Why do we exaggerate some details of a story, but minimize others?
Leveling and Sharpening, explained.
What is Leveling and Sharpening?
Leveling and sharpening are concepts that have been introduced by early Gestalt psychologists as memory distortions that occurs when we fail to remember details of a certain memory. In psychology, leveling occur when some details are lost or it can also happen when we want to tone down certain moment.
Where this bias occurs
Leveling and sharpening is most commonly associated with the idea of selective memory, especially when it comes to storytelling and narration. Suppose you’re telling a friend a funny story about a time you tripped and fell in public. You might exaggerate some aspects to create a sense of drama, saying, for example, something like “so many people saw it happen!” You may, however, omit some minor details, such as the fact that it was actually a busy street, and the chances are, nobody really noticed your humiliating stumble. This occurs because our brain likes to engage in leveling and sharpening: cognitive controls that help us to manage information and details so they align with our cognitive assumptions and goals. Leveling consists of omitting what we have judged to be ‘minor’ details in memory recollection, whereas sharpening is the exaggeration and intense recollection of small details that mean a lot to the overall narrative.
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As processes, leveling and sharpening bring our deepest cognitive biases to the surface. For example, when telling a story, we might engage in leveling and sharpening to serve our confirmation bias. We might recall information that suits our personally-held belief or opinion, and omit information that contradicts it.1 Let’s say, for example, I hold the opinion that dogs are dangerous and unfriendly animals. I might verbally recall a story of a dog barking hysterically in the park one day, instilling fear in my listeners and confirming my belief that dogs are dangerous animals. However, I might fail to mention the fact that the dog was just excitedly playing with another dog, in an off-leash section of the park, far away from me and under the watchful supervision of his owner. Other examples might surface with individually held biases about identity markers like gender2, race or age. Leveling and sharpening allow us to promote and reinforce these biases, making it more difficult for us to withhold them.
Leveling and sharpening also play an important role in individual decision-making. Although we might not be aware of it, every time we make a decision, we are processing new information and stimuli, while simultaneously making comparisons with the memories and experiences we have stored in our brains. As a result, psychologists believe that people who engage in ‘sharpening’ more than ‘levelling’ have an advantage when it comes to learning and decision-making because they can make more accurate distinctions and therefore, more accurate judgements.3
On a wider level, leveling and sharpening can act as fuel for the rumor mill.4 If you’ve ever played the classroom game ‘broken telephone’, you’ll quickly understand how much a story can change when it’s been shared a few times, even by a small number of people. At its most dangerous, this practice can result in widespread misinformation and fake news. Leveling and sharpening also reinforce biases at the group level, therefore fuelling widely-held stereotypes about particular groups of people.
Leveling and sharpening can also be influential in forming group narratives. For example, groups of friends, sports teams, or even businesses might use leveling and sharpening to play up certain aspects of their shared experience, and ignore others. You might be a die-hard Toronto Raptors fan, still basking in the glory of their championship victory in 2019, while ignoring the many days of doubt you had during the campaign. Leveling and sharpening can even be detected in national identity, as citizens tend to recount moments of pride in their country’s history that have likely been exaggerated, and omit nasty historic details that don’t serve their sense of patriotism.
Why it happens
Leveling and sharpening are cognitive controls that we can use consciously, although they almost always happen subconsciously. Some scholars argue that certain people are predisposed to being either ‘levelers’ or ‘sharpeners’, because of their personalities5, preconceived biases, or levels of self-awareness.5
As a cognitive process, leveling and sharpening serve a range of purposes. Firstly, they can become mental shortcuts, or heuristics, that help us efficiently and effectively filter and relay information. This can be really important, as there’s nothing worse than a storyteller who gets bogged down in mundane, boring details, causing them to lose their audience.
Leveling and sharpening are also deployed to protect our ego and other peoples’ perceptions of us. For example, if you were late to work one day you might exaggerate how slow the subway ran that particular morning, while downplaying the fact that you left your home far too late to make it on time! In this way, leveling and sharpening can serve as a useful defence for our behavior and attitudes.
Why it is important
Leveling and sharpening play an important role in our memory and recollective functioning. Most of the time, they serve a positive function by allowing us to focus on the crucial aspects of a memory or experience. We probably don’t need to remember every last detail of a meeting we had, or a class we took in college, so the ability to capture and store ‘highlights’ is incredibly useful. However, there are instances in which our selective memory gets us into trouble, and leveling and sharpening can also facilitate the spread of rumor and misinformation.2
How to avoid it
Like most biases, we can never totally escape leveling and sharpening, but there are things we can do to stay aware and avoid getting into trouble.
Since levelling and sharpening are largely related to our recollection, it’s worth pausing before we base decisions entirely on past memories or experiences. For example, if you’re basing the decision to return to a vacation destination on one strong, but fond, memory of the place, try to remember whether you might be exaggerating positive aspects (like the food) but downplaying other important details (like its level of safety).
