Hype Aversion: the curmudgeon’s guide to the #IceBucketChallenge

“But it’s all in good fun! And it’s for a great cause!”

If you’ve found yourself on the receiving end of these rationalizations, you are not alone.  If your Facebook feed is filled with shocked-but-not-shocked faces beneath cataracts of chilly water – celebrities great and small, politicians and friends – and it leaves you with even less reason to check Facebook, you are not alone.

What you may be experiencing is a phenomenon sometimes called “Hype Aversion.” It is the idea that it is the social promotion of an idea, more than the idea itself, that you find repellent. The social pressure, the constant discussion, the inescapable nature of a ubiquitous social event makes you ill. If you’re like me, you might feel it better to be anti-social than get swept under what feels like an ever-widening storm. Because most shockingly of all, your friends seem to be having such a moonishly lovely time as they succumb.

The Ice Bucket Challenge

Credit where credit is due: the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has done amazing things for the fight against a somewhat obscure and oft-overlooked issue, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In a world overflowing with worthy causes, this worthy cause is getting the attention it deserves. At last check, the ALS Association has raised as much as $40m from folks taking an icy bath on camera.

“They’re brilliant,” says Professor Melissa Brown of the College at Brockport, “I’m not sure they thought about it like this, but humans are a pack animal. And we tend to look first to our alphas for direction.”

And so, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge started with Kennedys, Jimmy Fallon and a host of alpha-celebs taking their respective plunges first. And in our everyone-is-a-celebrity social networking culture, the tide moved rather rapidly down the scale until it finally hit me.

I’ll admit that, after a couple cocktails, the vanity of being called out by Jennae Moran was almost too much to resist. Jennae is Rochester’s resident lioness of Autism awareness, and a friendly voice on social. In fact, she knows me only because of the work I’ve done on social media. Out of any number of people she could have picked, she picked me. How could I possibly say “no,” to that?

Because it was for a good cause. Because it was all in good fun. Because vanity. For giving to a charity, I’m to be given a little squirt of endorphins. The Ice Bucket Challenge really does work.

Conformity, Cognitive Dissonance and Justification

Ultimately, I did say no. A well-placed, disapproving eye-roll shocked me out of my revery.

But before you and I go sulking into our selfish little uncaring corners, my dear fellow curmudgeon, consider what we already know about what social pressure does to the mind. Professor Brown referred me to the Asch Paradigm.

Back in the 1950’s, researcher Solomon Asch put subjects into a room with what those subjects believed were fellow participants in a study. But those fellow participants turned out to be stand-ins whose role was to uniformly answer a simple set of questions. Sometimes they answered correctly, sometimes incorrectly. But always in unison.

When researchers allowed everyone in the room to answer honestly, the rate of incorrect answers among subjects was less than 1%. However, when the stooges intentionally answered incorrectly, that rate jumped to one-in-three.

In fact, 75% of test subjects answered at least one question incorrectly in concert with the stooges. The conclusion being that social pressure can over-power one’s own ability to decide for themselves.

… none of which is to say that donating to a worthy charity is an incorrect decision. What I am asking, is whether those who choose to take part in the Challenge actually chose at all? Or did the group choose for them?

It’s just sociology: the study of humans acting in groups. But it is one that our culture is instinctually hostile too. We’re all fiercely independent souls, and none of us fall for peer pressure.

It’s a nice vanity that we all aspire too, but it is fundamentally untrue. And that dichotomy sets into motion another instinct we see repeatedly in the Ice Bucket Challenge: Cognitive Dissonance. Our brains need to rectify the dissonance between our self-image and our actions, so we justify, excuse and defend that glaring logical error away.

You may find your friends unwilling or unable to be satisfied with your answer to the challenge. You and I, dear curmudgeon? We’re just uncomfortable with being dared to follow the leader. Surely, people understand that?

Instead, they’ll point out repeatedly that the Ice Bucket Challenge is “for a good cause,” as though the ends justified the means. And it’s “all in good fun,” as though if you’re not having fun, there must be something wrong with you. And “of course,” dumping a bucket of water on your head is necessary, because everybody else is. Even complete strangers can be openly belligerent with any curmudgeon so bold as to raise any objection.

If some people are having fun, I say, “great!!” If the ALS Association is making money for a good cause, awesome! Have at it.

But before too many more people go pressuring too many more friends into the “fun” of the Ice Bucket Challenge or STFU, it’s worth demanding a Naked Lunch moment. It’s worth our time, fellow curmudgeon, to strip away the justifications and ask them to just look at what’s at the end of their forks. Is it really what they want to eat, just because it’s “for a good cause?”

My point is not that “some people” are cruel. It is that we do fall along these statistical borders every day. I’m not always on one side, you’re not always on the other. It isn’t a reflection on one’s character, but it is a reflection on what will and won’t cause discomfort. It seems strange and disconcerting that so many people ignore others’ discomfort, “all in good fun.”

And if our friends cannot see all this, then my dear fellow curmudgeon, I say we’re fine to “Harumph,” all we like.