The New Social Dilemma- Fake News! Explained
“Remembrance of the things past is not necessarily the remembrance of the things as they were” -Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way
A Samurai is found dead in a quiet bamboo grove. One by one, the crime,s only witnesses recount their version of the events that transpired. But as they each tell their tale, it becomes clear that every testimony is plausible, yet different. And each witness implicates themselves. This is the Premise of “In a Grove”, a short story published in the early 1920s by Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Though many know this tale of warring perspective by a different name: “Rashomon”. In 1950, Japanese Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa adapted two of Akutagawa’s stories into one film. this Movie Introduced the world to an enduring cultural metaphor that transformed our understanding of truth, justice & human Memory. The Rashomon Effect describes a situation in which an individual gives significantly different but equally conceivable accounts of the same event.
Often used to highlight the unreliability of eyewitnesses, the Rashomon effect usually occurs under two specific conditions. The first: there's no evidence to verify what really happened. Ant the second: there’s pressure to achieve closure, often provided by an authority figure trying to identify the definitive truth. But the Rashomon Effect Undermines the very idea of a singular, object truth. Similarly, people use the tools of their media to give each character's testimony equal weight, transforming each witness into an unreliable narrator. Without any hints on who’s sharing the most accurate account, the audience can’t tell which story to trust, leading today's audience to break down into small groups fighting their owned trusted truth. Hence, each testimony takes on a truthful quality, and the audience is left doubting their convictions as they guess who ended the samurai’s life. Some might find this frustrating because the plot subverts expectations of how mysteries usually end. But by refusing to provide a clear answer, today's media channels capture the messiness & complexity of the truth & human memory.
Neuroscientists have found that when we form a memory our interpretation of the visual information is influenced by our previous experiences & internal biases. Some of these biases are unique to individuals, but others are more universal. For example, egocentric bias can influence people to subconsciously reshape their memories in ways that cast a positive light on their actions. Even if we were able to encode a memory accurately, recalling it incorporates new information that changes the memory. And when we later recall the event, we typically remember the embellished memory instead of the original experience. Thus it is entirely possible that an event may be described in different ways by different people without any of the witnesses consciously lying.
These underlying psychological phenomena mean the Rashomon Effect can pop up anywhere. This effect can make a huge impact on the general public, particularly when it comes to the perception of complicated world events & discussing this in the context of the current uphold of influencer’s & manipulating social media handles to continuously attract attention to achieve their personnel goals are deepening this effect to a extend of infinite blur from the real truth. It’s tempting to fixate on why we have competing perceptions, but perhaps the more important question that the Rashomon effect raises is, what is truth anyway? Are there situations when the “objective truth” doesn't exist? What can different versions of the same event tell us about the time, place & people involved? And how can we make group decisions if we’re all working with different information, backgrounds, & biases?
Like most questions, these don’t have a definitive answer. But the enduring importance of Akutagawa’s Story suggests that may be value in embracing the ambiguity. When it comes to determining the truth ambiguity or unanimity? Strangely enough closer you get to a total agreement, the less trustworthy a result becomes. Unpack the counterintuitive paradox of unanimity with this blog.