Soundbites, those tiny verbal morsels, are ubiquitous. From billboards to tweets to political slogans, we are awash in them. Soundbites are the rhetorical currency of the 21st century.
These quick, appealing messages are crack cocaine for the amygdala, the emotional processing center of the brain. While we might assume that the prefrontal cortex, home of executive control and rational thinking, might overpower or at least subdue this powerful emotional drug. Frequently, it does not.
In fact, research shows if a soundbite is repeated often enough, the prefrontal cortex lets go of the steering wheel altogether, allowing the amygdala to slide into the driver’s seat. The message plays directly to your feelings, free of logical scrutiny. This is part of why politicians obsessively repeat their talking points—and why it works. It is a fundamental human brain flaw.
Statistically, immigrants commit fewer crimes than the rest of the population. Statistically, you are more likely to be killed by a falling flat screen TV than a terrorist attack. But nobody is arguing the real Trojan horse inside your home is your flat screen TV waiting to topple and kill you when you’re not looking. And yet people continue to insist that an immigration ban is a straightforward precaution, as commonsense as locking the doors on your house. Plain and simple, the “lock your doors” analogy targets your amygdala’s fear response, potentially deceiving you, your friends, your neighbors, and your family.
So why would otherwise rational people fall prey to flimsy emotional arguments? Because individually, our brains aren’t designed to hold, understand and display a depth of knowledge in every area of our lives. Overwhelmed, we lean on the amygdala, our ancient go-to shortcut thinking system, developed to save time and energy via quick gut judgments in areas where we lack expertise.
But there is a price to be paid for relying on decision shortcuts. We might be an expert in a given area or field, but mostly we operate within the illusion of depth. That is to say, we rely on sound bites to cover the areas we pretend to, but don’t really understand.
Most achievement has been driven by a handful of brilliant people. You might be a wiz on your smart phone, but could you build one from scratch? The same holds true for just about every piece of technology that you come in contact with. The ugly truth is that a society’s technical and cultural achievements are no guarantee of the wisdom, intelligence, or rationality of its individual members.
The bottom line? You and I are not that smart.
Soundbites allow us to navigate the areas we only pretend to understand. From complicated health care bills to how microwaves work, most of us are basically ignorant. Soundbites provide the illusion of plugging the ignorance gap.
Looking closely at the modern world, our collective primitiveness is on parade everyday.
Your neighbor’s chant to ‘build a wall,’ a measure easily defeated by a well-placed three dollar rope, may sound ridiculous to you. But they might equally point out with smug brazenness that you failed to fully fund your 401K, the one for which your employer has a matching program. And that program could guarantee financial independence for you in your old age, had you regularly contributed.
So who among us are the real fools when it comes to rational thought and the reliance on silly soundbites? The simple answer? Most of us. Soundbites are Band-Aids for ignorance. Some of us might apply more than others, but in the end, who among us is immune?