Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

17 August 2018

Twitter and Impulse Control


[I’m sorry to upstage my recent post about America’s eventual awakening to Russia’s small acts of war. But the following post may be even more important: we won’t ever awaken if constantly distracted by trivia. For links to the most recent posts together with the inverse chronological links to recent posts, click here.]

Most well-informed parents have heard of the experiments. You take a child who can understand speech, three to five years old. You put her or him in a small room, in a chair with a table. An adult enters with a marshmallow or similar treat and puts it on the table, saying, “I’m going out for a few minutes. If the treat is still there when I get back, I’ll give you another. Otherwise, one is all you’ll get.”

These experiments test the character of its toddler subjects. Specifically, they test their impulse control and their ability to delay gratification.

Some of the experiments followed the study subjects for decades, well into adulthood. And the results are impressive. The first-treat eaters do worse on every measure of success in life, from sports, through grades in school and lifetime income, to marriage, parenting, health, longevity, and simply staying out of jail. The children who wait for the second treat do better on all these measures of a good life.

When you think about it, none of this should be surprising. We all have base impulses. They include impatience, irritability, violence, domination and lust. But civilization itself demands that we control them. Otherwise, no small man could walk down the street with a beautiful woman without risking having her dragged away; no such woman could walk down the street at all without fear. Every dispute would end in a brawl or a murder.

Not only that. Even peaceful decisions, like those made every day in a family, a business, a boardroom or the Situation Room, demand impulse control. Our civilization has made our lives safe, long and rewarding at the cost of making them complex. No single person—even the proverbial “Renaissance” man or woman—knows all the answers needed to do right and live well, in medicine, math, science, engineering, history, politics, military matters, law or philosophy.

We all must consult and consider in making key decisions in our lives. Those who do that well do better in everything. Our very progress of civilization and civilized living—our social evolution—depends on impulse control.

And so we come to Elon Musk and his famous Tweet about taking Tesla private. His impulse was not hard to understand. He wanted to punish and deter the short-sellers and doubters, and he wanted to do it decisively. What better way than to disclose that the Saudis had expressed an interest in buying Tesla at a price well above its current market value? The market price would leap, causing short-sellers great loss; likely it would stay high until the going-private deal went through or fell through.

So simple; so seductive. All Musk had to do was send off his Tweet, and his revenge on the short-sellers would be complete. There would be little risk to his company or its stock price. He could work out the details later.

But civilization is complex because modern life is complex. Investing, too, requires rules. CEOs—even brilliant ones like Musk—don’t get to decide whether or when short-selling is right. Markets, regulators and ultimately Congress do. In fact, you might argue that short-selling is a form of free expression protected by our First Amendment. At least those who practice it put their money where their mouths are, a discipline seldom practiced by the average Tweeter.

What irony! Surely Musk, one of the planet’s smartest businessmen today, knew it would take more than that. Surely he knew that going-private deals take months or years to consummate and that a takeover of his strategic company by the Saudis would probably require national-security review. Surely the guy whose name has become a household word for long-term dreams like pollution-free cars, private space travel and trips to Mars is no sucker for instant gratification.

Yet there was Musk, doing the exact same thing that our discipline-free president does so often in the wee hours, when his ego, his temper, and his peeves get the better of him. Why? The answer, I think, is that technology and the Internet have produced a new, unnatural and dangerous impulse that civilization must now learn to control.

It all comes down to dopamine. That’s the neurotransmitter your brain releases when you have completed a task or had a triumph, especially if you feel you’ve done well or done good. Dopamine creates a sensation of pleasure and fulfillment, which makes you want more. It acts like a drug, but it’s a perfectly normal and natural body product.

Dopamine flows when you get a bonus, see a rise in your 401(K), help a friend, win an argument, resolve a problem, or solve a puzzle. It certainly flows if you are successful enough to receive an Academy Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, or a Nobel Prize. Pols get a rush of it when they win an election.

Until this new century, it was hard to get a rush of dopamine by writing a mere 280 characters. You couldn’t make more than a wisecrack with that little dollop of prose. Instead, you had to wait until you finished a whole letter, essay, article or thesis. (You might get a smaller rush of dopamine, after you had finished a paper, in writing the abstract, which carefully summarized all the details and reasoning in a long and thoughtful paper.). Yet today you can get a rush of dopamine for every paragraph you write, as long as you send it as a separate Tweet.

Still, there’s more. The dopamine addiction of our nation doesn’t stop with senders of Tweets. What about the readers? Their reactions explain a lot about the President’s use of Twitter.

Their very shortness makes Tweets perfect instruments for ambiguity and deniable lies. The President can write a Tweet so that two people with differing views both think he supports them. The result: two thoughtless readers get a rush of dopamine, thinking “The President agrees with me!”

