Growing up, we were told TV would rot our brains. So, instead, I’ve been watching documentaries! For years. I’m guessing you have too. They’re a great alternative to fiction movies and TV shows. They make us feel educated, not just entertained. And why shouldn’t they? They throw all sorts of educational material at us, leaning heavily on quotes, statistics, and facts. And best of all, documentaries weave everything into a compelling narrative wrapped in a pretty bow.
But one day, I watched a documentary about a topic I knew well. There, in plain sight, I witnessed the hallmarks of persuasiveness without the rigor of intellectual honesty. It rocked my world.
I thought back on other documentaries I’ve watched. I can’t recall seeing one that hasn’t been persuasive. Maybe that’s selection bias, but I think there’s more to the story. Documentaries exploit our human weaknesses to bypass our mental safeguards, injecting biased views directly into our brains.
Our Defenses are Down
At Amazon, Jeff Bezos instituted a famous no-powerpoint rule at meetings. Amazonians spend the first 15 minutes of each meeting reading the organizer’s six-page narraive memo on the topic. The rule exists because it’s easier to hide lazy thinking in a powerpoint than a written memo. Another consideration: we’re wired to be less critical of ideas presented with pretty pictures and graphics. Hollywood makes movie magic by creating immersive experiences through film. They consider every aspect of the shot: angle, lighting, colors, and more. Producers also learned long ago how to use just the right soundtrack at just the right time. They know how to engineer our emotions.
Here’s my hierarchy of convincingness:
Written Words > Spoken Words > Pictures > Videos > Videos + Dramatic Music.
Every Documentary Has An Agenda
Each documentary has a message to imprint upon viewers. Though topics have many sides, producers typically choose one to present to the viewer. It is rare for producers to provide objective facts and leave viewers to form their own opinions. Instead, they share information selectively, driving viewers to adopt their conclusions. Even when they operate in good faith, producers must inevitably cherry-pick to build their case.
Who Said What?
Documentaries are typically compilations of video footage. That creates a filter, as content in the wrong format is harder to include in the film. The ideal form is video footage of an interview. Its availability is shaped by who producers want to interview as well as who is willing to be interviewed. This classic selection bias ensures the sample of voices isn’t representative. It’s hard to put content into a documentary if it didn’t first come out of someone’s mouth on video. What relevant facts are omitted because they aren’t available in the right format?
Producers Must Use Discretion
I am not suggesting that producers are bad people with propaganda as their goal. But documentaries are art. Producers start with a blank canvas and work to make the most of it. At their disposal is a screen that viewers will pay attention to for roughly two hours. They must make choices about what to include in those two hours. So not only are they limited by peoples’ willingness to go on camera, but they’re also limited by which snippets they have time to air. Sometimes, they allot time for opposing viewpoints. But that share of time is usually limited.
We Are Overconfident
You’ve probably heard that over 80% of drivers think they’re above-average drivers. Another study found that debaters believed they’d won 75% of their matches when they’d really won 47%. Psychologists have a term for the cognitive bias that leads to overconfidence: the Dunning-Kruger effect. We tend to overestimate our levels of expertise. I’ve noticed this in myself and others shortly after watching a documentary. Our newfound knowledge is intoxicating. We feel like experts despite having a mere two hours “education” on a topic from a single perspective. Even worse, once we feel like experts, we’re inclined to bestow our expertise on the unsuspecting people around us.
The Documentary Scaries
Let’s recap. There’s an entire genre of films that’s entertainment masquerading as education. The genre’s producers have an agenda. The interviewees have an agenda, too. Producers make hard choices about what’s included and what’s cut out. Then, they package it together in a form that bypasses many of our cognitive defenses: moving pictures with dramatic music. Altogether, this creates an army of overconfident documentary viewers to further spread the producer’s views throughout the world. I’d love to believe I’m immune, but I know it ain’t so. I’m afraid of documentaries.