The Homeostatic Fallacy and Misinformation Literacy

I wrote a thing for Neiman’s year-end journalism predictions yesterday that I’m quite excited about. Hopefully will be out soon. (Update: it’s here.)

In the article I finally publish this term I’ve been throwing around in some private conversations — the “homeostatic fallacy”. 

Homeostasis is a fundamental concept of biology. The typical example is human temperature. For humans the temperature 98.6 tends to be a very desirable temperature. And so what you find is no matter where you put a human body — in the arctic or the tropics — the human body finds ways to keep that temperature constant. In hot environments you sweat, and the condensation helps cool you. Your blood vessels dilate, to bring more heat to the skin where it can be dispensed with. In cold environments your blood vessels constrict. 

There are a lot of people out there that think that misinformation is sort of like hot and cold environments are towards the body. In other words, both misinformation (let’s think of it as cold) and information literacy (let’s think of it as heat) have relatively little effect, because the mind has certain homeostatic mechanisms that protect against identity threat and provide resistance to new ideas. And there’s a certain truth to this. Knowing the facts about nuclear power won’t suddenly make you a supporter, and learning the history of Reconstruction won’t turn you woke. 

And as such, we hear a lot of critiques about media literacy of the sort that you can’t change people’s minds by giving them better information. Homeostatic arguments sometimes go even further, claiming bad information is likely not leading to bad decisions anyway.

Often this is posed as a counter to a naive Cartesian view of beliefs, that treats our decision-making processes as scientific. But weirdly, both the homeostatic view of misinformation and the Cartesian one suffer from the same transactional blindspot. On a case by case basis — show a person a fact, check if it changes them — homeostatic mechanisms often prevail. Your mind has certain psychological set-points and will often fight to keep them constant, even in the face of disinformation or massive scientific evidence. 

But the fallacy is that the set-point itself will not change.

People often use temperature as an example of a homeostatic set-point, but I think another example is far more educational. Consider weight.

Your body has a natural weight it gravitates towards, and the power of that set-point can’t be underestimated. Think about this astonishing fact — one pound of weight is about 3,500 excess calories. To maintain weight over a year, your average intake would have to stay within about 10 calories a day of maintenance levels. Few people account for calories at this level of precision, and yet many retain a stable weight year after year. That’s the power of homeostasis.

How do we gain weight, then? There’s quite a lot of debate on this, actually. But, more or less, temporary behavior and adverse events, in sufficient quantities, not only increase our weight, but change our set-points. And now the homeostatic mechanisms that kept us trim work against us, to keep the pounds on.

In short time frames, a sort of psychological homeostasis is protective. We see bad info or good info and nothing changes. We share a corrosive meme and we’re still the same person. Just as a single cookie at the Christmas party will have a net zero effect on your weight through the magic of homeostasis, a single bit of disinfo isn’t going to change you.

But the goal of disinformation isn’t really around these individual transactions. The goal of disinformation is to, over time, change our psychological set-points. To the researcher looking at individuals at specific points in time, the homeostasis looks protective — fire up Mechanical Turk, see what people believe, give them information or disinformation, see what changes. What you’ll find is nothing changes — set-points are remarkably resilient.

But underneath that, from year to year, is drift. And its the drift that matters.

4 thoughts on “The Homeostatic Fallacy and Misinformation Literacy

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