It is widely accepted that ethical considerations often elude politicians, business executives, and news media outlets. The increasing influence of social media and other channels of discourse unfortunately perpetuate this same lack of social responsibility. Through social media in particular, tribal affiliation is even rewarded with positive social cues such as receiving likes, positive comments, and up votes for content that signals positively to your tribe.
In this context, ruminating about how outrageous the latest political event was on social media is often how modern people bond with each other, especially when more of us stay inside due to worldwide pandemics. Many people use social media to bond with others in non-political ways as well, of course, but in modern times, this dark side is immense. We know that much of the world gets its information through social media via news articles that often go unread by those sharing them. Although there is some benefit to this way of life, there is also detriment and society tends to be slow when adjusting to rapid changes in technology.
One detriment is when reality gets distorted and the full picture is not even considered. Depending on who you ask, influencers like the ones listed above are some of the least respected people among us and thus are targets of severe criticism. After all a politician, a lobbyist, a business executive, or a news media source stand the most to gain from misrepresenting information, or from perpetuating intellectual shortcuts. They also stand the most to gain from division.
As social media continues to democratize people’s ability to speak their mind, the same incentive structure that motivates those who benefit from division exists for the average person because we are motivated to seek the same thing. We now have incentives to post things that earn us new followers, more likes, and attention just like they do. In order to do so, just as with them, truth, intellectual rigor, and our own integrity often takes a back seat to the primary motive of power.
Disturbingly, studies indicate that when we join tribes of thought and do things that signal we are a member, we actually gain more acclaim on Twitter than if we were neutral and appeal to multiple sides of issues. One report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) show that Twitter users were about three times more likely to be followed back when the newfound follower’s political ideology matched. This is a profound indicator of just how powerful partisanship is in the formation of human social connection1.
Shortcuts to Understanding
This has consequences to the social fabric that we are all subject to in our daily lives but it also impacts how we form our worldviews and our hope for the future. Inherent in the quest to join a tribe of thought and to gain social approval within the tribe is an informal and unspoken loyalty pledge by which we show our dedication. We may reject contrary viewpoints outright with minimal and sometimes no consideration. Why wouldn’t we? After all, we’re not going to get more likes or followers if we are critical of our tribe members. At it’s very worst, this type of behavior leads to the marginalization of alternative views. In some cases this gives rise to extremism, as alternative thought tribes are cast as the enemy.
As appropriate as it may seem to be critical of the forces that thrive on dividing people into tribal identities it is important that we remain realistic about how we are impacted as individuals. These modern forces, such as social media, did not start this fire but one could say that they poured gasoline on it.
“Social networks can operate as polarization machines because they help to confirm and thus amplify people’s antecedent views.” Cass Sunstein, in his book “Going to Extremes2”
The result is the normalization of an incentive structure that rewards shortcuts over intellectual rigor and is ripe for polarization.
Adjusting for Bias
In the Post-Industrial Age or even the post information age, as some might call it, everyone has a platform. We know that everyone has an agenda as well. It is a good thing our educational system is teaching so many people to be adept at critical thinking. This way all angles of issues can be analyzed, interpreted, and understood in a sophisticated and intelligent manner.
Is this what is happening though?
It is widely believed that education, especially higher education improves the social fabric of our society. Besides leading to a better-trained workforce, we gain more responsible citizens and more reliable, critical thinkers. However, could it be that despite our increasing levels of higher educational attainment, we too often still fail to critically analyze or responsibly interpret information? According to the US Census Bureau, 39.4% of U.S. Naturalized citizens now possess a Bachelor’s degree3. As this number continues to increase, are our critical thinking skills increasing as well?
Types of Biases
The way human beings naturally interpret and process information is ripe with selection and confirmation bias. These concepts are straightforward. Selection bias refers to our desire to engage only with information that meets a certain, often undefined and unconscious criteria. Confirmation bias means we are inclined to interpret information a certain way because of our preconceived notions. With selection bias, the consideration of countervailing viewpoints is avoided. When it comes to confirmation bias, these viewpoints are either ignored or prematurely disproven. This is either done without enough of a deep dive into the information, or based on shortsighted justifications.
