If you’ve read my blogs, you’ll already be familiar with cognitive bias: the universal human tendency to make the same types of errors in our thinking in certain types of situations. Probably resulting from limits in our cognitive architecture (i.e., the way our brain evolved to work), these types of flaws in our daily thinking are the cause of many of our problems as a species. For instance, the inability of those in power to question their own viewpoints (e.g., the belief bias, the choice-supportive bias, the overconfidence effect, and the Dunning-Kruger effect – look them up here) results in poor decisions that can have catastrophic consequences (c.f., Tony Abbott and climate change; Donald Trump versus the rational world).
The more you read about cognitive biases the scarier the world gets. Left to their own devices, humans are appallingly bad at thinking rationally. Worse, even those trained to think rationally, and who are fully aware of cognitive biases and their effects, can’t fully escape their own biases (although we can train ourselves to be more aware of the type of errors we make and the consequences). Our brains evolved this way, deliberately favouring heuristics (i.e., shortcuts in thinking) in order to save energy. It’s resource heavy and cognitively expensive to think deeply about things, so most of the time we just don’t (unless we go out of our way to try and think deeply more often, but this is a tiring and distracting process). As a result, we’re a species of easily manipulated, hard to teach, overly confident idiots.
But today I don’t want to talk about cognitive biases in general, instead, I want to focus on social media: a type of communication (that’s taken root over the last 10 years) that’s encouraging us to think increasingly sloppily, training us to take the easy, biased solution, over the tougher, more rigorous version. This isn’t a social-media bashing piece – social media isn’t the cause of our sloppy thinking, but it’s a symptom that makes it so easy to think carelessly. I’d like more people to be aware of that. Hence today’s post.
It’s hard to imagine a world without Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Only 10 years ago, Facebook was a pretty new thing (having ousted MySpace), with relatively few users. If you were using it back then, it was probably still a novelty rather than a cornerstone of your daily communication. In the last 10 years, however, social media has inserted itself into our daily lives as a fundamental. We use it to keep in touch, to gauge opinion, to inform ourselves, and to tell the world what we’re doing. For many, if it’s not posted online, it didn’t happen. And because we place these sources of information at the centre of our lives, we’re increasingly prone to making poor decisions in the face of dodgy information. Out cognitive biases pretty much guarantee it.
Let me pose a scenario. One of your social-media friends (someone you trust) posts a link to an article about a recent scientific discovery. Do you (i) read the article in full, question its conclusions, seek and read out the original paper on which the article was based, and come back with a rebuttal? Or do you (ii) skim the article, agree with it because it confirms something you already thought (confirmation bias) and then hit the like or share button? Worse, when presented with a ‘meme’ that reinforces your world view, do you (i) like it straight away because it totally represents how you feel about (insert passionate stance here)? Or (ii) recognise it as a hyperbolic attempt to manipulate by taking a complex argument and simplifying it to an evocative picture and some easy to understand text? We’d all like to believe that we’d think in a deep and complex way in these situations but, in reality, we simply don’t (which is why links and ‘memes’ spread ‘virally’ on social media: read here for a discussion of viral memes). We want to think that we’re sophisticated in our thinking, but in the context of information served up from ‘trusted’ sources, we’re just not.
Now let’s ramp it up a notch. Not only are we likely to apply sloppy thinking to information presented to us through ‘trusted’ sources, the amount that we trust the medium (social media), and the intensity of our desire to do so, is reinforced by another phenomenon: feedback loops. Let’s try another scenario: you’re on holiday and post some pictures of your trip on Facebook but you don’t get any likes. Does the lack of response influence your perception of how much you’re enjoying your holiday? Chances are that it does. Chances are that you’ll place an emphasis on the approval of your friends, and feel deflated when they don’t give you positive feedback on your photos. Alternatively, if you post photos and get a whole load of almost instant ‘likes’, not only will you feel more positive about your trip, you’ll be more motivated to take and post more photos (and to place increased trust in the people who ‘like’ your posts). This is the feedback loop. Our brains respond to social feedback, and whether you’re aware of it or not, every time you get a ‘like’ to a post, the reward centres in your brain are activated, encouraging more of the same behaviour. If you’re not careful, your holiday becomes about making your photos more and more appealing for likes, rather than about actually enjoying your time away. In other words, your decision processes have been co-opted by a part of your brain that evolved to increase your likelihood of survival, but which now reduces (or simply bypasses) your ability to think or act rationally.
OK, at this point, this article could just be a ‘doom and gloom’ piece on the perils of social media. That’s not the intent – because like it or not, it’s here to stay, and it’s only going to become more embedded in our lives. Ten years ago Facebook was limited to our desktops. Now it and all its variants are with us wherever we go, intruding into pretty much every area of our lives. Any experience you have can be instantly uploaded, for real-time reinforcement by your ‘friends’. This combination of availability, simplicity, and instant reinforcement, makes it harder and harder to avoid using and being influenced by social media in times and places that would have seemed pretty weird 10 years ago. So rather than reading this post as a warning about the ‘perils of social media’, think of it as a “hmmm, maybe I need to think more about the ways I use and am used by social media”…
What then, can we do to be slightly more thoughtful in presence of systems that make it easy to bypass thought? Try the following:
1) Next time you automatically reach for your phone or tablet to check on social media, notice what you’re doing and make a deliberate choice: “do I actually want to do this or is it just habit?” Feedback loops are reinforced by automatic behaviour. We need to interrupt these loops consciously if we want to exert any control.
2) Before ‘liking’ or sharing a post (especially one that seems to confirm your worldview or that you ‘relate’ to), stop and think. Can you be sure of the authenticity of the information? Are you overvaluing the content because it came from a source that you trust? Could he or she have posted it on without thinking? If you can be bothered, go to the original source and make your mind up based on that, then post it forward with a comment. If you can’t be bothered, then there’s no deep thinking going on (no matter what you tell yourself), and you’re perpetuating a problem through laziness!
3) Before uploading yet another photo, ask yourself why you’re doing it? Is it really to share the experience with your friends (do they even want you to share it with them?), or is it so you’ll feel better about yourself when you get ‘likes’? Do you really want your satisfaction to be pinned to the instant gratification of social media, or is there more to it than that?
4) Last (and most important), if you find yourself getting angry based on a shared post or meme, definitely stop before you act (including liking or sharing). Your emotions are easily manipulated (that’s the whole point of posts that make us angry), and when we act based on our feelings we’re bypassing any ability to think either rationally or, more importantly, compassionately. Compassion (read here) involves deliberate, deep thought, and it’s a lot harder than knee-jerk emotional reactions. What sort of person do you really want to be? One who reacts, or one who acts based on what really matters to you?