Narcotizing Dysfunction

Narcotizing dysfunction is a theory that as mass media inundates us on a particular issue, we become increasingly apathetic to that issue.

Worse, we find ourselves substituting factoids and other ersatz knowledge about that issue in place of taking action to help.

As an example, everybody knows about the gender pay gap, and most of us know specific ersatz information about the issue--like the standard factoid women get paid 23% less than men.

But do you know anyone who's actually put their own skin in the game to do anything specific to ameliorate this pay gap? Me neither. And no, posting something about it on social media doesn't count. More on that in a minute.

I used the phrase ersatz knowledge earlier on purpose, because it begs the question whether it's even in our interests at all to know this kind of information. If you really think about it, the "23%" factoid appears to persuade us of something, but at the same time it lulls us into not doing a darn thing about it. It results in people talking rather than doing. Or worse: complaining rather than doing. And just to make sure readers don't get wrapped around the axle about the pay gap as an issue (see the postscript below), we could substitute many other issues in many other domains just as easily, including issues like obesity, saving money and financial independence, the alleged high cost of healthy food, etc.

There's another psychological phenomenon called "sense of completion," by which talking about something--merely talking about it--produces a tiny squirt of dopamine in your brain. That squirt of dopamine, and the small blurt of satisfaction it produces in your mind, is a miniature replica of the genuine sense of satisfaction you'd get if you'd actually completed the task.

Thus we talk about writing a novel, or post something on Twitter/Faceborg about writing a novel, but our talking produces a "miniature replica of satisfaction" that fools us into a feeling of taking action when we haven't. And we end up not writing a novel.

Everyone thinks they don't do this of course. But the truth is, talking is far, far easier than doing, and our brains take the easy route: we talk about doing stuff, we post online about doing stuff, and we don't actually do the stuff. We settle for a mental simulacrum of accomplishment rather than the accomplishment itself.

So now we have two psychological phenomena: sense of completion and narcotizing dysfunction. Both help explain why people are full of natters and they don't do shit. To put it crudely.

Talking, debating, quoting ersatz factoids about "the issues," consuming mass media, and (perhaps worst of all) consuming social media: It all narcotizes us.

If you start to think about these mechanisms, it starts to make you a bit suspicious about what you think, why you think it, and who's giving it to you to think. And, exposure, repeated exposure, to the very factoids you "know" about an issue seem only to keep you inactive. To keep things just as they are.

Call me crazy, but if you wanted to run a gigantic nationwide experiment on how to impose complacency on a society.... this might be how you'd do it.

Once I finally wrapped my mind around these concepts, my desire to debate politics--in fact, my desire to debate most issues, certainly over social media--instantly died.

READ NEXT: How to Use Ersatz Knowledge For YOUR Benefit, Not Theirs
AND: A Terrible Paradox for Locavores

Postscript: A discussion of the gender pay gap is obviously far beyond the scope of this blog and far outside my circle of competence, and as a result I don't have the credibility to offer an opinion on it. Furthermore, keep in mind that this post isn't about the pay gap per se, but about our complacency about any important issue even after we're persuaded.

What's even more intriguing is how there are other types of "gaps" that we never hear about that actually favor women, and in some cases monstrously favor women (examples: workplace deaths, workplace injuries, pay gaps for workers younger than 30). It begs the same questions: why do we all "know" (and are relentlessly fed) the "23% less" factoid, but not the others? And why would we even want to "know" this, then, if the result seems to be nothing more than our complacency? It bakes your noodle just to think about it.


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Marcia said...

I actually do know more than one person who has put their own skin in the game to fix the pay gap. I mean, on an individual basis, women fight to close their own gaps every single day (myself included, though I've been unsuccessful).

I also know several people who work at companies who have aggressively worked to close the gap. So, they've been the beneficiaries.

The thing is there are issues that are actionable and not actionable. We all have our own circle of control of things that we can try to fix. And then there is the wider societal issue of things that *most* of us cannot fix. I cannot force CEOs and management in large companies to recognize the discriminatory practices that create the gender pay gap. I cannot fix the fact that the media, when discussing the next presidential election, are talking almost exclusively about Biden and Bernie, as if it's a forgone conclusion that a white male is going to win.

But on a micro scale, I can donate money to my preferred candidates, I can vote for them too. By sharing these issues, though, we can explain them to people at a young age, and things will change over time. When I was a kid, being gay was considered a horrible thing. In college, the US passed Don't Ask Don't Tell. Then finally, we allow gay marriage. How did those changes happen? Well, over time the younger generations, who grow up in a different world and learn different things, get older and they vote!

Daniel said...

All true Marcia. Thanks for a really good comment.