Archive | November, 2015

Conspiracy, complaints, and fraud: The language of reasons

10 Nov

Three separate threads have been whirling around my head for the last few months, so I was glad to have the opportunity to connect them a few weeks ago at UC Merced.

Thread #1: Fraud

Fraud is a big deal–the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners places the amount of global fraud loss at $3.7 trillion per year.

If you want to detect fraud, you can’t just look for people writing, “I am committing fraud”. Instead, you look for evidence of the fraud diamond: opportunity, pressure, capability, and the focus of my talk– rationalization.

But one of the things that I’ve been thinking about is: how do people rationalize? That is to say, how do they give reasons to themselves and others to make something okay? I like Karen Horney’s words: “Rationalization may be defined as self-deception by reasoning.”

Thread #2: Customer Complaints

Last week, I wrote a bit about how people use intensifiers when they are filing complaints. Another thing that is prominent in complaint-giving is reasoning. 25% of customer complaints logged with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have the word because in them. Here’s an example of the basic structure of because–in English, you can swap the order, but in both speech and writing, people almost always put the result before the cause:

  • Result: We strongly suggest someone look into Citimortgage’s business practices,
  • Cause: because at best they are completely incompetent, and at worst they are committing acts of fraud

In these narratives of what happened, people give reasons for their actions and feelings, but they also attribute reasons to banks and other financial institutions. Reason-giving is bound up in explaining the ways in which customers have been affected and how things should be remedied.

Thread #3: Conspiracy Theorists

Okay, this one is mostly in here because it’s fun.

Towards the end of the summer, two Idibonites started looking at what it is, linguistically, that makes people sound rational versus paranoid. We’re not ready to release our “statistical model of paranoia” yet, but one of the things Jana and Charissa have found has to do with how people give reasons. About 7.8% of /r/conspiracy posts have the word because in them. In the previous section, I noted that consumer complaints about banks had a rate of 25%. So 7.8% is a lot less than that–but if you look across all the Reddit forums, the rate of because in /r/conspiracy puts it in the top quartile of most-because-y. (See below for the ones that get up to 16%.)

Some favorite findings

You can watch the presentation or flip through the slides, but here are probably my favorite points.

  • When a customer complaint about a bank involves a “because”, it’s a much longer complaint. This seems to also be a feature within Reddit.
  • Because is associated with highly emotional content in many domains—ranging from soap opera dialog to speeches in the British Parliament.  Reasoning isn’t separate from emotion, it’s built on it.
  • Becauses are much more common in conversations about accounts and mortgages than credit reporting or debt collection.
  • The subreddits where people give the most reasons (highest percentages of because) include those that are specifically about debating (/r/changemyview, /r/DebateaChristian), those that tackle gender and sexism (/r/AgainstGamerGate), and those that have to do with romance (/r/relationship_advice, /r/relationships).
  • Among /r/conspiracy authors, the biggest because users tend to talk about JFK, 9/11, aliens, and space.

You can check out the video recording of the full presentation here:

Here are the slides from the presentation: