The preference for threat-related material in the supply and demand of information

That is the topic, here is the abstract:

Many rumors convey information about potential danger, even when these dangers are very unlikely. In four studies, we examine whether micro-processes of cultural transmission explain the spread of threat-related information. Three studies using transmission chain protocols suggest a) that there is indeed a preference for the deliberate transmission of threat-related information over other material, b) that it is not caused by a general negativity or emotionality bias, and c) that it is not eliminated when threats are presented as very unlikely. A forced-choice study on similar material shows the same preference when participants have to select information to acquire rather than transmit. So the cultural success of threat-related material may be explained by transmission biases, rooted in evolved threat-detection and error-management systems, that affect both supply and demand of information.

The piece is by Timothy Blaine and Pascal Boyer.  Of course this is one of the very best tips to know to understand what is actually happening on an Op-Ed page or your Twitter feed.  See through it, yes you can.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.


The world is a dangerous place, with murderers, hurricanes, deadly diseases, warmongers, tornadoes, earth quakes, and volcanoes, not to mention Republicans and libertarians. We are blessed with media that remind us of the perpetual state of imminent danger, such as the election of Hillary Clinton, which would surely have resulted in doom for freedom loving Americans. I reside in a hurricane-prone area. Well, it wasn't but it is now, global warming contributing to more and more intense hurricanes and rising seas that threaten the coastal areas where we once enjoyed the tranquil life of the warm sun, the sea breeze, and calm seas, replaced by six months of terror thanks to updates every six hours by the National Hurricane Center and the cone of uncertainty. Uncertainty, that's life on this planet. Be afraid, very afraid. One never knows what those Republicans and libertarians will do next.

" global warming contributing to more and more intense hurricanes and rising seas that threaten the coastal areas where we once enjoyed ...": oh you are a wag.

People are funny. They find hurricanes more convincing than scientific explanation.

What makes hurricanes more intense is warmer water, something that has been fairly well measured for a fairly long time.

As noted in this article from March 2017 - 'Houston meteorologist Matt Lanza recently noted that a city on the upper Texas coast, Galveston, had been setting a staggering number of high temperature records this winter. About one-fourth of the days saw record highs, so Lanza reached out to the local forecast office of the National Weather Service to see if they had any concerns about thermometer calibration or recent land-use changes at Scholes Field in Galveston, where the temperature is recorded. No, he was told, it has just been that "sort of winter."

From the period of November through February, Galveston ended up setting a total of 31 record high temperatures. And it is not like Galveston is a recently thrown-up beach community; the city it has a history that goes back two centuries. It formerly served as the capital of the Republic of Texas, and it has formal meteorological records that date all the way back to 1874.

It wasn't hard to find the culprit for Galveston's heat this winter, as the barrier island's weather is dominated by the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf has been extremely warm this year. In fact, for the first time on record according to Michael Lowry of The Weather Channel, the daily average surface temperature never fell below 73 degrees Fahrenheit during the just-concluded meteorological winter. It's enough for us to wonder, beyond the climate implications of a steamy Gulf and its impact on temperatures in the southern United States, how might the heat affect storm seasons later in the year?'

Recognizing that hurricane season is not actually over, the empirical data to answer that final question is at least available.

Sometimes, cause and correlation are not really that hard to see - more heat energy in a system leads to larger events dependent on more available energy

Climate change is a meaningless term - the climate always changes. Willful ignorance of empirical data when attacking the idea of climate change is something else.

"Willful ignorance of empirical data when attacking the idea of climate change is something else."

That "something else" is merely normal religious or quasi-religious human impulse.

True Believers reject contrary 'empirical data' ... as the nasty work of evil forces (like those evil deplorable AGW-Deniers).

("All mass movements strive to impose a fact-proof screen between the
faithful and the realities of the world" --Eric Hoffer)

I at least read the link, melkin.

So that's what America has become: a tornado-stricken country like Kansas and Oz...

My comment had nothing to do with global warming; rather, it was about the constant flow of negative messages we receive, especially by those who spend their time on social media (Cowen has expressed that he didn't initially appreciate the effect "smart" phones would have on every aspect of our lives, including politics). For those. like me, who live in hurricane-prone areas, we obsessively check the national hurricane center website to see where the next storm is headed, an anxiety-inducing exercise best avoided (hurricanes are like squirrels, they seldom travel in a straight line), but like the auto accident, all but impossible not to look. When I was a child growing up in a hurricane prone area, we didn't know the dangers that were lurking far out in the Atlantic, and were better off for our ignorance. Too much of anything is good for nothing; or in econospeak, the law of diminishing returns.

... a rather sad attempt at backpedaling your words -- perhaps consider posting here less, thoughtful quality vs quantity

The People's Horror Show.

Take all this with a grain of salt: most published social science research is false.

But is it a threat?

It is completely unsurprising that perishable creatures would have threat analysis as a priority.

To say "I heard Hillary is a warmonger, and I don't want that" is threat analysis. To say "Trump risks nuclear exchange, and I don't care" is not.

Funny how positional this stuff is. Perhaps the theory is less wrong than incomplete.

Not being 100% correct does not mean 0% correct.

1 is not 100 and 99 is not 0.

'Many rumors convey information about potential danger'

And many more rumors, though often referred to as gossip, refer to the doings of other people, which would not be considered threateningly at all. Entire sectors of the mass media earn a major amount of revenue using this model.