Crudely and instinctively, Trump seems to understand this point. That’s why he described the racist violence in Charlottesville as involving “good people . . . on both sides.” Of course the anti-supremacists were too smart to be bought off so easily; most of them were appalled. But people who were bordering on racism, whose racism is unconscious, who harbored doubts about so-called “reverse racism,” or who might have sympathized with the demonstrators for reasons as far afield as preserving Southern culture and history, all got their rush of dopamine, thinking “the Commander-in-Chief shares my views!”

Yet there’s even more. Every re-Tweet, “like” and “follow” provides its own little rush of dopamine. Of course this estimate requires verification by scientific measurement, but I will hazard a guess. The average poster of a mildly successful Tweet probably feels as much of a collective dopamine rush as a professional journalist who finishes a serious, detailed and well-reasoned piece of news or analysis. So simple. So easy. So mindless. A Tweet requires no research, little thought, and even less focus on consequences, just active fingers or thumbs.

Two facts suggest how depressingly right this analysis is. First, Twitter was founded in March 2006. In the mere twelve-plus years of its existence, its use has exploded, precisely among people (including the president) who would no more think of doing serious writing for a living than of engaging in serious scientific research. Second, Tweets have become a major subject of public discussion, displacing reams of careful reporting that used to cover policy statements, major speeches, and actual proposal and passage of laws and regulations.

Just count how many news articles today have actual screen-grabs of Tweets in them! Often the Tweets themselves, not the underlying issues, are the subject of the story. This explosion in the use of Twitter and in its rapid displacement of real news suggest that a lot more is going on in the crania of users than a simple desire to share their views.

One final consequence of Tweeting I know from my personal experience. For twenty-four years, I served as professor of law. In the early years, and sometimes in the later, I had the job of teaching untutored students how to write the kind of tight, persuasive or analytical prose that lawyers use in briefs and office memos.

Often the job was excruciating. Often it took weeks, if not whole semesters, for a single student to master the skill of clear and accurate expression, in logical and persuasive order, let alone to handle objections and counter-arguments effectively and in persuasive order.

None of the memos, briefs or articles that any of my students wrote could possibly have been duplicated in a dozen Tweets, let alone a single one. Tweets have no counter-arguments, little or no reasoning, and even fewer attempts to take account of nuances or opposing views. They are like the “talking points” and “spin” that people like Sarah Huckabee Sanders spend their days spewing, as if they contained important new information or analysis. If they are not mere wisecracks, they are no more than fillers of space and time.

Although Twitter is not a charitable institution, its subversion of the human intellect may not be deliberate. But willy-nilly, it’s destroying our youth’s and our pols’ ability to reason and express themselves coherently, let alone to contain their darker impulses.

It’s addicting them, like experimental monkeys, to repetitive small doses of dopamine. If this trend continues, what’s left of our democracy may come to resemble a troupe of apes in their experimental cages, who continue to press their little metal levers compulsively long after the peanuts have run out.

Who needs opioids when we have Twitter? We can dose ourselves with our own natural dopamine any time we want. We can have painkillers on demand, like post-operative patients pressing their buttons in a surgical ward.

Because it’s natural, dopamine won’t kill us, at least not right away. It might piggyback on our fossil-fuel addiction and sterilize our planet with runaway global warming. It might lead us into nuclear Armageddon with all the bravado and insouciance with which the imperial powers brought us World War I—the most senseless carnage in human history. It might subvert the calm, measured human facility of Reason, developed over ten thousand years. It might make us all more like Donald Trump.

But who wants to kill the party? It feels so good! Even computer-averse Geezers can type a Tweet and enter a hashtag.

Who needs to think? Who needs the tedium of telling every side of a complex story? Just press the “Enter” key and feel the dopamine rush.

Welcome to the world of Twitter, Elon! Have fun picking up the pieces of your business, shattered by your momentary lapse. I hope the dopamine rush was worth the pain, but I doubt it will be.

Footnote: More recent studies cast doubt on whether a child’s impulse control at age three to five is stable into adulthood. Apparently, impulse control, like intelligence, is a product of both nature and nurture. But the more recent studies cast no doubt on the importance of impulse control to the individual, let alone to human civilization.

[For what might happen when Americans awaken to Russian cyber-aggression, click here. For reasons to vote for the blue wave of female candidates, click here. For how Geezers can fight the oligarchs and win, click here. For the threat to our way of life posed by dark cryptocurrency transfers and untraceable and undetectable assault weapons, click here. For reasons why an economic or political crash is coming or imminent, click here. For a brief note on a rare “conservative” who can think, click here. For things corporate CEOs can do to help keep the United States from suffering a decline and fall like ancient Rome’s, click here. For a comparison of quality in pols and reasons to recall our recent past, click here. For reasons why Trump’s trade war is headed toward a disastrous defeat, click here. For a brief note on how corporate rule is encroaching on American cities, click here. For our desperate need for voters to focus on good character, click here. For an analysis of facts and Kim’s myth about North Korea, click here. For a second post on training new voters, click here. A list of links to popular recent posts follows:]

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