ask yourself a few key questions, Duke and other experts say.

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the Nobel Prize in part for his insights into how we make decisions without certainty, is frequently cited for his 2011 book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” which explains the biological underpinnings of decision-making.

Kahneman describes the brain as having two working systems, one that is fast and intuitive and another that is slower and deliberative. System 1, as Kahneman describes it, is “a machine for jumping to conclusions,” but it’s important because it allow us to quickly process information that could be vital in keeping us and our loved ones alive — for example, rushing to move a child away from a hot stove.

System 1, because it operates automatically and without the strain of deep thought, also frees up more of the brain’s processing power for System 2, which handles more challenging and complex mental activities, Kahneman wrote.

Understanding these mechanisms of brain function can help us understand why we crave fast and easy answers, even if they later turn out to be false, said the Rev. Schaefer, author of the 2018 book “The Certainty of Uncertainty.”

“Our brain is always seeking to cut corners on some level, so we’re drawn to a certain answer because it’s the easier one,” the Rev. Schaefer said. “It’s easier to say, ‘Oh, I know what’s happening,’ even if you don’t know what’s happening, than it is to stop and invest the time and energy in coming up with the correct answer or a more nuanced picture.”

The Rev. Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor and the university chaplain at American University in Washington, D.C., said in an interview that the desire for certainty stems in part from an existential terror of mortality.

In order to cope with their fear of death and other uncertainties of existence, people try to establish as many certainties as they can. In addition to this internal need for certainty, external pressures exist as well, as when we pressure other people to be certain of a medical diagnosis or the outcome of a policy, Schaefer said.

When our built-in preferences for snap judgments and certainty meet the internet, which enables and rewards speed, hot takes result, with sometimes devastating consequences.

Covington Catholic High School junior Sandmann is suing The Washington Post for defamation, saying the newspaper’s coverage of a protest outside the Lincoln Memorial in January resulted in “character assassination” and death threats.

In that case, and in that of a recent incident involving California Sen. Feinstein, an edited snippet of video led people to form conclusions that were not as convincing when more of the video was viewed. In cases like these, the targets of mistaken outrage suffer consequences, and so do the people who must later admit they were wrong.

“There’s the problem of regret, wishing you’d paused first, and feeling a surge of shame,” said Stephanie Brown, a psychologist in Menlo Park, California, and author of “Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster — And Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down.”

But it’s not just individuals who are affected adversely by hot takes and instant certainty. Society suffers because people who believe that they are certain on a specific topic stop listening to others. “This is not an unusual problem, but rather it’s become the norm for countless people, younger and older,” Brown said in an email.

The Rev. Schaefer, of American University, concurred. “When people are too certain, they have no reason to hear anybody else,” he said, adding that this widespread problem has contributed to a national problem.

“Right now, we’re just in this shouting match culturally where nobody thinks that anyone has anything meaningful to say on the other side. And they feel that to even acknowledge that the other side might have a point is to be hopelessly weak on your side.”

To counter the problem, Americans first need to accept that it’s OK to be uncertain, Schaefer said. “Some of the most meaningful things can’t be known with absolute certainty. And yet that does not prevent us from leading a meaningful life; in fact, on some levels, it makes it more possible,” he said.

People wrongly confuse certainty and confidence, said Duke, who wrote a book called “Thinking in Bets.” “We think that in order to come across as confident and believable, we have to express our beliefs with certainty.”

But in fact, there are ways to be both uncertain and confident. As an example, she said, if you are considering a plan with three options, you could say that there’s a 60 percent probability that the first option will work out, compared to 40 percent for the other two. “I just said something very confidently when I’m not very sure that it’s going to work out,” Duke said.

” I think of certainty as a kind of brittle strength. It has the appearance of hardness, but it snaps easily. ”

She also said that when sharing things on social media, people should use cautious language, such as saying, “This is just one opinion” or “This is just part of the video.”

It may seem counterintuitive, but Schaefer argues that expressing uncertainty and being open to what others believe has its own kind of strength, signaling to others, “I’m strong enough that I can handle it and I can figure out a way to incorporate (others’ thinking) into what I already do know and believe.”

“I think of certainty as a kind of brittle strength. It has the appearance of hardness, but it snaps easily. Which is why it doesn’t bend, it doesn’t grow and it doesn’t do anything organic. And that’s why it’s having a real cost in our culture today,” he said.

Brown, the Menlo Park psychologist and author of “Speed,” said it helps for people to adopt a personal policy that they will not respond instantly to things they see on the internet.

“You can adopt the 18-second rule — always pause first, and the craving or impulse will usually soften or pass,” she said. “As you develop this slowing-down and follow-the-rule stance, it becomes easier to step away, think about it and then consciously respond or not.”

And Duke, a former professional poker player, recommends that people use the language of betting to help them slow down on the rush to judgment.

When considering the validity of something, instead of asking yourself, “Am I sure?” ask “How sure am I?,” Duke said

Asking “Would I be willing to lose my net worth on the hot take I’m about to take?” can cause you to think about the reasons you might be wrong and how other people might believe differently, she said.

Another good question to ask yourself is, “If this turned out to be wrong, why might that be?”

“This gets you quickly to the answer of, ‘Well, I haven’t seen the whole video. Maybe it’s been edited,'” Duke said.

While it’s easy to blame technology for the instant certainty culture, the internet is also the solution to the problem, she noted, crediting entrepreneur Marc Andreessen for pointing out that misinformation can be as quickly corrected as it is spread. “So we do have the ability to change our minds in ways we might not have before.”

Instant certainty is a hard habit to break, in part because the desire to be surrounded by our tribe is an ancient one, satisfying primal needs for safety, love and reassurance, the Rev. Schaefer, of American University, said.

“A lot of the desire for certainty is driven by the nature of an uncertain world, and a world that is changing rapidly in ways that are frightening to many. So (people) are circling the wagons politically, ideologically and culturally. They’re trying to draw into themselves and say, ‘Where’s that patch of savannah with the tree and water because that’s where I feel safe?’

“But I think what we’re missing out on is the opportunity to create a new kind of community, one in which, no matter what your faith, no matter what you believe, no matter what you think, we can be part of this big thing together.”

But, he said, “As long as we keep retreating into these smaller and smaller homogeneous groups, it makes it harder, and (the need for) certainty is another piece of that.”

Browse Our Archives