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#17: When Everything Becomes Personal

#17: When Everything Becomes Personal

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Welcome to another MFin’ Monday, the only weekly newsletter that joins you for dinner and then doesn’t even offer to split the check. Each week, I throw three interesting ideas at you and hope at least one of them hits something. This week we’re talking about: 1) Plato’s idea that the personal is the social and vice-versa, 2) team psychology and how that affects performance, and 3) the hate click economy. 

Let’s get into it. 

1. The Personal Is the Social and Vice-Versa – I’m a huge Southpark fan. There is an episode called “Simpsons Already Did It.” The running gag throughout the episode is that every great idea the main characters have, it turns out that The Simpsons had already done an episode about it years before. It’s an homage from the Southpark creators to the creativity and influence of The Simpsons. But it’s also a reminder of how hard it is to come up with truly new ideas. 

The Greek philosopher Plato studied and wrote almost 2,500 years ago. Plato is like The Godfather of western philosophy. Not only was he the first to consider major ideas in philosophy, biology, education, psychology, logic, etc.—in some cases, he originated those entire fields of thought in order to explain those ideas. Much like “The Simpsons Already Did It” with Southpark, “Plato already thought of it” could be the refrain for most of the ideas in the western world. 

Case in point: Plato literally invented the word “idea,” so he could describe his… err, ideas. 

One of Plato’s famous ideas is the parallelism between the individual and the society. Plato believed that a society’s culture behaved much in the same way an individual’s psychology behaved: each has a distinct identity that allows them to separate themselves from others; each has certain feedback mechanisms to protect and promote its own interests; and each breaks down when their belief systems become self-contradicting. 

Plato argued that when enough people become dysfunctional, that dysfunction will be reflected in the larger group, causing a dysfunctional society. Similarly, if a group starts to break down into dysfunction, it will be reflected in the individual constituents of that group through stress, anxiety, and inner conflict. 

I introduce Plato’s idea of the personal/social parallel because two events happened this past week that I think exemplify it and bring it into focus…

2. The Self-Talk of Teams I’m not the biggest American football fan anymore (living abroad showed me that soccer is clearly a superior sport—that’s right, I fucking said it). But I do still follow the NFL casually and watch the Super Bowl when it happens. 

One of the cool things that the NFL gets right (maybe the only thing it gets right?) is each Super Bowl, they mic up all of the prominent players and coaches on each team. They then create a long 30-40 minute highlight video where you get to actually hear what the players and coaches say to each other as the game unfolds (you can watch this year’s here). As a psych dork, this video is arguably the most interesting part of the NFL season. 

For those of you who didn’t watch or are foreigners, Kansas City was losing to San Francisco by 10 points, and then came back and won in the last few minutes of the game. And what struck me was how much more vocal the Kansas City players were throughout the game. Even when they were losing. Even when they made mistakes. There was a constant chatter going on by their players, pumping each other up, discounting errors, re-focusing on victory. 

Then I realized, looking back, this was pretty true of all the previous championship teams as well. The winning teams seemed to have a vocal culture of positive self-talk. Guys stalking up and down the field shouting at each other, “We got this. Let’s go.” The Kansas City players, down 10 points with 6 minutes left were telling each other, “People are going to be talking about this comeback for years.” Meanwhile, on the San Francisco side, awkward silences and empty words. Even when they were winning, they sounded anxious. 

The older I get, the more I appreciate what economists refer to as “human capital”—the intangible, emotional assets that we build up in between our ears and then share with others. Don’t get me wrong, San Francisco had a few guys trying to hype each other up, but they stood out as the exceptions. Kansas City had enough guys with enough enthusiasm and belief that it crossed a threshold and became the team culture, the team belief. Doubt vanished. Anxiety receded. The personal became the social. Multiple individuals’ emotional mastery translated into a team-wide mastery. And when it mattered the most, the team performed. 

3. The Hate Click Economy Last week, a British man named Andrew Doyle appeared on Joe Rogan’s show and admitted that an incredibly popular radical leftist “woke” Twitter account was actually created by him as a form of satire. The account, Titania McGrath, has said many insane things, including: that pregnancy is a form of rape, since the womb is inhabited without consent; that mathematics is inherently racist; and that breastfeeding is a form child abuse. 

You might say these things have to obviously be a joke. But for years, news media—prominent and prestigious news media, even—would republish these tweets unironically and write pieces around them, using them as references. Hundreds of activists have retweeted the account and encouraged others to follow it. Doyle was even able to publish pieces in publications under the pseudonym. 

Most notably, The Independent in the UK published a fake essay where Doyle “argued” that comedians should be prosecuted and go to jail for making jokes about race and gender. It went viral, and you may remember hearing about it, causing outrage all across social media. But it was a hoax. 

But what’s more stunning, is that The Independent didn’t check the author’s background, didn’t ask for credentials or prior work history, didn’t even call him to make sure he was a real person. They simply published it, no questions asked. 

Now, let’s ignore the politics and ignore whether this guy was a douche or not. Because I think this story elucidates something important about our media ecosystem. In the interview, Doyle tells Rogan that the only reason his satire is popular at all is because news media are incentivized to generate “hate clicks,” i.e., to generate traffic not from producing useful or interesting content, but rather, by producing content that gets people so angry that they click on it in order to see how upsetting it is. 

Put another way, they’re not publishing what people want. In fact, they are intentionally doing the opposite, publishing what people don’t want to generate the necessary traffic to keep the lights on. 

I wrote about this in my piece on the attention economy many years ago, that the incentives laid in place by the internet and social media would produce a hellscape of information. If your business model is based on clicks, then you are forced to generate content that produces the most clicks, regardless of what that content is. 

Time and time again, studies have shown that outrageous content produces the most clicks. It’s why Facebook pushes negative comments to the top of their threads. It’s why cable TV obsesses over sex scandals rather than policy decisions. And it’s why some guy in England, giggling and writing insanity, can get published in The Independent. You can think Doyle is an asshat for doing this. But if the informational ecosystem didn’t reward his behavior, this never would have been possible. 

And when you look at how polarized, anxious, and angry our cultures are today, remember Plato: the social becomes the personal. When the culture is scared, angry, and upset, the individuals default to scared, angry, and upset. When the culture fails to focus on truth, the individuals will fail to focus on truth. When the culture turns in on itself and begins to eat itself alive, is any wonder when many individuals do the same? 

See you next week.