An Example: What about Alternative Facts?
When it comes to the consideration of alternative viewpoints, one example stands out. Depending on your political views, this would either be viewed as a soft or hardcore example of polarization in action. It also shows how the quality (or lack thereof) of our discourse accelerates tribal behavior on each side of an issue.
Early in the Trump Administration, Kellyanne Conway, a spokesperson for the President, went on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd to discuss disputed claims made by then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
As the two discussed the issues, the exchange grew increasingly heated as Conway took issue with a falsehood that according to her was reported, than later retracted. Chuck Todd then expressed his concerns about what he viewed as false statements made by Spicer to which, Conway responded, resulting in these dueling statements.
“You’re saying it was a falsehood and our Press Secretary gave alternative facts to that.” Conway stated to Todd.
“Look alternative facts are not facts, they’re falsehoods.” Todd responded.
Who would decide to pay attention to a story like this? Mostly, the people who would select a story like this would presumably be members of a tribe that either strongly supports or strongly opposes the President. Due to the tactics used in the discussion, in order to take something like this seriously, you have to revert to tribal thinking, and that carries dangerous implication to the growth of our mindset and our ability to properly interpret information.
Who is lying, who is telling the truth, and most importantly, who cares? Really, how does this affect you? How does it affect your life and the things you care about?
Thinking about this example in this way can help us understand selection bias and confirmation bias. Political affiliation and political bias are by far the largest predictors of who we will think “won” this exchange. Alternative facts became the new trending moniker on Twitter. It became a rallying cry for opponents of Trump since they viewed this as a dangerous subversion of truth. For Trump supporters, it became an example of aggressive over-simplifications and the twisting of words to fit a political narrative.
What if the participants in the dialogue (if you can call it that), were not interested in the truth? These were nothing more than classic, malicious debate tactics designed to destroy the other person. Sadly, this is a common tactic when we discuss the topics we care about outside of our tribes. In some ways, exchanges like this, which routinely occur on national television, are like candy for the soul. We get an adrenaline rush and a sense of belonging, in the short-term. In the long-term, the truth is distorted because dialogue like this further polarizes and misrepresents infromation.
Instead of thinking about who “won” this exchange, or who is lying, we should strive to ask better questions. These questions should matter more to ourselves. After all, the formation of our worldview is something we should take very seriously. Unlike these petty squabbles, our worldview will directly impact our lives both in the moment and in our future.
What Can We Do?
Everyone has an agenda: What is Yours?
The realities of our human thought, including selection and confirmation bias, the quality of our conversations, and the quality of our worldview must remain under our control to the greatest extent possible.
We face two distinct but positive choices. First, we can take the active path of overcoming our biases by engaging with alternative viewpoints. Through this path, we become wiser as long as we focus on becoming a well-rounded person. Alternatively, we can simply retreat from the collection of information and the formation of opinions on every topic we come across. There is only so much information we can process before we become fatigued so most of the time, the latter is the best option.
The more we understand about the world and our role in it, the more we stand a chance of defining success and achieving it on our own terms, but we must choose the issues we educate ourselves about wisely.
Take Control of Your Education
We all have biases and most people hold deeply entrenched biases unknowingly. If we decide that we care enough about a topic to have an opinion on it, we must not only learn more, but we must act to overcome our biases. Our desire to be a better-educated, more well-rounded person, can provide the fuel.
Often in the modern world we turn to formal education to accomplish this but there is a problem. As Napolean Hill points out in his classic “Think and Grow Rich,” knowledge only becomes powerful when it manifests into a plan of action. Colleges are excellent at giving us a wealth of information to consider, but where does it go?
Hill points out that the root of the word education is “educo.” In Latin, this word means, “to educe, draw out, or develop from within.” In order to harness our life’s desires and career paths we must gain control. Every path will look different so it is up to you, as an individual to determine what makes the most sense. A great start is to envision the type of person you want to be.
