Cracked on Culture

A review of the Cracked Podcast, by Stephen Heap.

We typically study social learning and cultural evolution with an eye on the big picture, yet it’s easy to forget that these processes are always working to shape our environment. Even so, culture is becoming ever more aware of itself and now provides its own running commentary. People everywhere are interested in social learning and culture and want to engage with it, with entire industries developing around the discussion of pop culture. If we as scientists pay attention to the kind of questions being asked in these domains, we can find a wealth of exciting research opportunities and more deeply engage with a curious public.

Case in point is the Cracked Podcast, an offshoot from the comedy website, which was an offshoot from a magazine that was a poor man’s version of the classic satire Mad Magazine. These days, Cracked remains a popular purveyor of pop culture analysis, portrayed through the lens of comedy.

Although the articles are written for entertainment, the editorial vision maintains the thesis that many of our models for social learning are found outside our own personal experience, and instead lie in the tropes, characters, and themes of the culture we consume. Because these cultural products constrain their own systemic biases, people are apt to learn a distorted view of reality.

Many articles on the site interpret what is being communicated in pop culture with reference to movie tropes and cultural artifacts (rather than to experimentation or theoretical models), but are all the same attempting to understand the questions of information and influence faced by social learning researchers.

The podcast takes the issues raised in these analytical articles for further discussion. A recent episode had presenters Jack O’Brien, Jason Pargin (aka David Wong) and Alex Schmidt (aka Schmitty the Clam) questioning how society has come to perceive the act of invention. To many people, invention is seen as something that happens in short periods of time with little effort, most often by a singular white-haired genius and set to an entertaining montage. This contrasts with the fact that most new innovations are the product of large collective efforts and thousands of grueling hours coping with trial-and-error.

How does pop culture influence the way we think about ‘invention’? Image by Barbara A Lane from Pixabay

The premise of their argument is that an individual’s perception of the world is largely built on tropes developed in fiction. Not only are people immersed in fictional events that establish their mental representation of the world, but non-fiction borrows these story structures to make their product appealing or digestible. History, biography, and current evens are all commonly portrayed using culturally established story arcs. The dark side of this practice is that our social policies are often justified by simplified fictional scenarios rather than a more nuanced understanding of the truth. The problem emerges because the truth is often far too complex and too full of loose ends for us to efficiently communicate, and as such it is easily outcompeted by simplistic story structures that appeal to our pre-existing biases.

The discussion covers many points of interest to social learning research, including the cultural selection of specific types of demonstrator, and how individual biases in choosing a learning model can have consequences for a population. There’s also an entertaining discussion on the nature of innovation and its reliance on social learning, with references to Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Iron Man among others.

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The podcast is here:

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About the author

Stephen Heap is a freelance scholar working from his wandering office in Finland. His scientific background is in biological information use, multilevel selection and human sociality. He has studied in and around the Universities of Melbourne, Florida State, St. Andrews and Jyväskylä. His current position is on the streets.