We should also try to see leveling and sharpening in other people’s behavior, especially when they are trying to persuade or influence us. Not believing every rumor you hear is a starting point, but more importantly, we should be somewhat skeptical of stories or accounts that seem outlandish, or conversely, lacking in detail. This critical eye is especially pertinent given the rise of fake news and misinformation, and the battle for factual, unbiased information.
How it all started
Leveling and sharpening were first identified by Allport and Postman (1947), who coined the terms to describe systemic inaccuracies people exhibit when they recollect stories.4 By the mid-1950s, Gestalt psychologists George Klein and Philip Holzman had described leveling and sharpening as cognitive controls used in memory recollection and the processing of new information and stimuli. They created the Schematizing Test to categorise leveling and sharpening responses: through these test future scholars could measure how much people rely on past memories, and people’s ability to notice small distinctions when faced with a new set of stimuli.5
Fast forward to the 1990s, when psychologists began to gain interest in the consequences of leveling and sharpening on judgement and decision making. In his 1997 book Cognitive Styles and Classroom Learning, Harry Morgan argued that sharpeners are usually more accurate in their comparisons of new and old knowledge, allowing them to make more informed decisions. On the other hand, he wrote that levelers tend to combine parts of old memories together, causing them to have hazy memories with missing details and that they tend to oversimplify new material. As such, the thinking amongst psychologists in recent years is that a ‘sharper’ memory can lead to better decisions.6
Example 1 – How levelling and sharpening bolsters gender stereotypes.2
In 2001, Ganske and Hebl conducted a study that explored the influence of gender stereotypes on the recollection of a story. A group of students were told the same story about two individuals named John and Silvia. Some participants were told the story from John’s perspective, with all pronouns switched to the masculine, while the others heard the story narrated by Silvia, using feminine pronouns.
The results showed substantial leveling and sharpening in the participants’ recollections. Those who heard John’s story recalled how he “played violent video games”, “drank beer” and “became very aggressive”, but failed to acknowledge the times he cried, took long baths, or did some baking to help cope with his sadness. From Sylvia’s story, participants added details that weren’t mentioned in the original story at all, such as “she hugged her teddy bear”, and “she shopped all day”, while forgetting details like her competitiveness and her somewhat aggressive behavior towards Terry, another character in the story.
The study provides strong evidence for our use of leveling and sharpening to reinforce cognitive biases, particularly gender stereotypes.
Example 2 – Are you a leveler or a sharpener? The Schematizing Test.5
Several psychologists have investigated the different extents to which individuals engage in leveling and sharpening. Klein and Holzman developed the Schematizing Test (aka the Squares Test) in the 1950s to examine the way individuals manage incoming stimuli over time. In this test, participants watch a screen that shows a series of squares ranging in size from 1 to 14 inches. After each square is displayed, participants are given a few seconds to record whether they detected a change in size, and their estimate of the size of change. People who fail to notice small changes in size are considered ‘levellers’ while those who notice even the most discreet changes are deemed ‘sharpeners’. In other experiments, people who recall several memories from the past in an attempt to categorize newly acquired information are ‘levellers’. On the other hand, ‘sharpeners’ rely on fewer but more profound memories when interpreting information.6 As a result of experiments like this, experts in cognitive learning today believe that if we want to improve our decision-making, we should focus on sharpening to ensure the accuracy of our memories.
Leveling and sharpening are processes we use during memory recollection. Leveling refers to the tendency to omit minor details and distinctions, whereas sharpening occurs when certain aspects of a memory are exaggerated or made more profound. Both leveling and sharpening are important tools since we almost always base judgements on past experiences. However, it is important to be cognizant of leveling and sharpening, because the process can also be responsible for the reinforcement of other biases, as well as the spread of misinformation.
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The confirmation bias refers to our tendency to pay attention to, and more heavily weigh, evidence that affirms our existing beliefs. It is a cognitive shortcut we use when gathering and processing information. Interpreting information and making rational judgements takes time and energy, so our brain seeks shortcuts to make the process easier and more efficient. The confirmation bias can lead us to make poor decisions because it prevents us from questioning our assumptions, and causes us to favor subjective information, at the expense of truth and accuracy.
The availability heuristic suggests that singular memorable moments have a disproportionate influence on decisions. It’s another type of mental shortcut that causes us to make faster, but sometimes worse, decisions. A classic example relates to the lottery: frequently, people believe they have a greater chance of winning after hearing about others who have won. Their odds haven’t changed, but exposure to a news story or advert of someone winning can sometimes trick them into thinking they stand a better chance. This is the availability heuristic at work, and it relates strongly to the idea of sharpening in memory recollection.