Flame Wars, Egocentrism, and Left Versus Right

Ted Barlow, lamenting that he gets no praise from the Right when he defends President Bush, writes,

What I’ve noticed, over and over, is that the bloggers on the left link to you when they agree and ignore the disagreements, and the bloggers on the right link only for the things they disagree with, to denounce you with short posts saying you’re evil/stupid/crazy, and don’t even seem to notice all the times you’ve written posts that take their side. Why is this happening? I find it terribly, terribly sad, and in no way transparently self-serving.

The link is to a two-week old post by Ann Althouse, which he parodies in the above quote. Her post, in turn, contains a number of updates linking to other bloggers’ take on the subject, including Steven Taylor‘s:

Certainly we all get caught up in our “side” of issues, but usually the world isn’t really confined to two clear “sides.” More likely than not there is a spectrum of positions on a given topic and sometimes the only way (certainly, normally at least, the best way) to fully understand an issue is through vigorous discussion. Why is it that so many are afraid of that? (and I don’t cast this critique at any particular portion of the ideological spectrum).

Writing in Wired News, Stephen Leahy has a plausible explanation that may mollify both Left and Right:

According to recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, I’ve only a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any e-mail message. The study also shows that people think they’ve correctly interpreted the tone of e-mails they receive 90 percent of the time. “That’s how flame wars get started,” says psychologist Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, who conducted the research with Justin Kruger of New York University. “People in our study were convinced they’ve accurately understood the tone of an e-mail message when in fact their odds are no better than chance,” says Epley.

The researchers took 30 pairs of undergraduate students and gave each one a list of 20 statements about topics like campus food or the weather. Assuming either a serious or sarcastic tone, one member of each pair e-mailed the statements to his or her partner. The partners then guessed the intended tone and indicated how confident they were in their answers. Those who sent the messages predicted that nearly 80 percent of the time their partners would correctly interpret the tone. In fact the recipients got it right just over 50 percent of the time. “People often think the tone or emotion in their messages is obvious because they ‘hear’ the tone they intend in their head as they write,” Epley explains. At the same time, those reading messages unconsciously interpret them based on their current mood, stereotypes and expectations. Despite this, the research subjects thought they accurately interpreted the messages nine out of 10 times.

The reason for this is egocentrism, or the difficulty some people have detaching themselves from their own perspective, says Epley. In other words, people aren’t that good at imagining how a message might be understood from another person’s perspective. “E-mail is very easy to misinterpret, which not only triggers flame wars but lots of litigation,” says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the e-Policy Institute and author of guidebooks E-Mail Rules and Instant Messaging Rules. Many companies battle workplace lawsuits triggered by employee e-mail, according to Flynn. People write absolutely, incredibly stupid things in company e-mails,” said Flynn.

Now, certainly, blog posts tend to be longer than emails. Still, readers often have far less context in which to place blog posts than they do with e-mails, since they presumably know their correspondent better. Further, blog authors–myself included–often presume that readers have been around for awhile and have read enough previous blog posts that we have written to supply missing context.

In fact, most visitors only come by occasionally and lack that context. This is especially true of readers and bloggers from the other side of the aisle, who tend to come by only from following links from Memeorandum or another blog or aggregator. The only context they bring is “Right wing blogger X” or “Left wing blogger Y” and they therefore attribute the worst possible motives.

This explains why, for example, Glenn Reynolds gets tons of emails condemning him for not condemning Ann Coulter even though he has in fact condemned Ann Coulter numerous times and anyone who reads him on even a semi-regular basis would take his condemnation of Ann Coulter as a given. And it explains why, after a several paragraph post explaining just that, an intelligent lefty commentator like Glen Greenwald would find that explanation inadequate and rip off a nineteen paragraph post explaining why.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Greenwald begins with the premise that Coulter is “the leader of a substantial faction in Reynolds’ political party.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    Well, this clearly relates to recent threads on self-described conservatives being ostracized by the “conservative movement” for any criticism of Bush & co.

    While I don’t see myself as particularly representative of any group, I am fully capable of simultaneously loving my country and hating the people currently running it. I recognize that there is a vast difference between the two. Many of the more… vocal members of the Right these days cannot grasp that difference. Ergo, any criticism of Bush is a de facto criticism of America in their eyes.

  2. MattK says:

    Of course, it doesn’t help that Greenwald begins with the premise that Coulter is “the leader of a substantial faction in ReynoldsÂ’ political party.”

    At the very least, Coulter is a leader of a substantial faction of your own commenters.

    You may not like it, but you’ll need to actually demonstrate how Greenwald’s premise is innaccurate.

  3. floyd says:

    mr. taylor makes a good point. as i’ve always said, there are 360 degrees in a circle, so what do you mean by “both sides” of an issue?