Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Unfairness and the Brain: Behind CNN's Biased Coverage of the Israel v. Gaza Conflict

Watching CNN on August 4, 2014, I tuned into CNN when Wolf Blitzer briefly mentioned the number of Palestinians killed that day only to quickly pivot to a focus on Israel's successful interception of two rockets. He went on to interview an Israeli official on the defense system to the extent of near obsession. The implication is that an Israeli life is worth more than a dozen Palestinian lives. At the very least, the editorial judgment is questionable, if not suspect. 

My question is not so much as to why CNN (and other news editors and reporters) is so biased; they are human after all. I find it more interesting that so many viewers have such a tolerance for unfairness that they continue to watch.[1] CNN would not have been giving the story such airtime were viewers fleeing like bats out of hell. As soon as I realized that Blitzer's attention would be on the intercepted rockets even as scores of Palestinians had died that day, I changed the channel. Did many other people watching have the same sentiment of disapprobation I instinctively felt and simply dismiss it when it came to deciding on whether to act? Or, do people have different instinctual tolerances for unfairness, whether as bias primped up as neutral journalism or the unfair fight being covered? Perhaps different life-experiences intervene, rendering the common instinct more or less sensitive to the external stimuli. Lastly, not everyone is going to make the same choice regarding how to respond.

Nevertheless, we can look inside the brain, at how it functions normally, to get at whether a certain tolerance for unfairness is species-wide even if individuals differ in how far the tolerance extends. The process of natural selection may have left its mark, and the matter of self-interest or self-preservation is never far when discussing human nature. Crucially, the extent to which a person’s own interests—including one’s self-identity—or those of one’s friends—are involved in a given case of unfairness impacts how reasoning, or cognition, and emotions, or the passions, affect the tolerance.

Experiments have found that activity in the cognitive area of the brain, the cognitive dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), increases the amount of tolerance beyond that which the emotional area, the anterior insula cortex, will permit. Simply put, by thinking over whether to accept a condition that is unfair to you—that feels unfair (and is)—a person analyzes whether acceptance is in his or her own interest. If it is, then the person is more likely to override his or her anger at the unfairness and accept.

In one study, $100 is to be divided between two players—one of whom makes an offer, which the other person can accept or reject. The game is played only once, and anonymously. So the person tasked with accepting or rejecting the offer must decide whether a distribution unfair to him or her is worth accepting, given that rejecting it would mean he or she would not receive any money. Rationally, he or she would accept any offer, even one in which the other player gets $95 of the $100 because $5 is more than not getting anything. Emotionally, however, the responder may reject blatantly unfair offers. In the experiment, this second player rejected offers in which he or she would receive 30% or less of the $100. At that point, the emotive response outweighs cognitive calculation.

In another experiment, magnetic pulses were used to reduce the activity of the relevant emotional area of the brain (don’t try this at home!) while leaving the cognitive area untouched and thus fully functional. The result is that more unfair offers with less than 30% of the total $100 are accepted. The suppression of the sentiment of disapprobation that is triggered by instances of unfairness gives cognition the upper hand. The person can more easily conclude that tolerating the unfairness is worth the (diminished) emotional cost of resenting the other person for getting more than deserved. In business terms, the break-even point shifts in the direction of greater tolerance. Reason can speak internally with less suffocating clutter being spewed out by the passions: self-interest does not reside ultimately in relieving momentarily unpleasant feelings. Accordingly, the dominance of the cognitive area in the brain results in more tolerance for unfairness in cases in which the person’s self-interest is directly impacted by the unfairness.

The rational self-interest impacts the tolerance by reasoning that the person gets more in spite of the unfairness than without it. Less directly, the gravity of the self-interest can be expected to inexorably skew the person’s perception to an angle at which the unfairness is conveniently less transparent, and the tolerance more bearable. The person’s assumptions naturally comply. By means of their larger framework—a paradigm of assumptions unconsciously organizing experience with the world—they bend perception itself accordingly.

The CNN viewers who self-identified with Israel, for example, would not have perceived the bias fully, or even at all. Hence, the rational self-interest can triumph without so much emotional turmoil over the alleged unfairness to be tolerated. What about the viewers whose rational self-interest is not invested in either side the conflict, or with CNN? With perception freed up, though certainly not objective, the appearance of the bias cannot be assuaged or mollified. Nor is rational self-interest there to justify tolerating more unfairness.

Yet even so, self-interest generalized as self-preservation—that genetic instinct informed by the process of natural selection and elevated by reason—may still enable more tolerance. We humans can evince a chilling tolerance for unfairness that is borne by others rather than ourselves. The underlying culprit here may be our survival instinct, which is etched into the fabric of our very being through the myriad of accretions pronounced by natural selection on our species’ genome. We may have a greater confidence of our own survival by vicariously "living" through the dominance of an alpha male unfairly dominating a weaker constitution. Any sentiment of disapprobation proffering a harsh ethical verdict is also instinctual, but the primal urge of self-preservation more successfully marries instinct to reason and is thus habitually more powerful. According to Nietzsche, reason consists of contending instincts—the strongest urge being victorious as conscious thought. The instinct of self-preservation affords more tolerance of the unfair than the moral sentiment would allow. Society, including its organizations, may magnify this tendency.

Broadcasters may orient their news broadcasts to the cognitive dimension in highlighting facts, statistics, and news analysis. CNN suffers less of a financial disincentive from decreased viewership in exploiting an unfair fight and taking sides, even if tacitly in the choice of paradigm undergirding the news reports.  

Moreover, modern society itself, being oriented to scientific advancement (e.g., in medicine) and technological innovation (e.g., engineering) over the humanities (e.g., philosophy), may privilege the brain’s cognitive functioning over moral, sympathetic feelings. The news media may simply be reflecting this overall ethos. Ironically, the teachings of some major philosophers, Hume excepted, advocate for the hegemony of the rational dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Reason has what Kant termed “absolute value.” Furthermore, Plato’s theory of justice requires reason to subjugate emotions so as to provide order to the psyche and polis (city), which are then in musical/mathematical harmony with the harmony of the heavenly spheres (i.e., stars and planets). Within this “justice as order” prescription, greater tolerance for unfairness can be expected as the sentiment of disapprobation is subordinated.

In conclusion, the bias implicit in the CNN report relies on not only the rationalistic values esteemed in the technological age, but also a natural proclivity in how the human brain coordinates its internal parts. We may be inclined both as a society and as individuals to accommodate instances of unfairness that are repugnant to us emotionally—even those in which we decide to bear the unfairness ourselves. Just think how easy it must be for us to tolerate unfairness when someone else must bear the burden.