Chapter 13. Visions and Challenges – Priorities for Professionals

Drama Bias

Drama bias occurs when a futurist takes any currently negative trend, and discusses it in the most scary and negative way they can. They create drama, which requires a threat, whether real or imagined, and a fear-based emotional response to the threat.

Dramatic bias always involves the production of scare stories, designed to generate useless drama, and represent problems out of all proportion to average reality. Note that scare stories are not self-preventing prophecies, which are stories of possible and plausible risks ahead, designed to alert the audience to potential danger, to provide motivation to change, and ultimately to prevent the story from coming true.

Rather than motivating useful change, and focusing the audience on meaningful threats, a scare story wastes everyone’s energy and time, diverting them from the real issues at hand. Modern network news is full of baseless scare stories, dramatic and baseless nonevents reported in breathless tones, and designed to instill fear and anxiety. No wonder no one under 25 watches it anymore.

Scores of authors, pundits, and politicians on the left, warning of impending climate, species, environmental, energy, population, discrimination and other disasters, and just as many books and pundits on the right, warning of impending financial, defense, immigration, jobs, social degradation, and other disasters are full of such stories, mixed in with with reasonable statistics and ideas, to make them more palatable. They are wolves in sheeps clothing, trying to get you scared, which gets them attention and sales. You need to learn to see through the disguise.

Learning how to understand the motivations and biases of the negative storyteller can help you understand how to best respond emotionally and cognitively to the drama they are creating. If you think their motives for being dramatic aren’t serving the greater good, you can call them out on their motives, if that’s not going to hurt your reputation too much. Most of the time, you may not be able to call them out, but at least you can sort the drama from the reality, and understand why it exists.

Perhaps the largest problematic group of scare stories are opportunistic dramas. They primarily serve the financial or power interests of those who tell them. These stories focus on the fear, and they lack details on how to better track the real extent of the problem, and any kind of practical behavior changes that will prevent the negative future from recurring. We see these in the media all the time. Scare stories within the investment community are always being started by someone with something to gain, and you can gain great tactical advantage by properly identifying them as such.

Another problematic group of scare stories are pessimistic dramas. These are stories where the natural defensive pessimism of the storyteller has become overdeveloped and nonadaptive. Folks who are older, in declining health, who have suffered some recent or serious life setback, or who just have a generally grouchy personality type are often authors of such dramas.

The last book of the great futurist H.G. Wells, Mind at the End of its Tether, 1945, is a classic example of dramatic bias that was driven by growing personal pessimism due to age (my read) not due to “experience” (others more charitable reads). As Wells got older, he increasingly viewed humanity as about to be extinguished. But it was actually his own mind and body that were falling apart, and he just confused the two. This is a common trap of aging, but fortunately not all of us grow unjustifiably pessimistic as we age.

We all need to guard against such creeping, age-related pessimism by having reverse mentors, and associates who are optimists and realists, willing to call us if our dramatic bias grows larger than reality will support. Some pessimists are also self-righteous, believing they have the only solution, and many lack a sense of humor. Call them out on their bias when you can. They may not like it, but it will help them to get that honest and caring feedback, as long as you don’t deliver it in a mean way.

The most useful scare stories told by futurists are pragmatic dramas. Pragmatic dramatists know, or strongly suspect, that the world won’t get as bad as the stories they tell. Nevertheless, they think it’s instrumental to tell stories, particularly for those who are slow to change, that a big catastrophe may be coming. Such stories can help motivate bureaucratic, lazy, greedy and short-sighted humans to make the painful changes necessary to prevent the negative event. Such a story can become self-preventing prophecy, saving otherwise wasted time, energy, or money, or averting the worst of an inevitable adjustment process ahead. Of course, such stories can also become detrimental, when they push people to make many costly and unnecessary changes (9/11) and divert people’s attention from all the social progress they could have been creating instead with their precious time and energy.

Evaluating the social worth of pragmatic scare stories is difficult, as many of the changes being advocated by the dramatist will be unnecessary. Complex adaptive systems, like society, will usually naturally return to baseline health via many self-correcting mechanisms, because of their deep homeostasis, antifragility and developmental immunity. The rich-poor divide, for example, has always been on a plutocratic-democratic pendulum, since the birth of civilization.

But people don’t generally want to believe nature has these qualities, it somehow seems disempowering. We’d rather give credit to individual human initiative for the world we live in, and are moving towards. It’s also a harder sell to talk about all the natural self-correcting mechanisms that improve any complex adaptive system as its intelligence grows. See Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2012) for a great example, the decline of violence in modern societies. But even his 880 page, evidence-rich book didn’t convince most people that the world is naturally getting less violent, on average, as its complexity scales. Most of us still falsely perceive the world today as, for example, more dangerous than the 1970s, when war, crime, highjackings, terrorism, drugs, and urban decay were all far worse.

