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Cancerous Narratives

We all know the scientific name for our species: Homo sapiens, or the intelligent ape.

It seems possible that, in our collective arrogance, we may have misnamed ourselves.

Professor Walter R. Fischer, late of The Annenberg School at U. Penn, proposed the name Homo narrans instead. It means the story-tellers. He argued that narration was the most central quality defining our species, and I think he’s right. We’re not all great thinkers, but we do love a good story! Culture, religion and politics all arise from our love of narrative. I’m down with that in principle at least, being a writer myself.

We bond together by telling stories about ourselves. We rally against others by telling stories about them.

Fisher’s name for us is peculiarly relevant now that one of our major political parties is simply making up fantastical stories left and right.

Take the recent assertion by Trump that forty million immigrants flooded across our southern border last year like an ‘invading army’ to take social benefits from good, upstanding Americans. The assertion is of course nonfactual. First, illegal immigrants don’t file for social security or health benefits. Second, the numbers entering the country are less than a tenth of what he claims and not so very out of line with historical figures. Third, the main demographic challenge facing our nation is that we’re aging—and a good source of eager-to-work youth who can prop up the economy for us in our old age is immigration.

But who wants to let a few facts get in the way of a good story?

In The Art of Political Storytelling (Bloomsbury, 2020), Philip Seargeant of the Open University (Milton Keynes, England) reaches the obvious conclusion that many of today’s most successful politicians are seeking the most memorable yarn with which to associate themselves.

As an author who’s published both nonfiction and fiction, I’m attached to the distinction between them. My fiction is fantasy novels for kids. It’s completely separate from my nonfiction: How-to books on leadership and other grown-up topics. When I’m writing about leadership, I stay in that lane. I don’t get confused and start thinking that some evil sorcerer has cast a spell over us.

Psychologists recognize something called the fantasy-prone personality (FPP) disorder. As the name suggests, it involves difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality. Is that the reason we see so much delusional thinking in politics and poll results today?

Perhaps not. According to the foundational work on FPP by psychologists Sheryl C. Wilson and Theodore X. Barber, no more than 4% of the adult U.S. population suffer from this disorder. Yet 40% believe that a massive conspiracy was engineered to steal the last presidential election. How can we account for this ten-fold excess of fantastical thinking?

It could be that people are jumping onto the bandwagon because they have a profit motive in doing so. Is that the missing factor in my statistical analysis? Certainly the practice of story-based political appeals is highly Machiavellian: To use stories (no matter how fantastical) in the pursuit of political power for oneself, and economic gains for one’s deep-pocket donors. But how many people actually benefited from Trumpian tax cuts and deregulation?

Only a tenth of a percent of Americans have a yearly income of a million dollars or more. It’s this top-of-the-heap that benefitted (in the short term at least) from tax changes made under President Trump, and it includes executives of corporations that (again in the short term) may have profited from curbs to consumer protection and the pillaging of the planet.

Of course, poisoning the well hurts everyone in the end and some very wealthy people do not want to ruin the planet and hurt their consumers just to make more profits this quarter. But if half of those high-income individuals are so impulsive, selfish and lacking in vision that they want to get a little richer now even if it means they’ll feel a recoil in the future, that could explain some more of the support for political fantasies. We can estimate that about one-twentieth of a percent of our nation’s adult population reasons the conservative agenda will profit them personally.

That’s about 1,300,000 people, which is admittedly a lot, especially if they are very rich and powerful. But that leaves another 257,000,000 adult Americans who by any logical argument have nothing to gain from buying into these political fantasies.

Some of these remaining– 4% according to the psychologists–probably suffer from FPP and thus are easily drawn into fantasies despite any real economic self-interest. Which brings us down to a remaining 246,720,000 adult citizens who really should not have any truck with the Republican fantasies–and yet 35-plus percent of them do.

To make that number easier to compare to poll data, about 96% of the adult population of the country have neither the economic self-interest nor the personality disorder to explain why they’d jump on the fantasy bandwagon. Logically, we should see no more than 4% support for the Republican suite of political fantasies. And yet…

Last year about 35% of poll respondents said they believed the election was stolen. This year, the number has gotten up to 40% in some polls. Not only is this ten times the support you’d expect based on the twin predictors of personality disorder and extreme wealth, it’s also trending upward despite more evidence accumulating to debunk the fantasies.

Why do so many people seem to go directly against their own self-interest? Are fantastical stories so compelling that they capture the minds of tens of millions of people who (a) aren’t included in the intended gains and (b) aren’t actually suffering from a serious personality disorder?

That is the 256-million-person question confronting us today.

To answer it, we have to recall another psychology lesson: The Fundamental Attribution Error. That’s the bias we all have to assume behaviors are about the people themselves. In other words, we attribute cause to something internal. So-and-so did that because they’re crazy, evil, sick, or dumb. Actually, much of what drives us is external. The environment. The situation. We must ask, what are the outside stimuli to which millions of ordinary people are reacting?

One factor may be the surround-sound of stories flooding into people’s consciousness on their media streams. Whether it’s preferred posts on social media or where they get their news, people are being fed stories at an unprecedented rate.

A Public Religion Research Institute poll late last year found that 82% of Fox News viewers say they believe the election was stolen. And Fox, whose prime-time broadcast is watched by more than two million people a day, hammers the stolen-election story constantly. It’s fair to say that their viewers are being steeped in fantasy stories, and should be expected to show some mental stains as a result.

There’s another dimension to the current rise of fantastical political narratives. I’m thinking about an odd overlap between research on con artists, and the current crop of fantasy-spewing politicians. Successful con artists have the so-called dark triad of personality traits: functional psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. When I think about the politicians spinning the threads of today’s dominant fantasies, all would probably qualify as high on these three traits too.

Did you know that annually about 30 million Americans fall prey to a financial fraud? I’m sure there are other cons going on too, but I don’t have the stats on them. Anyway, the point is, con artists are able to sell fantasies to tens of millions of people who will not benefit from the con and who are not predisposed to fantasy due to the FPP disorder.

Here is a parallel phenomenon that happens on a scale equal to the conspiracy theories of the new breed of Republican politicians. The art of the con is a multiplier capable of increasing the acceptability of fantasies by an order of magnitude.

When you combine the media’s new ability to surround people in saturated story-telling with the skills and personality traits of con artists turned politicians, the wholesale falling for ridiculous and destructive fantasies actually makes sense.

But not in a good way. It’s understandable in the same way as metastasized cancer. We can see how it happens and anticipate its progress. What we don’t see, however, is an obvious cure.

After all, we are Homo narrans, the story-tellers, and this is at once our greatest strength and, it turns out, our greatest weakness. Perhaps the only real remedy is to tell competing stories that are healthier in nature.

And certainly we should never let someone with a strong self-interest define the narratives by which we vote, live, and die. No matter what else we do or don’t teach in our schools, I hope this lesson can be considered core.

Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and The Oxford Adventure (available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon, or at your local bookstore). He’s also a parent and teacher who currently lives in Putney, Vermont.

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