Why do nasty posts bother us so much? From public shaming to political echo chambers, I spoke to Terri Apter about praise, blame—and why nobody yet knows how to handle the internetby Stephanie Boland / March 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
We’re constantly gauging what other people think of us. Photo: Prospect composite Why do we do our taxes? On the surface, it sounds like a stupid question. We do our taxes to avoid a fine; because the hassle of not doing them outweighs the hassle of doing them; because the government tells us to. We do it because we’re law-abiding citizens, and we know funding schools and hospitals is the right thing to do. But according to Dr Terri Apter, we do it for another reason, too: to avoid shame. In some ways, Apter has been researching praise and blame for a long time. In the introduction to her new book, Passing Judgement, she explains how she became interested as a young research student with the way nursing mothers modulated their voices to speak to their babies. Even these infants, Apter saw, had wanted more than just to be loved: “[there] was a need for love that also conveyed, ‘You are delightful and admirable.’” Praise and blame, she quickly realised, were a key part of our sense of self. Building on research in evolutionary psychology, Apter began to note “how carefully we monitor other people’s judgements of ourselves.” That’s why we do things like our recycling, and our taxes: because we know they’re worthy, yes, but also because being exposed as not having done them would be shameful. It was only when she began identifying the same behaviour in other areas of our lives, however, that Apter decided to write about the two feelings in one book. New research in to how couples communicate, for instance, found that even our romantic lives are underpinned by blame and praise. “There was this myth [that in a romantic relationship] there’s be total acceptance, and it’d be all ‘non-judgemental,’” Apter says. “It was clear that a lot of exchanges that seemed almost neutral—‘have we run out of milk?’—could involve praise and blame implications.” “‘Well, you’re supposed to keep track of milk,’” she imitates. Far from accepting our romantic partners unconditionally, Apter concluded that it’s actually the case that “the closer we are, the more we exercise praise and blame.” Why we can’t stop caring Yet while Apter says that we care more about what some people think than others, she also stresses that “we never really don’t care at all what people think”—even if we might pretend otherwise. “You only have to see how damaged people are when they’re subjected to repeated denigration and shame,” she says. “It’s very hard for them to live without some kind of praise.” The idea of a need for praise—and fear of blame—that we can’t switch off, or think our way out of, is a powerful one. In his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson follows the stories of people who have been on the receiving end of that “repeated denigration and shame” online. Social media, Ronson concluded, had changed what it means to be “publicly shamed.” Apter, too, suggests that the implications of social media have not yet been fully understood, including the feelings it may bring up in us. This is something I’m keen to ask her about: after all, if what she says is true and we can’t turn off our need to monitor what people think about us, then surely the cacophony of something like Twitter is bound to be exhausting, if not outright damaging? Posts aren’t really from people For Apter, it’s the hollowness of social media—rather than the volume of information it gives us—that makes it particularly risky: “The trouble is, posts aren’t actually from what we think of as ‘people.’” That means that we’re less likely to be able to tell whether praise, or blame, that we receive online is legitimate, because we don’t know whether to trust the source. Apter tells me about what researchers call “the nasty effect”: the quirk in our evolution that means we attach more significance to negative feedback than to positive. It’s thought, she explains, to have arisen out of “the evolutionary necessity of avoiding really bad things.” “If you don’t go after good things,” she says, “it might be sad, and you’ll have regrets. But if you don’t attend to really bad things, you don’t live. That’s the background that nasty things have for us.” This makes sense. After all, it’s still much more important to get along with your tribe than it is to be its best member—even if that tribe is only a company, or a school class. It’s also certainly true that we’re more likely to remember the one nasty comment someone has made than potentially dozens of supportive ones. Add to this the unreliability of social media, and you have a toxic combination. Like many people with a small public profile, I’ve had difficulty dealing with more mean-spirited criticism—particularly criticism which I think misinterprets what I’ve said, or what kind of person I am. This, Apter says, is fairly natural. “Of course, that becomes really horrible if it’s negative. You want to check it isn’t so bad—you know, ‘that really damning tweet about my new book has only been retweeted seven times.’” Again, she says, “You don’t have the face-to-face, voice-to-voice interaction. All the ways we have developed very subtle cues for monitoring other people’s judgement don’t work on social media, because it’s just a post.” As I mentally forgive myself for occasionally Googling the people who post about what an awful person I am (n.b., journalists are perhaps too good at this), Apter continues. “It’s very common that when you lose your temper and shout you’ll immediately say sorry, because you see what effect it has on the other person. You see the paling of the face, the hurt mouth, the protective body language.” “If we don’t like our friend’s views, we might well engage with them. You don’t get that on social media. If I dislike someone’s views, I’ll probably stop following and looking at what that person is posting. And that’s one route to the echo chamber.” “Then we get disruption to our democracy.” A new politics I’m surprised to hear Apter state this so plainly, and ask her to expand. “Our political discourse being subject to manipulation and stupidy—that isn’t new,” she says. “There are people who are very adept at what’s called ‘low-level signalling,’ a term which describes a lot of George Bush’s techniques of convincing people that issues that had nothing to do, really, with politics are central to it—like abortion or religion. It’s a way of harnessing approval of a party that is really going to screw you politically and financially.” Linking politics to emotion isn’t new, either. “I remember in 1992 when Neil Kinnock was very much ahead, and made the huge mistake of saying the top rate income tax would be 50 per cent. The front page of the Sun ran a big headline saying, ‘will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.’” “That was a way of saying whatever the downside of this politician’s policy is, it’s going to be awful.” “Emotive extremism has been a part of politics for a very long time. Just read Cicero’s speeches.” But just because emotional appeals have long been part of politics doesn’t mean social media can’t represent a new—and specific—risk. “The TV may have been awful, the press may have been awful, but there was some regulation. There are daily prosecutions and convictions for hate crimes on social media, but there’s not yet an infrastructure to regulate it.” The question, then, is what regulation should look like. Do we temper the new freedom of expression that social media can provide? When do we step in? Who is responsible? Should we, as Apter asks, concretely define “the responsibility of Facebook, Google and Twitter, who provide the platforms?” “All that uncertainty makes it very disturbing.” Passing Judgement: Praise and Blame in Everyday Life is out now.