“(The) ‘missing link’ in all systems of education may be found in the failure of educational institutions to teach their students how to organize and use knowledge after they acquire it.” Napoleon Hill, in “Think and Grow Rich”
When you take seriously the desire to be a well-rounded person, revisit what this means to you through affirmation, visualization, writing, and other forms of deep reflection, creative solutions will emerge effortlessly. Keep returning to your vision of who you want to be. When you ask the right questions, and focus on the right things, like magic, we will make the progress we desire.
We best overcome confirmation bias through a deep exploration of the relevant facts and arguments. We will naturally have opinions and passions that are influenced by our confirmation bias and we will need to understand our own argument. The problem for most people is that there is a whole other side to the story often left unexplored. A desire to transform ourselves and grow intellectually can continue to be the fuel.
In order to overcome confirmation bias, we must, by definition expose ourselves to quality non-tribal viewpoints. This can be very difficult to do, especially when we gain social approval from repeating the same buzzwords and phrases that gain us acclaim within our tribe. Going in the direction of the enemy is a threat to our own identity because we risk being perceived as disloyal. Despite this, we must do it to increase our understanding.
What is the best representation of alternative viewpoints and what are the alternative facts that matter to the formation of a responsible point of view? For those of us who are particularly passionate about our viewpoint, instead of being fearful of disloyalty to our viewpoint, we can take comfort in the fact that exposing ourselves to a reasonable and convincing, counter-argument will allow us to be a better messenger for our cause.
Buddhism teaches that the path toward enlightenment must minimize our unconscious, worldly desires, such as social approval. A humble restraint on our ego is necessary since the ego can easily cause us to reject valid counterpoints, or to never consider them in the first place. Even mere preferences such as how visually appealing, entertaining, well-articulated, or well-written something is can affect how likely we are to engage with or understand the material3.
Socrates believed in the power of dialogue and the deep consideration of alternatives viewpoints. In his view, this approach led to better knowledge and virtue. In modern circles, we are more likely to think of this concept as understanding, wisdom, and moral authority. Further, according to Socrates, there are two paths to happiness, one is the path that is expected to bring happiness and the other is the one that actually does4.
We Either Act or get Acted Upon
You may be thinking, “wow! This seems like a lot of work, I think I’ll pass on all that.” If this is the case, then congratulations, you must be a relatively normal person. Beyond having some normal in you, you may be on the right track! When an abundance of information exists and everyone who attempts to provide you with information has an agenda, it is crucial to choose what you consume wisely. Selection bias is healthy when used with intention. We should choose what we engage with based on interests, ambitions, and goals for ourselves and loved ones.
Fortunately it is not necessary to consider every angle on every possible counter argument if you approach the design of your future life and career development with an open mind. You do not need to be well informed, or weigh in on every topic. This is where knowing what you do not know and having an open mind comes into play but more importantly, we must resist salacious content that stimulates the wrong part of our brains. This is to our minds what candy is to our body and if we consume too much of it, we will waiver in pursuit of what matters to us.
So what matters to you? We must decide and act.
References and Further Reading:
1See the abstract of this study here: https://www.pnas.org/content/118/7/e2022761118
2 See Cass Sunstein’s book “Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide” for more on how polarization and extremism manifests among various schools of thought.
3See the following data from March 2020 from the US Census Bureau for a few more interesting statistics related to educational attainment: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2020/educational-attainment.html
4 See Barbara O’Brien’s 2011 piece in the Guardian for more information about Buddhist philosophy and how it relates to the quest for knowledge. “Updated to modern terms, what the Buddha taught is that we’re all twitching masses of greed, insecurity and social programming. We hurtle through our lives grasping at whatever we think will soothe our existential angst while batting away whatever hurts us or pushes our ego buttons.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2011/jul/20/buddhist-dalai-lama-masterchef
5 Socrates was a pioneer in the pursuit of truth and knowledge. There is much information available, including this piece by Muhammad Kamruzzaman: http://www.theindependentbd.com/printversion/details/146241
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