Memetics of the superiority bias
Memetics studies how and why ideas travel among people from an evolutionary perspective. Christianity, for example, is a hearty meme partially because it contains a reward for those who spread it. It’s safe to assume that if a fallacious story is propagating rapidly and its correction is not, the falsehood is offering its propagators some reward.
Who is being rewarded by these horrible stories of looters? Remarkably, both the audience and the speaker. With gain all around, people long to take on both roles making them vehicles for the falsehood. I propose this “superiority bias” is causing the remarkable popularity of these looters gone wild rumors. Certainly, theft is occurring, but no helicopters have been fired on and no hospitals have been looted.
And the reward? Self satisfaction and honor. Upon hearing of Americans just like us only in a dire situation acting dishonorably, we’re given a great opportunity to display our character. “Oh my, that’s just horrible!” In other words, “I would never do such a thing. I’m such a good person it sickens me to even hear this.” Surely more can be milked of this opportunity than impressing the storyteller. How about a retelling to collect some additional respect points? And this is almost local news, making it acceptable to randomly bring it up. Just start talking about it. Pretend your conversation partner has yet to hear it, even though we all know everyone has heard and blogged it by now. For additional points, suggest that football games should not be played in the wake of a disaster or that trivial things don’t matter now, people are dying! These techniques can’t be applied to ongoing violence problems in Colombia and South Africa; it would be far too obvious that a few vacuous words of disgust are only to put oneself above others.
More revealing is the tone of this disgust. There is one telltale sign that a person thinks he is superior to others: a lack of perplexity with their actions. If I believe someone to be my equal, I assume that like me, he does things for good reasons. If he does something extraordinarily puzzling like shooting at a rescue helicopter, I am extraordinarily confused and my imagination is stretched to figure out what situation would cause me to do this and why. However, if I believe myself fundamentally superior, I’m not at all confused by this. My lessers are just that, lessers. They don’t do things for reasons like me; they’re just mindlessly bad people. Why not pass on stories about their antics to up my social standing?
About this essay
"Looters are shooting at rescue helicopters and ransacking hospitals!" Expect to hear and read this falsehood often; its very nature encourages its propagation.
- September 3, 2005