I commute to work and so have a lot of time in the car to think about things. It just so happens that I am teaching on the day after our 2016 general election, so of course that has consumed my thoughts this morning. And here I am, in between classes, with some time on my hands.
First, let me say that this is NOT a partisan blog post. I’m not going to tell you how I voted. I firmly believe that how I voted is nobody’s business but my own. I won’t ask you; don’t ask me.
To say that our world is changing rapidly is cliche, but true, and it is leaving large numbers of people behind. The internet and social media have fundamentally changed how people communicate and how they consume and share information. Decades of labeling the media as “liberal” – as well as increased corporate ownership – have eroded public trust in media outlets of all kinds. Studies have shown that most students don’t get their news from news outlets anymore; most of my students don’t even have cable TV and increasingly just watch Netflix or Hulu on their phones. Information travels through social media or they don’t see it at all.
The currency of social media is click-throughs (when you click on an advertisement or link), not honesty, and certainly not good web design.Language use has changed remarkably, becoming extreme; absolute: instead of
“Candidate x edges ahead of candidate y in the polls,” we have
“Candidate x DESTROYS candidate y in the polls!”
Clickbait tells us what to expect and how to feel about it before we even move the mouse:
“Woman opens a box and you will be SHOCKED at what she finds inside!”
Every day we scan past who knows how many headlines encouraging, even demanding, extreme emotional responses. Very often these emotional “calls,” if you will (think computer programming) are negative. Satire sites have exploded, and I’ve lost track of the number of times that an article from a satire site has been re-published as “news.” Extremely partisan news sites are everywhere, and confirmation bias is rampant.
Why is confirmation bias so prevalent….and so persuasive?
One answer to this question may come from the Sociology of Emotion and the study of rituals. Randall Collins developed a theory he called “interaction ritual chains.” What Collins proposes is that when you interact with someone, you perform a small ritual. If you’ve ever had the following exchange with a cashier at a grocery store, then you’ve participated in an interaction ritual:
Cashier: “Hi, how are you today?”
Customer: “I’m good. How are you?”
Cashier: “I’m great, thanks. Did you find everything you needed?”
Customer (thinking about the sales item they were out of): “Yes, I did, thanks.”
The exchange above is pretty polite, right? Pretty nondescript, common, and not necessarily honest. Now think back to a time when you got terrible customer service. Maybe the cashier was so busy talking to the bagger that s/he never looked at you, thrust your receipt at you with a grunt, or was just surly. How did you feel when you left the store? Irritated? Angry?
You had an emotional response to that interaction.
Now let’s think more positively. For my dissertation I studied Deadheads and the Grateful Dead culture. Deadheads have been going to shows for 0ver 50 years. They bring their spouses, friends, and kids; they share music and burritos and grilled cheese, and they typically embody a pretty upbeat perspective. When they get together for a show and the music starts playing, sometimes they experience what Durkheim called “collective effervescence” as they dance and sing together with the crowd. Show attendance and all of its minutiae are also interaction rituals.
Deadheads get a “charge” out of this interaction, just like your car battery gets charged as you drive down the road. This charge gets “stored,” so to speak, in an object that comes to symbolize the group or culture and the experience that people had that created that energy in the first place. That charge is then used to “spark” a new interaction ritual – perhaps a conversation with another Deadhead on the subway, or a high level of positive energy at the next show, etc. Within Deadhead culture, fans make use of dozens of such symbols – icons like the “Stealie” (the skull with a lightning bolt), Jerry Garcia, or song lyrics. It’s not uncommon for a Deadhead to drop song lyrics into a conversation in an effort to express a sentiment. For example, “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile” reflects an acknowledgement of poor circumstances and a determination to keep going with a positive attitude. Quoting the lyric is far more efficient, and as a bonus, that moment of intersubjectivity – where both people know that they are thinking the same thing – results in another little zap of emotional energy sustaining that symbol.
Another example, taken from western Christianity, is the cross or the western portrayal of Jesus; for adherents, the objects themselves are imbued with such meaning and energy that they can provide a “booster” charge of sorts from wearing a cross as jewelry. Or you might relive your favorite team’s victory through branded merchandise. Just look how many fans turned up to celebrate the Cubs’ victory recently. Think there was some collective effervescence there, maybe some renewed positive emotion toward the team and what the team represents (which, by the way, makes the team a symbol, if you didn’t catch that)? Over time, these single incidents combine to create long-term general feelings about an organization, culture, etc.
Now, Collins argues that people really need to be co-present (physically in the same space) in order for this to happen, but he wrote his book just as social media was really beginning to take off. From what I’ve seen of Deadhead Facebook groups, although these groups don’t “recharge” people the same way that being co-present at an event does, they can still bump the meter up a bit and may serve to “top off” people’s reserve of emotional energy.
How does this relate to the election? Well, go back and look at footage from the rallies – I’m going to look at Trump’s in particular, because it’s a little easier to see what I’m talking about. Look how much energy people are generating, watch when they boo and cheer together (thus synchronizing their behavior and achieving what Collins calls “entrainment”), and especially when they chant together. The slogan, “make America great again,” calls on powerful symbols and emotional energy stores – patriotism, for example – and ties those existing stores to the euphoria his followers no doubt felt at those rallies. It’s no accident that political candidates wear red, white, and blue. You get a double whallop, then – new symbols imbued with emotional energy, “sparked” from older, powerful and charged symbols. Clinton built an advertising campaign on showing video of Trump altering his position; whether he truly changed his mind or not (and I’m not in a position to know), ultimately, he landed on tropes and symbols that triggered high levels of emotional energy in his supporters.
A full analysis of the election, in terms of emotional energy and interaction ritual chains, would take me far longer than I have to give today. We could look at the people visiting Susan B. Anthony’s grave yesterday, or wearing white to honor suffragettes who fought for women’s right to vote, and many other things. We could compare positive and negative energy and symbols. We could compare levels of emotional energy. We could talk about the emotion language employed in campaign ads. There are a hundred different ways to turn this event to learn something from it. Wanting to do that is what makes me a sociologist.
One important thing that we can take from this election cycle is this: in a culture where technology has left a large part of the electorate behind and provided others with a steady diet of often questionable – or downright inaccurate – material, and where mainstream media is no longer trusted by many, it seems logical to me that when people can’t trust what they read, they’re left with another, very powerful option: to go with what they feel and with what makes them feel good. With so much information and misinformation flying around about both candidates, it seems reasonable to me that self-confirmation bias was inevitable. If we want to have less volatile, emotion-laden election seasons, then we’re going to have to find a way to build intersubjectivity, entrainment, and consensus across the divide, and to reach for symbols that appeal to what we have in common, rather than emphasize the ways in which we are different. And with our current political climate, that seems like a tall order.
Comments are turned off for this post.