December 28, 2007

Paris Hilton Loses Inheritance

So says, well, everybody.

Maybe you think I shouldn't be closing out the year with a Paris Hilton story (though I did have one before,) but it's much more important than it appears.

The basics are:

Party princess Paris Hilton is $60 million out of pocket after her billionaire grandfather - appalled by her jail term for drink-driving offences - axed her inheritance.
Grandpa Barron Hilton-- the only Hilton to actually own a stake in the Hilton Hotel chain-- is disgusted with her behavior, so will give 97% of his fortune to charity.

Most people's reactions have been, I'm guessing, the exact same one you had or are having.  Digg- the unofficial meter of internet vitriol, pronounced this story 13582 levels of awesomeness.  The comments were unanimous: "Finally!  Justice!  That ugly skank got what she deserves!" (Which, presumably, is even less than the millions she will still get.)

What surprises me about this story is this: is there no one who thinks this story is fake?

Consider, for example, Paris's sister Nicky, notable in her own right for, as an example, not making any sex tapes.  Was the Barron revolted by the handbag line she designed?  He could have just cut Paris out of the will-- it doesn't make sense that he punishes his entire dynastic line (right?)

The first thing that occurred to me-- tin foil hat man that I am-- was that this was a tax dodge.  Start talking about charity now, etc, etc, over time maybe Paris et al get on the board of the charity (with accompanying compensation and benefits packages, etc, etc.)  So when he finally dies, the IRS gets nothing, and doesn't come looking either.

It's possible I'm wrong (though I doubt it.)  But my idea isn't completely preposterous, it's not beyond rational thought, it at least gives you pause, right?  So I ask you: how come no one else thought of it?

The answer is emotion.  Hate.  And bias, but of a specific type.  To illustrate, let me rework the opening of the New York Times story:

Today, Vice President Dick Cheney announced that he will donate 97% of his fortune to charity... that money will be placed in a charitable trust that will eventually benefit the Richard B. Cheney Foundation, raising its total value to about $4.5 billion, the foundation said.

That, no one will believe, i.e. you "know" it's a tax dodge.  And you know it because you "know" Cheney (which, of course, you don't) and charity isn't his style, unless the charity supports impaling puppies.  Meanwhile, you know even less about Barron Hilton, but assume he must be as disgusted by his granddaughter as you are-- sorry, as disgusted by only what the media and she choose to release to the public, as opposed to family get togethers, dinners, birthdays and graduations-- as you are, without any benefit of knowing her at all-- which, when stated that way, seems, well, less likely?

The point is that we make assumptions based not on available information, but on available emotion.  That emotion is, in large part, predetermined by the media reporting of it-- note how explicitly the article is biased: "Party princess is  $60 million out of pocket..."  And it jives completely with your prejudices, so you accept it: confirmation bias.  With this kind of reporting, you can't possibly have the cognitive freedom to consider an alternative explanation (like tax dodge.)   And so you don't.

I hope the pleasure we derive from her probably non-existent reduction in inheritance is worth the reduction in our ability to think freely and independently.  Maybe the NSA doesn't need to eavesdrop on our thoughts-- it just has to read the newspapers.