Why academic conference posters suck

This post originally appeared on my professional blog, but because cognitive load theory makes an appearance, I thought it belonged here, too.


I’ve been to dozens of conference poster sessions, but I struggle to think of a single thing I’ve learned from them. I don’t think I’m alone, considering the antipathy toward academic posters I’ve noticed among colleagues and librarians.

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How racism hurts racists

Victims of bigotry have to contend with mental burden from several sources. On top of overt harassment and systemic oppression, they can also face stereotype threat: worrying that they will perpetuate a negative stereotype ascribed to their group makes them more likely to perform poorly. “The anxiety can be conscious, or it may be diffuse and not explicitly recognized,” write Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang, and Kristen P. Blair in The ABCs of How We Learn. “In either case, it can be distracting and siphon cognitive resources, leading to poorer… performance and learning.” (p. 14)

Perpetrators of bigotry—and I’ll focus on racism here because of recent events in Charlottesville—hurt themselves as well as their victims. Devoting cognitive resources to hatred leaves less available for creative, productive pursuits. Further, racist stereotypes—for example, that visible minorities get free post-secondary education or that affirmative action programs rob deserving white students of college admissions—may lead members of the dominant group to believe the deck is stacked against them and to wonder why they should bother even trying. Finally—at the moment, anyway—there’s still some stigma attached to being an overt racist, and stigma can also be a source of mental burden that can interfere with innovation.

I don’t want to be glib and say that the easiest way to rid yourself of the stigma of being racist is to stop being racist. I recognize that “Just stop being [attribute]” is an argument hurled at truly oppressed groups, including people who use drugs and people who live in poverty, and that debiasing takes a conscious effort in addition to a willingness to change. What is clear is that whichever side of racism you’re on, from the perspective of mental burden, nobody wins.

The mental burden of fake news

Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, the disturbing real news stories about his behaviour and his administration’s policies have been a huge mental burden—to the point where workers have admitted to being less productive and people have written guides for psychological self-care when your newsfeed reports one infuriating development after another.

But there’s no denying that fake news won Trump the presidency, and its scourge continues. Whether deliberately or because he lives in a fantasy universe of affluenzal delusion, Trump and his team have deployed the “firehose of falsehood” propaganda model that has been so successful in Russia. The point is to overwhelm you with so much information that you just don’t have the time or mental resources to sort out fact from fiction.

Some libraries have even developed guides to help people discern real from fake. For most critical thinkers, fake news is unwelcome noise: from a mental burden perspective, whether you have helpful guides or not, it still takes deliberate cognitive effort to read and evaluate the headlines, possibly out-of-context graphics, and full stories that come through social media. Double-checking with the source, reverse image searching—these techniques can be effective but take time. Fake news also adds an element of uncertainty, which itself is mentally taxing.

Part of the problem comes from the gutting of newsrooms, which has left us with few curators we can trust to give us the facts. Alice Dreger, author of Galileo’s Middle Finger, laments in her book that although we’d hoped the internet would be a great democratic equalizer, what it’s really done is deprofessionalized and devalued actual journalism. As she elaborates in this 2015 interview:

Twenty years ago when I started, I could call all these people who were investigative journalists and they would go and do fantastic work and sometimes show me I was wrong about something, though they’d often support what I was finding. Today there’s virtually nobody, not even the ones I know from twenty years ago, who hasn’t left the business. It used to be they could work on a story for three weeks, and now I’m lucky if they can spend an hour looking at what I’m sending them. It’s horrifying and I don’t know where it’s going to go.

I am really worried about investigative journalism in this country because it’s so absolutely, fundamentally important to the functioning of democracy. I don’t think the American public understands. They think they have more information than ever. They’re on fucking Twitter and they think that that’s news but so much of what they’re reading is just commentary, and it’s commentary on things that aren’t even true.

