Unintended Consequences of Abstraction

When I was a student of sociology in the early 1970s, one of the sociologists I studied was Robert Merton.  Merton’s contributions to sociology were many, including the concepts of the self-fulfilling prophesy, role models, and reference groups.  I’ve long since forgotten most of what I learned about Merton’s contributions to sociology, other than the fact that he played a highly significant role in the development of the discipline.  His contribution that has me thinking this morning, though, is the concept of unintended consequences.

It occurred to me, after reading and listening to seemingly never-ending arguments about the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, that the advent and subsequent advancement of almost instant mass communication may have had many unintended consequences, among them:

  • The state of affairs in which there exists a public whose level of understanding about societal issues is far broader than before the era of mass communication but is shallow;
  • The emergence of “experts” whose levels of knowledge are only slightly deeper than that of the public;
  • The ability of governments and others to use ready access to “information” as a tool to prop up support for specific positions (here, I refer to entities taking advantage of instant access to information by “manufacturing” biased “facts”); and
  • The outgrowth of an heretofore unknown level of comfort with abstract thought, to the extent that abstraction can sometimes provide insulation from reality.

The personalization of mass communication, e.g., Facebook and Twitter, etc., seem to me to have accelerated the last item on my list of unintended consequences.

While these concepts are just that…concepts…and are admittedly in their infancy (where most of my brilliant concepts tend to stay), the idea that a growing comfort with abstraction can be a negative thing is especially appealing to me.  Humans’ abstract thinking ability is among those characteristics that “set us apart,” and, therefore, is widely lauded as having been a positive development in the advancement of our species.  But I wonder whether unchecked abstraction might distance a person from some of what I consider some of the finer traits of humanity like empathy.

To illustrate, I’ll use a far-fetched example. If I see a pedestrian struck by a car, one reaction might be to call 911, attempt to stop any bleeding, offer words of support and comfort, and so one.

Another reaction, one informed by an overabundance of abstract thought, might be to try to analyze how fast the car must have been going to throw the person the distance he or she flew, to look at the obvious injury and think of what sort of internal injuries might be masked beneath the outflow of blood, and to estimate the amount of time it might take, at the current rate of blood-loss,  for the person’s blood level to reach the point at which the person cannot regain consciousness.  While those abstractions may well be important to law enforcement and medical professionals in a specific setting, they could prove fatal to the victim if they replaced what I call the “gut” reaction.

In the context of Zimmerman/Martin, the abstractions seem to fuse with emotions to create a potentially deadly set of circumstances.  In one camp are people who instinctively support “stand your ground” laws and who might say suspicion about a Black youth walking in the rain is understandable.  In another camp are people who wince at wielding a gun on a public street and who believe Black youth in any setting are subject to stereotyping.  When those emotional reactions, especially if uniformed by facts, combine with “dispassionate” abstractions that paint a picture of what “could have” happened, people can believe the pictures they paint reflect reality.  Their ability to think abstractly, combined with the baggage of bias, allows them to arrive at the “truth” in ways that they believe are absolutely rational and supported by the “facts.”  In those cases, the facts are arrived at through abstract thoughts, thoughts that analyze what happened.

What does mass communication have to do with this?  In my view, the immediacy of information and disinformation instantly begins to shape the ways in which people think about the world around them.  The information from the traditional media is impersonal, but instantaneous.  The information from Twitter feeds and Facebook feeds is personal and instantaneous.  There’s little time for recipients to digest what they see or hear before more information speeds their way. Their biases are triggered and reinforced.  They may attempt real, unbiased analysis, but the calls for their reaction come swiftly, so they have to choose, probably unconsciously, whether to engage in real, unbiased assessment or to permit the biased abstractions to take hold.  More often than not, the biased abstractions do take hold.

Ultimately, then, our ability to think abstractly tends to move us away from our ability to think rationally.  And as our comfort with thinking abstractly increases, our comfort with unbiased rationality decreases.

This entire post may be bullshit, but it’s the sort of thing that I loved about sociology and psychology classes; they stretched my mind and caused me to think about things I wouldn’t otherwise think about.  On the other hand, as I think back to those classes and to the people who taught them, I wonder whether I should have been concerned, back then, with whether my professors lived too much in the world of abstraction and too little in reality. And, if so, how much of my reality today has been twisted by my own ability to think abstractly?

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to Unintended Consequences of Abstraction

  1. Thanks, Juan. One of my stream of consciousness “spillage” posts!

  2. jserolf says:

    John: This is an excellent piece here!

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