That ability can be hugely beneficial – but also harmful, particularly in politics.
Twitter-like thinking – the kind that relies on quick intuition and impulse – can work well when we’re playing sports, for instance. Athletes develop a sense of when they can score a goal or steal third base without doing cost-benefit analyses.
Public life is different. Impulse reacting draws on stereotypes and mental shortcuts that can mislead us when we apply them to political questions. It is better to engage a more deliberative and reasoned approach, thinking things through and seeking additional information.
For instance, picture Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announcing another effort to inject money into the economy. Reasoned thinking may tell us to study the effects of previous efforts. Twitter-think may tell us automatically to accept or reject whatever the Fed chairman says, whatever the quality of his argument. Or it may just tell us never to trust a guy with a beard.
Despite its obvious defects, impulse thinking often prevails in the new world of instant communications. Believing that faster is better, journalists and political figures feel constant pressure to express themselves on anything and everything at the speed of a mouse click. The resulting commentary is long on reflex and short on reflection.
A shrill feedback cycle is at work: Hasty reactions to hasty reactions to hasty reactions. Without clearance from the State Department, a diplomat in Egypt rushes to tweet about an anti-Islam YouTube video. The Romney campaign rushes to attack the tweet. The Obama campaign rushes to criticize the Romney attack. Journalists rush to weigh the political consequences of the campaign exchange. For days, meanwhile, serious questions about terrorism and embassy security get too little attention.
Political polarization heats up when discourse moves faster than the speed of rational thought. Given a chance to consider an issue carefully, people may see the strengths and weaknesses of each side. But when they respond immediately, they will cheer for the home team and boo the opposition.
This tendency is especially strong during the “live-blogging” of a speech or debate. We will often read “Wow!” “Yea!” “LOL!” or “Unbelievable!” We will seldom see a commentator saying, “Gee, I wonder what will be said next. Let’s all sleep on it.”
A recent Gallup survey shows that distrust of the mass media is at a record high. Polarization is one reason, since conservatives and liberals both perceive media bias that favors the other side, and they point to it. Moreover, people of all persuasions know that the mainstream press is not as thorough or thoughtful as it used to be. Reporters are reacting to what they see online, then posting their own stuff in hopes of keeping up.
As Jay Root writes in his wonderful new book on the Rick Perry campaign, “We’re not so much reporting the news as blurting it.” Even basic factual accuracy can suffer. Racing for a scoop this summer, CNN and Fox News initially – and falsely – reported that the Supreme Court had struck down the comprehensive health care law.
Of course, the Internet also brings huge benefits. It is now possible to access more kinds of information than ever before in history. But most people have neither the time nor the know-how to sort through the countless government documents and scholarly studies available online. They have to rely on public figures and news organizations that are the objects of distrust or partisan scorn.
As columnist and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan has written, “Someday we’ll be told something true that we need to know and we won’t believe that either.”
Long before anyone could have imagined the technological marvels that we carry in our pockets, the Framers understood the risk of hasty judgment. In Federalist 71, Alexander Hamilton wrote:
“When occasions present themselves, in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests, to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.”
The moral is that public figures, reporters, and commentators of all kinds should take a breath and think before they post. Slow down, because speed kills.