On the other hand, just after [New York Times columnist] David Carr died, I listened to an old interview with him and he had the most interesting thing to say. When he started out he needed a camera crew and a transcription device and now, just his phone allowed him to do recording audio, recording video, look things up real-time to challenge his source, everything you need to do good investigative journalism. And he felt what we needed was to recognize that and mobilize people to do journalism. But they have to be mobilized, and trained, and inspired to care about facts. And that’s turning out to be harder than I thought it was going to be.

Facebook has finally acknowledged its role in the fake news problem and has started to flag false stories, but what we need to alleviate the uncertainty and mental burden of fake news is more public investment in news. (And, of course, Trump’s proposed budget cuts to PBS and NPR undermine this.) Bloggers and academics can’t fill the void left by laid-off journalists, and as long as media outlets are privately owned and beholden to advertisers, the onus will still be on the reader or viewer to verify and vet every story.

This is not to say that subscribing to trusted newspapers isn’t a good idea. At the moment they’re all we have.

I’d written earlier that when we pay for a good or service, what we’re buying is peace of mind. If we want peace from the relentless barrage of fake news, we’re going to have be willing to pay for solid journalism.

The mental effort of debiasing

At the Vancouver satellite Women’s March on January 21, one of the speakers was Squamish artist and activist Khelsilem. He’d asked the organizers if a woman shouldn’t speak in his place, but they insisted his voice was valuable. So he took the opportunity to say that, as an Indigenous person, he was forced to see the world through the lens of racism every day; he referred to that view as “glasses” he couldn’t take off. But, as a man, he could choose whether to put on the glasses that women can’t take off. That choice is a privilege—one he tries to use to understand what women go through and to advocate for them. “And putting on those glasses takes work,” he said.

Most of us like to believe that we’re objective and make well-reasoned decisions. That’s why it can feel like such an affront to be told to “check your privilege” or “check your bias.”  Not only do those commands challenge our world view, but consciously checking our bias takes mental effort. Unconscious biases happen automatically, taking place through what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking, which is effortless and intuitive. We all have biases we’re not aware of, regardless of our education level. (And we are all sexist, racist, ageist, ableist to varying degrees.) Challenging those biases takes slow, deliberate System 2 thinking, burning up valuable glucose.

The mental burden of consciously re-examining our beliefs—of using up energy resources to an uncertain end—may be why we’re so averse to cognitive dissonance that we tend to stick to our views even when presented with facts that contradict them. It’s mentally much less burdensome just to keep believing what we believe.

Unfortunately, our biases can have real-world consequences, especially when we make decisions that affect other individuals or groups and stereotypes get in the way of reasoned thinking. Once we are aware of our susceptibility to bias, we can use techniques like

  • stereotype replacement: consciously replacing a stereotype you hold with more accurate information,
  • positive counterstereotyping: picturing someone who does not fit the stereotype filling the stereotyped role,
  • perspective taking: putting yourself in the shoes of a member of the stereotyped group, and
  • individuation: using specific characteristics of an individual to prevent assumptions arising from a stereotype

…among many others (depending on the situation) to debias our thinking.

These all take conscious mental effort—they are, in essence, a type of emotional labour—but, with enough practice, we can develop schemata to make the process less onerous over time.

Mental burden effects of a weakened FDA

I could probably fill this blog with posts picking apart each of Donald Trump’s proposed policy changes, because almost all of them are heinous impositions of unnecessary mental burden, but let’s focus on the Food and Drug Administration.

Trump has already railed against the FDA for being the “food police” and proposed eliminating food safety regulations. His rumoured pick for FDA head, Jim O’Neill, wants to do away with drug efficacy studies.

This should really go without saying, but these ideas are all terrible—and awful for the public’s mental burden.

In her book Dynamics in Document Design, Karen Schriver devotes a section to the history of clear labelling laws. In old-timey times, manufacturers were free to exaggerate—and outright lie—about what their products did and what was in them.