Which makes this essentially a tautology - 'Many rumors convey information about potential danger, even when these dangers are very unlikely. In four studies, we examine whether micro-processes of cultural transmission explain the spread of threat-related information.' They are looking at what they define, using that as the method to define the results of transmission. This is not prima facie wrong, as selection is important, but if you make conclusions from what you select, generalization can be a real problem, especially if your selection is then used to represent a larger framework of 'cultural transmission.'

Seriously, more rumors are spread throughout society about the doings of Hollywood, politician affairs (one does not have to define which type, right?), crass and excessive behavior in the public sphere, and who is sleeping with who (in a number of contexts - friends, job, etc.) than those which can reasonablybe seen as threats

The odd thing is we live in age where fact is now routinely treated as rumor - 'See through it, yes you can' is clearly not very applicable to many people.

Social creatures will also put high attention on social dynamics, see Camille Paglia on soap operas.

I read this to say the "social" is there but the "threat" cuts through as a priority message. That seems pro-adaptive enough.

'but the “threat” cuts through as a priority message'

Really? Look at the death of Princess Diana - that was not much of a threat, but it spread extremely far, extremely fast. Maybe not the best example of a rumor in one sense, as it was also a real event, with a lack of information swirling around it at first. And a large number of conspiracy type rumors swirling around it soon afterwards.

We have a whole huge amount of 'rumor' or 'gossip' that has nothing to do with threats, but supports a fairly large industry. And this study defines it away through a filter like this - 'Risk-related rumors are more common than benefit-related rumors' Rumors for entertainment value/to fill time probably vastly outweigh those two categories. Maybe the National Enquirer could do some reporting on it. Or maybe someone could go through something like People, and see how many rumors are there, and classifiy how many are threat or benefit related.

It would be interesting to see how this works in a more facebook based world, of course. However, that is not the sort of study(s) the authors seem to be performing.

Ah, but the Diana example might combine both. The people most captured by the event were so socially intertwined by gossip media that the loss felt personal to them. A "close" person dying is a personal tragedy. Definitely a reminder of their own mortality, and risk to others close to them.

Sure it might combine both - that is fact, and rumor.

But this is a real stretch, to be honest - 'risk to others close to them.' We all die, and the rumored death of someone (Paul McCartney truly comes to mind in this framework) is not what I consider a threat. To put it differently - the obituary section of the newspaper is not full of threats, it is full of death notices. Of course people can disagree, but that means that every single time someone is rumored to be dead (apparently Tom Petty died a week before he did in reality) that happenstance would be considered a threat. Seems an extremely broad category of 'threat.'

If you believe we are a social species, and that we have a radar for relationships around us, especially for shifts in power, you might believe that instinct could be catered to by a gossip media.

Just as, to use a more male example, team sports might feed instincts for group competition.

Broad category in the sense of unknown people dying is a constant fact of human existence. Clearly, some rumored deaths represent a threat which can be considered realistic. The death of a British princess in Paris does not really fit that framework.

'you might believe that instinct could be catered to by a gossip media'

Again, without an actual threat - much of what makes gossip media so titillatingly irresistible, it appears, is sex.

We can always create just so stories, but unless one has a vested belief in evolutionary whatever explanations for human behavior, it helps to take a broad view.

For example, any evolutionary based theory explaining why black is associated with death and mourning has already revealed itself to be making up a just so explanation which ignores hundreds of millions of Asians who believe no such thing. And as learned in a GMU classroom decades ago, the actual reason for white wedding dresses in the English speaking world can be documented to have originated around the time the East India Company was able to deliver silk to England's upper classes, of which the most expensive variety was white. It has nothing to do with purity, virginity, etc., it has to do with emulating what one hears about concerning the doings of the rich and famous.

Your pedantry is blocking you, buddy.

You are denying aspects because they are not the whole.

No, I am questioning whether rumors that can be reasonably classified as threats make up more than a minor part of the rumors/gossip that swirl around us all the time. And the starting point of that objection was the fact that an entire, and apparently quite profitable, segment of the media exists, one that seemingly is full of rumors that contain neither threat nor benefit. And whether one is more likely to hear a rumor about a Kardashian (or pick your own celebrity/star - in Germany, someone like Helene Fischer or Heidi Klum) faster, and from more sources, than a rumor about something threatening.

Some rumors and gossip are designed to lower the status of others, which is an inexpensive way of raising your own.

Threat conveyance is a risky way of raising your own status. Your status may suffer if it turns out you are incorrect. However, the larger the threats you warn about the more important you are to listen to, at least while you remain credible.

Becuase some warnings will inevitably come true, there is a post hoc effect of rewarding some portion of a random ensemble of forecasters for being correct, and raising their status. This is like the old stockpickers fallacy. There are a lot of them and some will get more than a few things right by chance. So if you have no actual skill, raising threats has some probability of working out for you. Increasing volatility always helps zero mean actors.

Too true, except perhaps for the very last bit.

Even for a Marginal Revolution Post, this paragraph scores way high on the unintelligible jargon meter. “Transmission chain protocols”?

Sounds better than 'I heard from a friend of the boss's sister's cousin's friend, who said the plant is full of plutonium' with a timestamp on how the rumor spread and changed through time. For example, as can be read here, where the quaint term rumor mongering has been updated to rumor spreading -

Speaking of gossip as about power in a social species ..

A threat I worry about when walking across the street at intersections is being run over by turning motorists who don't notice me because they are focused upon the threat posed to them by other drivers.

I've taken to catching threatening drivers' attention by raising my arm in a vaguely threatening manner as I step into the crosswalk, which human beings seem to be wired to notice in their peripheral vision.

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