The Ugliest Game of Telephone: The Way I Hear It, Our Enemies Are to Blame

New research suggests bias accumulates as stories get passed down from one person to another.
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(Photo: Andrekart Photography/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Andrekart Photography/Shutterstock)

We’ve all seen it happen: A simple dispute grows into a major controversy. As news spreads, antagonistic attitudes harden, and soon an argument among a handful of individuals is viewed as a symbolic struggle between “us” and “them.”

What’s behind this destructive dynamic? New research suggests at least part of the answer lies in the way we tell, and retell, stories.

It finds that the more often a tale gets repeated, the more skewed it becomes, with each new version distorting the facts a bit more.

As a result, one of the parties involved—the one the storyteller and listener inherently identify with—is increasingly portrayed in a more favorable light. Within just a few tellings, an ambiguous event is transformed into a clear-cut case of “our side” being wronged.

Of course, we all know that stories get distorted in the retelling. But this research suggests this distortion sometimes takes a very specific form, erasing ambiguity and painting “our” side in an ever-more-positive light.

That’s the conclusion of a research team led by psychologists Tiane Lee and Michele Gelfand of the University of Maryland-College Park. In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the researchers describe an experiment that demonstrates one unfortunate way stories get distorted as word is passed from person to person.

For their study, which featured 196 undergraduates, the researchers created a narrative about a dispute between two groups of young people. It described four specific points of tension, but left purposely ambiguous the issue of which party was the aggressor, and “depicted the groups as equally blameworthy.”

Half of the participants read a version of the story in which the two hostile groups were from two Maryland cities. The other half read a version in which one group was from the city of Gaithersburg, but the other was identified as “your friends.”

Participants were assigned a position between one and four. Those in the first position read the initial version of the story, and then “re-told” it in their own words by writing their version of the events. This was passed on to the person in the second position, who did the same.

The procedure was repeated until all four people had created their own versions of the story. Each new version was then examined for subtle shifts in emphasis, blame, and wording.

The results: Each “partisan communicator”—that is, each student who wrote about the incident involving his or her “friends”—“contributed small distortions that, when accumulated, produced a highly biased, inaccurate representation of the original dispute,” the researchers write.

According to the researchers, “the accumulation of distortions led to group-level biases that emerged over time, and far exceeded initial bias.” This dynamic did not occur among those who read, and repeated, the version of the story in which both parties were outsiders.

“The findings strongly suggest that third parties to a conflict should be skeptical when listening to conflict narratives, and to question their authenticity,” Lee and her colleagues conclude.

Of course, we all know that stories get distorted in the retelling. But this research suggests this distortion sometimes takes a very specific form, erasing ambiguity and painting “our” side in an ever-more-positive light.

Pass the word.

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