Why Some Narratives Are So Easy to Fall For

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Who really benefits from remote work? Is it true that politicians have to be anti-immigration to win elections? Each episode of Good on Paper, the new podcast hosted by my colleague Jerusalem Demsas, delves into a misunderstood policy issue that deserves more nuanced analysis. I spoke with Jerusalem about how some narratives get lodged in the public’s mind and the dangers of stories that feel true but aren’t.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

A Way to Simplify

Stephanie Bai: Why do you think certain narratives can become so entrenched, even if the facts don’t support them? And why are other narratives more likely to fade?

Jerusalem Demsas: Narratives are a way of simplifying a really complicated world. Compelling ones follow story structures that we’re used to seeing: a villain and a hero, a bad developer versus a mother who’s struggling to get her kids through college. These kinds of narratives are compelling because there’s a spark of truth in them, which is that there are power struggles in the world; there are winners and losers. Many narratives stick because they reaffirm our own opinions and views, but that can be really dangerous: Just because something feels true doesn’t mean that it is.

The narratives that don’t stick are usually the ones that are more complicated. There isn’t always a clear-cut good guy and bad guy. Often we’re just existing in systems where a bunch of people act in their own self-interest; some of them are trying to do good, but people have different conceptions of what good is. Trying to describe a world full of that kind of complexity is not as satisfying.

Stephanie: In your recent story about maternal mortality, you talk about the doom-and-gloom framing that activists can use to spotlight issues. What are some of the counterproductive consequences of that approach that people might not expect?

Jerusalem: There’s this perception, which can be right in the short term, that if you say, “A bridge is going to collapse,” it’s going to get more attention than a report that says there are some structural deficiencies in America’s infrastructure.

But in the longer term, that first framing really erodes trust between the people who are trying to get attention for their cause and the people who are trying to triage different issues. Because at the end of the day, there are finite amounts of time and resources. Policy makers have to choose which problems to prioritize, meaning that something else will lose out. So if established organizations or journalists are constantly pushing out this narrative that everything’s on fire, it impedes policy makers from making any sort of ordering decisions. They might try to do everything at once or prioritize the wrong things, which can lead to chaos.

Stephanie: In your first episode, you discuss a study that found that senior women engineers at an unnamed Fortune 500 company were more productive when they worked remotely because they were spending less time on mentorship and giving feedback. But a prevailing narrative that took off during the pandemic is that women working from home are doubly burdened: They have to juggle child care and deal with the usual work responsibilities. As more research gets done on this topic, what are the next questions on your mind when it comes to how remote work affects women?

Jerusalem: When we ask, Is remote work working for women?, we’re also asking, Are they fulfilled? Is it true that remote work is making it possible for them to be more flexible, go pick their kids up from school, or hang out with their friends in their free time? Also, though it’s the case that mentorship is uncompensated by most employers, there’s a lot of connection that more experienced workers derive from that type of work. Some people have responded to my podcast saying that they miss that aspect of their work, even though they resented not being paid for it.

I think it’s really important to start from the question: What do we want work to do for people’s lives? Does that differ by industry?

Stephanie: What’s an idea or narrative that sounded good on paper to you but might not warrant a whole podcast episode?

Jerusalem: The idea that pass/fail classes are easy and not stressful. I took Mandarin pass/fail my senior year of college, thinking it would be a low-stakes way of learning a little bit of an important language. I ended up in the terrible middle space of devoting enough time to the class so as not to fail yet not devoting enough time to truly pick up a little Mandarin. What do I remember? Wǒ bú huì shuō zhōngwén.


Today’s News

  1. Hunter Biden was convicted on three felony charges related to the purchase and possession of a handgun.
  2. Hamas said that it was willing to accept the UN Security Council’s U.S.-backed resolution for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza as the basis for further negotiations, according to Reuters. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has neither officially accepted nor rejected the proposal.
  3. The Biden administration announced a proposal that would prevent credit-reporting agencies from using medical debt to calculate credit scores.

Evening Read

A orange, red, and yellow photo collage of various new country musical performers
Illustration by Paul Spella / The Atlantic*

The Next Great American Mega-Genre

By Spencer Kornhaber

If you ask Americans about their favorite genre of music, the top pick tends to be classic rock. But if you ask them which genre is “most representative of America today,” you get basically a split: 36 percent say country, while 37 percent say rap/hip-hop, according to a 2023 poll from the research firm YouGov … These findings would seem to support various preconceptions about a red/rural America and a blue/urban America, united only in affection for “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

But what if these genres needn’t be all that separate? What if hip-hop and country merged into something that felt like classic rock? The idea sounds like it would be profitable for the record industry—and it might be what’s happening now.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

The US cricket team celebrates after a win against India
Tony Gutierrez / AP

Cheer along. Team USA’s historic win in the current global cricket tournament was a shot heard around the world, Joseph O’Neill writes. Now it just needs a domestic audience.

Watch. Ishana Night Shyamalan’s debut film, The Watchers, finds a careful balance between the freaky and the mundane, David Sims writes.

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