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You may have heard of the "invisible gorilla" test. It's a test where researchers ask subjects to watch a short video of people with basketballs and count how many times the ones in white T-shirts pass the ball.
After the video, they ask, "But did you see the gorilla?"
Researchers discovered more than half the subjects watching and counting did not notice a that guy in a gorilla suit walked into frame mid-video, beat his chest at the camera King Kong-style, and walked off the other side. Because their attention was focused on the passes, and because nobody expects to see a gorilla in the frame, people just didn't see the gorilla, even though it was there.
A decade later, taking the "invisible gorilla test" to a new and horrifying level, Harvard researchers found that more than 80 percent of radiologists shown a scan of a human lung with a small but clear picture of a gorilla pasted into it didn't see that gorilla, either. And countless other times, researchers have found strong evidence of this phenomenon they call "selection bias": we only see the things we expect to see, and filter or edit out of our perception things that don't fit.
We do this editing all the time; our memory is less VCR, more Monet painting. In the story we tell ourselves about our lives, for example, we tend to hold on to the pieces that conform to the way we see ourselves as the heroes of our personal narratives and forget--or at least blame The Other Guy -- times we acted un-heroically.
Narrative, if you listen to modern psychology, is a fundamental part of how human brains navigate the world, not just by setting ourselves as protagonists in a life-long tale running in our heads, but also in how we interpret and understand the things we see around us. It's called "narrative bias."
This is especially true when the narratives are not just any story, but well-known tropes: People see the Virgin Mary on their grilled cheese sandwiches all the time, but never the main character from "War and Peace" (whoever that is; I haven't read it either).
In last week's column, I dropped in what might have seemed an off-hand remark, that I was careful not to think of the conflict in the story of the school board president versus a lone newspaper reporter as a David and Goliath tale. If I had, there really could only be one way that story ends, and no ambiguity about who is the hero and who the villain. It would not have been fair to the school board president or, importantly, to my readers, if I just told that story without thinking.
All of this is a long way of introducing what you already knew this column was about from its headline: One key reason Scott Walker won last week was the narrative that he was the plucky underdog against a giant and unstoppable Goliath. Regardless of whether the voters agreed with Walker's actual policies on everything from the minimum wage to school funding, they voted for him anyway because of the story being told.
I mean, his book was called "Unintimidated," and its biggest fabrications were designed to make him look like the victim of a huge violent conspiracy, but thank goodness he fought back.
And if it's not an actual angry mob he's fighting, it's a virtual one. His victory speech last week featured a long and heartfelt section on how "Washington-based special interests" came in and spent "a lot of money and time in the state."
"You see," Walker said, "those big-government special interests spent tens of millions of dollars, bought all sorts of ads." But he stood up to them! He had his small but mighty slingshot of hope and he slew that Washington Goliath.
The reality, of course, is that if there were a Goliath in the race -- and to be clear, I don't think this election, or any election, should be reduced to such clichés but rather treated as a unique narrative of its own--if there were a Goliath in the 2014 Wisconsin governor's race, it was Walker himself. Start with how Walker had the power not just of incumbency but also a Republican wave election and the "sixth year curse" of Obama's presidential administration.
But also Walker and his allies vastly outspent Mary Burke and hers, including the "all sorts of ads" that were without question dominated by Walker and groups supporting him. Even when it seemed like Walker wouldn't get support from some big-money "Washington" groups like the Republican Governors Association, Walker's team was able to spin that into a David vs. Goliath moment, too.
All of those parts of reality, the ones that don't work with the narrative being peddled, simply don't get noticed. Like the invisible gorilla, the uncomfortable facts stroll past unnoticed because everyone is paying attention to the spunky young David of Scott Walker taking on the special-interest Goliath of unions and big government.
This is an irresistible narrative. Many of us in the voting public see the narratives of our own personal lives as that kind of us-against-Goliath story. It is no accident that the yard signs and bumper stickers all said the homeowner or driver was proud to "Stand With Scott Walker;" we're on the same underdog side against the vast, powerful hordes of liberalism, is what it means.
A friend of mine told me a story last week of how her mother voted for Walker, not because of the issues, but because she, like Walker, felt like a powerless victim of "the union," though over something that happened decades ago. And while the plural of anecdote is not data -- I know that as well as anyone -- you can bet across the state that story was spun over and over in voting booths last Tuesday. The truth about what Walker and the Republican party will do, and have already done, to set this state back a hundred years just didn't make it to the conscious mind of voters who, instead, saw in Walker someone like themselves, and wanted to see David win for once.
Here's another classic narrative: I couldn't reach Aesop's fabled grapes, so now I am pouting and telling myself that they were probably sour anyway. Maybe! I'm not so un-self aware as to not suspect that of my own thinking here.
Still, the story being written today of Wisconsin under Republican rule is, apparently, not over. And I fear where the plot will take us next.