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Monorails and the Noise from Section 230
“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody “knew” the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody “knew” the Earth was flat. And fifteen minutes ago, you “knew” that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll “know” tomorrow.”
If I had to choose the closest modern equivalent of the Wise Men of Chelm, I would choose the people of Springfield, USA on The Simpsons.
While my knowledge of The Simpsons is nowhere near my knowledge of The West Wing, the longest-running show on television is still one of my favorites. If I had to choose my favorite episode, I would choose “Marge vs. The Monorail,”1 written by Conan O’Brien and guest-starring Leonard Nimoy and Phil Hartman. The episode is an amazing example of a town getting excited about an incredibly stupid idea.
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In this episode, Springfield receives a large legal settlement from Mr. Burns and must decide how to spend the money. Marge Simpson suggests investing in infrastructure by fixing Main Street, but a huckster named Lyle Lanley, played by Phil Hartman, convinces the town to build a monorail instead. In other words, Marge wants Springfield to invest in something useful, and Lanley wants them to spend it on something useless.
Why does Lanley succeed?
Well, Lanley gets the entire city to burst into a song about why a monorail would be awesome. When Marge protests and says, “But main street’s still all cracked and broken,” Bart Simpson retorts, “Sorry, Mom, the mob has spoken.”
Indeed it has. And that brings us to this week’s heuristic.
Before you make a mandatory joke about how “we have enough clowns running for president,” allow me to introduce Dan Rice. Rice was a popular nineteenth-century clown, and was responsible for many terms we associate today with entertainment, including a “one-horse show” and “the greatest show on earth.” And Rice wanted to be President of the United States, or at least the kingmaker for one.
When then-General Zachary Taylor ran for president in 1848 (spoiler: Taylor won), Rice invited General Taylor to campaign on the clown’s musical wagon, encouraging Taylor to “jump on the bandwagon.” And in spite of President Taylor’s traumatically short presidency (he died in office), Rice’s slogan gave rise to this week’s heuristic, one that captures hearts from the Golden Calf until today.
Crowd behavior functions like compound interest; many people will adopt other behaviors simply because others are doing it, which in turn causes more people to join in because others already are, and so on. While there is no one person who coined the term bandwagon effect, researchers in economics, sociology, psychology, political science, and countless other fields continue to document how it works and why it matters. My personal favorite recent example is meme stocks, where a previously depressed stock becomes artificially high because people on social media encourage one another to buy it (you may recall this with Game Stop and AMC in the not-too-distant past).
The dark side of the bandwagon effect is that just because people jump on the bandwagon doesn’t mean that they are right, and eventually a person who sees through the noise might acquiesce and assume that the mob knows something that they don’t when in reality the original lie just became self-perpetuating.
The Jewish people are no less susceptible to the bandwagon effect than any other group (see Shabbatai Tzvi). And while there is no easy way to “defeat” the bandwagon effect, those who want to show caution should always take the time to adopt an “outside view” and ask if what the crowd thinks is really what the evidence shows.
Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment
The bandwagon effect is only one of many biases that Daniel Kahneman, Oliver Sibony, and Cass Sunstein categorize “noise” in their recent book Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment. While I suppose I could have picked this book on any week given Kahneman’s legacy, I particularly like the image of a bandwagon as a noisy group of people telling others to do something that may not be the best course of action. After all, what’s noisier than a mob?3
The authors argue that “the goal of judgment is accuracy, not individual expression.” Beautifully said. While there are reasons why it is good for people to express personal creativity, “when it comes to making a judgment…expressions of individuality are a source of noise.”4 This also applies to bandwagons; just because a large group of people decided something was true does not mean that it is; mobs are just as susceptible to group heuristics as individuals (sometimes called social heuristics or social rationality).5 When you feel that something is not right about what everyone else believes, don’t dismiss it. Get curious.
For organizations, the authors suggest that groups assign a designated “decision observer”6 whose job it is to identify biases taking place when a group is making an important decision. Of course, we can think of all kinds of reasons why leaders don’t want someone to refute them publicly, but to me, it’s the mark of a great leader when he/she/they knows that it is better to be corrected before disaster strikes. Because just as the mob is susceptible to a premature agreement, when things go wrong, that same group will turn on a dime and pretend that it never happened.
Daniel Kahneman on Hidden Brain
Section 230 Explained: If you’ve read any articles about content moderation on social media, you’ve probably heard someone mention Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (particularly since it is currently the subject of a case before the United States Supreme Court). Here is an excellent introduction from Vox about the law’s past, present, and future.
The End of Amazon Smile: Many nonprofits are mourning the impending loss of Amazon Smile, a program where Amazon.com enables charities to receive donations based on purchases made on the website. Read this article from The Chronicle of Philanthropy on what it means to move forward.
“Woodstock for Christians”: Two weeks ago, a chapel at a small Kentucky college, Asbury University, played host to a 50,000-person religious revival, organized by Gen Z. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at how this came to be from Christianity Today.
How Much Do People Really Care About Chat GPT?: As you know, I’m pretty fascinated by Chap GPT, Dall-E, and all matters related to AI and machine learning. But do other people care as much I do? 538 dove into this question, with fascinating results.
Yes, Social Media Is A Major Cause of Our Mental Health Crisis: When Jonathan Haidt notices something, my ears perk up quickly. And Haidt argues that one can make a data-driven case for why social media, not COVID-19, is a primary cause of teenagers' mental health epidemic.
Mel Brooks is Jewish!?!?!?!
If you are wondering why I am not making any references to current events in Israel when talking about “mobs,” it’s because I am committed to keeping this newsletter non-partisan. That said, the bandwagon effect impacts all kinds of people and communities and transcends political boundaries.
Daniel Kahneman, Oliver Sibony, and Cass Sunstein, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2021), 371.
Ralph Hertwig and Stefan M. Herzog, “Fast and Frugal Heuristics: Tools of Social Rationality,” in Social Cognition, Volume 27, Number 5 (October 2009), 661-698.
See Footnote 4, 370.