Don’t get caught in a fear trap. Here are a three obvious ways to minimize drama, and even ethically profit from it when you can’t minimize it, which is also a worthy practice:

  1. Don’t Get Scared. Don’t watch network news, which is saturated with opportunistic dramatic bias. The media greatly amplify our Culture of Fear, to grab eyeballs and hijack amygdalas. Thinking about all those imaginary fears (Y2K, Killer Bees, most weather events) is just a huge waste of your mental overhead. Read Dan Gardner’s The Science of Fear, 2009 for more. What’s most hilarious about network media is that pundits who have been horribly wrong in the past continue to be widely used by the media, as they are opportunistic, motivated by audience share and drama-creation ability, not truthfulness or evidence. Always know the motivations of the storyteller, to determine if the story is worth listening to.
  2. Don’t Overinsure. Once you understand the world is typically a lot less scary than people say it is, you can spend less on Nanny Insurance to cover every low-probability contingency, and start acting smart by paying attention to the very few things that really are potential problems. Common sense, risk reduction behaviors, and self insurance, which we can do for our health care, and small businesses can do for many kinds of events, is one way to do more intelligent risk management, correcting for institutional and cultural DCB.
  3. Do Contrarian Investing. As an investor, wait until everyone is beating the heck out of a particular stock, and the negative drama has reached a fever pitch. There are lots of viral stories about doom out there, most of them with obvious hyperbole and hot air behind them. Alternatively, find a company that everyone is saying can’t fail (at the peak of hype bias), and short them at their peak. For more, read Contrarian Investment Strategies: The Psychological Edge, David Dreman, 2012.

To an evo devo foresight practitioner, broadly aware of accelerating developmental trends and the Eight Goals (Chapter 3), it often seems like there is “Drama drama everywhere, and not a drop of good sense to drink.” So get out there and make your own! 🙂

As with hype, insights on drama can also be applied to business cycle. Recall our mention of Peter Navarro’s The Well-Timed Strategy (2006) for managing the business cycle to competitive advantage.

It is important to recognize that every one of us can fall into any of these biases, at any time, given the changing circumstances of our environment. For a sobering example, let me suggest Navarro, whose work I generally hold in high esteem. Navarro was asked to be an economic advisor to Donald Trump in his 2016 election campaign. Unfortunately, from this point on, he began speaking in what I would call newly dramatic language about the downsides of globalization and trade. From my perspective, he began using scaremongering language, and appealing to our baser nativist instincts, losing some of his previous objectivity and global perspective. Unfortunately this is just psychological manipulation, and a classic example of opportunistic drama. Call it out whenever you see it, if it won’t hurt your reputation.

When you analyze a message, always consider the motivations of the messenger. In this particular case, it plays to both Navarro and Trump’s interests to scare us into thinking that globalization is a far worse process than it is. Their trade narrative is drama, not reality, because it downplays or ignores the accelerating innovation and technical developments that globalization has created, and the major threat reduction that occurs as the rich-poor income gap for all the world’s people continues to close, one of the greatest achievements of globalization since the 1970s.

At this stage in human history, any process that accelerates science, technology, and innovation, and that closes the global rich-poor gap, seems like it may be on-balance good, with caveats of course. It’s true that globalization initially grows rich-poor divides inside most countries as they employ advanced technologies. But we can use a range of policies, including taxing the use of advanced technology, to manage our own internal divides in better or worse ways, and these divides are ultimately a self-correcting process, due to social redistribution reforms, as wealth in any country grows. They are best modeled with the Kuznets curves we discussed in Chapter 8.

It is also clear that globalization has accelerated technical innovation for the planet as a whole, as it has measurably increased competition, capital flow, information exchange, and economies of scale. Ultimately, after the patents expire, all science and technological advances are what economists call nonrival goods. They can be consumed by one person without preventing consumption by another. Information on how to produce them can also be shared at zero marginal cost. Even when they are rival goods, for many technological products, the cost of production declines exponentially (more accurately, on a power law), as they are consumed. So getting the largest market we can for any such good will get us the least global rivalry for the good in question. Scale of production of these special goods benefits everyone.

Thus when we discuss globalization, we must always discuss the informational and nanotech apects of these processes in question, if we are to be acceleration aware. The researcher that discovers the cure for cancer, the engineer that invents a new form of energy storage, or the company that produces the cheapest smartphone is everyone’s hero from that point forward, and so far, the bottom three billion of people on the planet have benefited the most from globalization’s effects. Nationalism and nativism are traditional concepts with declining value. We’re all one species, and we’re finally within viewing distance of the singularity.

Bottom line: Not discussing informational and technological advance when talking about trade should no longer be considered acceptable practice. It is not accelaware. Our leaders, our journalists, and our own selves can and must raise the level of dialog on these issues in coming years.