The pervasiveness of unsubstantiated claims at the turn of the century made consumers increasingly concerned about the purity and safety of food, drugs, and cosmetics. Not only could companies “get away with” selling the cure of the week, but the level of government control regarding basic food and drug items was primitive at best. Because there were no laws governing what companies could say about their products, they could make almost any claim they wished. Early investigative reporters fueled the debate by writing scathing exposés of unethical practices concerning product safety, food cleanliness, and manufacturing standards. These “muckrakers,” as they were called by President Theodore Roosevelt, stirred up the public about corruption in business and government. Their work inspired consumers to lobby government officials to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. (p. 22)

More recently, during the George W. Bush administration, lax regulations were blamed for E. coli outbreaks due contaminated vegetables.

And that’s just the food. Do you really want to be taking drugs—many of which have life-altering side effects—that have never been proven to treat what they purport to treat?

We’ve gotten used to trusting that what a jar says is inside of it is actually what’s inside, but that’s thanks to more than a century of regulation—truth-in-advertising laws, labelling laws, inspections—rather than to the benevolence of the corporations that produce our food and drugs. Regulation freed us of the mental burden of having to worry about whether our groceries will kill us or make us sick, possibly chronically. On the rare occasions when they do today, it’s a huge scandal. But if the FDA is gutted, it could become a regular occurrence. The 2008 melamine scandal in China shows how far-reaching the damage from underregulated, unscrupulous manufacturers can be.

Free-market proponents like to argue that the market corrects itself and that people will learn not to buy from manufacturers that make unsafe products. But this system is reactionary: by the time a problem is discovered and reported, countless people may already have been harmed. And when all companies are free to make spurious claims and the public won’t be able to tell what’s true and what’s not—essentially a kind of gaslighting—all manufacturers will exaggerate as much as they can get away with.

Overregulation can be a source of mental burden, too, but I, for one, would rather not have the uncertainty of wondering whether a label might be lying to me.

The mental burden of online harassment

Lindy West, Sherman Alexie, and Ta-Nehisi Coates are among some of the high-profile Twitter users who’ve quit the service in the last few days. West, in particular, pointed to trolls as the reason she’s leaving. Online harassment isn’t just a first-world problem that people just have to get over or ignore. For people routinely bombarded with it (and so far I’m not among them—knock on wood), it can be a relentless, exhausting mental burden.

Which, I guess, is the point of it. My point is that having thicker skin isn’t going to help all that much. The mental burden and suffering don’t come primarily from hurt feelings—it comes from:

  • Having to sift through the mountain of notifications. If you want to engage with the public, you will occasionally get insightful, helpful, even joyful feedback. But sorting through incoming messages to find those enriching notes means (a) reading each message, (b) evaluating each message for relevance (and threat level), and (c) deciding whether and how to respond. Consider how irritated you get with individual spam emails and multiply that by the hundreds or thousands of messages that someone might get on social media. (As an aside, a 2009 study estimated that spam—at that time—had a carbon footprint of about 3.1 million cars. Creating, sending, filtering, deleting all of that data costs energy. I haven’t seen a similar study applied to the loss of productivity or carbon footprint of trolling, but it’s likely much higher.)
  • The dread of having to deal with these abusive messages day after day. It’s probably a bit like having to go to a job you hate.
  • The uncertainty about the seriousness of the threats. Most of them are alarming but ultimately empty. But it only takes one legitimate threat to seriously disrupt or even end your life. Doxxing or threatening a person’s family are especially menacing—and they reinforce the point that online harassment goes way beyond name calling. They add another level of burden to sorting through messages: not only do you have to pick out the abusive messages, but you have to ask, “How serious is this threat?”

Hurt feelings, not to mention general disappointment in humanity, are mental burdens as well, but they’re not the primary reason online harassment is so serious. Dismissing harassment as the price of fame is shortsighted and unfair. Nobody should be treated this way, and some people facing harassment weren’t even looking for fame or attention—they may have just sent out a single tweet or update that happened to go viral.

People leaving platforms like Twitter because of harassment has little to do with how easily offended they are. It takes a lot of mental effort to deal with harassment, and they’ve just decided to channel that effort elsewhere—maybe to producing more ideas or art. But their pulling back from engaging—all because of a legion of assholes—is a loss for us all.

Public service and mental burden relief

This paragraph in Eugene Bardach’s A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving is one of my favourites:

In confronting the inevitable design trade-offs at the individual level, it helps to look at any set of routines from two perspectives: that of the case manager in the agency and that of the citizen whose case is being “treated.” It often happens that routines designed to make life easier for program staff only make life harder for citizens. (“Sorry, we don’t give advice about that; send in the application and we’ll respond….”)

If good customer service is about reducing the customer’s mental burden, that’s especially true of government services, where reducing the mental burden of citizens should be a primary objective. But we’ve all encountered bureaucracy that’s made accessing services harder. Whether those barriers are put in place in the name of efficiency, to prevent abuses of the system (which we should be prepared to tolerate to some extent), as a calculated plan to discourage use, or just out of poor design, they have the same effect of creating, rather than relieving, mental burden. And a lot of these measures end up costing, rather than saving, money.

Bardach encourages policy makers to go back to basics: What problem were you trying to solve when you implemented this program in the first place? Are the metrics you’re using to evaluate its success the right ones?

In other words, why did you enter public service, if not to serve the public?

I’m being glib, of course. Every employee, in government or otherwise, has to answer to more than one group of stakeholders. But it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day tasks of the job and lose sight of why the job exists. Looking at the work through a mental burden lens can bring the underlying goal back into focus—and may even help you find more efficient ways to achieve it.

Threats to the safety net as mental burden

People in poverty, people with disabilities, and other marginalized populations have a lot on their minds. One support government can offer to decrease their mental burden is the social safety net, which doesn’t just include income support like welfare and employment insurance but also includes laws and regulations to combat discrimination.

Conservatives have pointed to abuses of the systemso-called welfare queens, people allegedly committing voter fraud, and so on—to justify rolling back the safety net or imposing tough restrictions, which only increase mental burden on those who already have a huge mental load.

On a recent episode of 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper ran a story about people suing businesses for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act in what the owners likened to a “shakedown,” giving the right more ammunition to gut critical programs that allow people with disabilities to live with dignity in a world designed by and for non-disabled people. Attorney and disability rights advocate David Bekhour responded with an article explaining why the ADA is needed. The argument is essentially the one I made in an earlier post about people with invisible disabilities—who have the mental burden of justifying their need for services—writ large.

Retailers routinely account for shrinkage—inventory loss through theft and damage—as a cost of doing business. Why would we expect government safety-net programs to be perfect? Although I agree that we should take some steps to mitigate abuse, we should also acknowledge that abuses will happen and accept it as a cost of providing services to people in need. It’s a delicate balance, but if we accept that our government’s job should be to minimize our mental load, we should ensure that what we do to try to prevent abuse doesn’t just replace one barrier—and mental burden—with another.

Invisible disabilities

I recently attended a public consultation session to discuss potential federal accessibility legislation (there’s still time to contribute). Minister Carla Qualtrough was there, and people with all sorts of disabilities each got four minutes to voice their concerns and offer their input.

One person who has an episodic, invisible disability said that more distressing than her condition were the dirty looks she got from strangers who couldn’t reconcile her ability to walk with her disability parking permit. In an earlier post I mentioned the mental burden of the emotional labour people with visible disabilities have to do to get others to be comfortable around them and about their disability. It seems people with invisible disabilities have a different mental burden that comes from not looking disabled enough. Having to worry about proving their disability or justifying their use of services adds to an already heavy mental load from the condition itself.

I completely understand the urge to call out abusers of the system. We don’t like feeling deceived or taken advantage of, and we may feel as though we’re protecting the services for people who need them. But unless we are absolutely sure someone is committing fraud (in which case, report away to the proper authorities), our suspiciousness—or, rather, our physical manifestations thereof—seems to be twisting the knife on people who already have a lot to worry about.