I’m right. You’re wrong. How we misuse information to feed our prejudices

Ben Farrell

…That’s what we hear right? Donald Trump is pretty upset about it… should we be too?

Well, the problem is not so much about whether the news is outright fake or not. That would be easy. A lot of us are smart cookies and can quickly spot something downright untrustworthy.

It’s more complex than that and I think the question we should be asking is; “how objective is the source from which it comes?”  and more importantly “how objective am I?”.

The problem is less about true versus false and more about biased opinions, including our own. It’s about our tendency to self-filter our news and customize what information we allow into our digital lives… this is what’s making even the most level-headed of us come undone.

Technology has given us access to more information and knowledge than ever before. Yet, when I look around me, why is it I see hard-headed and naive opinions? I see a rigidity of values and beliefs and the forming of angry virtual mobs. I see prejudices that run deep, but… not because we’ve held for many years, or because we’re even deeply passionate about them. It’s more as if we’re burying them deep within our psyche to hide from the bright light of new knowledge that may expose them as out-of-date and inaccurate.

It’s a paradox.

How can it be that in this era of unprecedented access to knowledge, we are in fact more stubborn and intolerant of other opinions than ever? We desperately cling to our beliefs, refusing to let go, refusing to compromise for fear of being caught out or proven wrong.

We may have more access to knowledge than ever before but, we don’t know how to use it. This should be easy! You don’t even have to be well-read to gain supposed insight in the modern era as information is now free for the masses. Yet, Instead of using it as a genuine catalyst for learning and growth, most of us use it only to confirm what we believe we already ‘know’.

We filter it, we personalise it, and we use selective knowledge to prove our point and confirm our beliefs. Very rarely do we use it to challenge ourselves and shift our own mindset. If anything, we fear it, cautiously only clicking Google links that subscribe to our insecure philosophy.

The problem is that now, we can choose our sources. Technology has allowed us to tailor and personalise our information feed to receive news and media only from sources and topics we care about.

Sounds great in theory right?

Well no, this means that we’re only ever subscribing to a testimony that confirms our existing beliefs rather than allowing ourselves to consider a stream of unfiltered information that may challenge our pre-held values and prejudices… information that may prove us wrong or, more importantly, even change our minds.

Instead of forming new opinions and adapting our beliefs based on new information, most of us subscribe to a ‘feel-good’ stream of confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive events or circumstances objectively. Instead, we pick out the bits of data that make us feel good because they come from our own prejudices and beliefs and we ignore everything else that may disprove our ideals.

But is technology the problem? It’s always easy to blame technology. It’s brought us brilliant things but with brilliant things come complex problems. Maybe it’s not just technology to blame but also the human tendency to always seek out opinions that agree with our own.

We’ve written ancient texts, formed religions, joined political parties, and fought wars all motivated by the simple fact that we love to seek out other people who hold opinions similar to ours… so this is nothing new.

However, never before has it been so easy to filter the information we receive and to mute opinions that make us feel uneasy. Younger generations will be even more overwhelmed with information and the ability to personalise but, will they have the critical literacy and analysis skills required to deconstruct information and make their own objective decisions on what to believe?

Even Google filters our search results based on our personal interests and the web is now becoming responsive, actively feeding us information based on our past behaviour. This ‘echo effect’ is truly mind-numbing, like being caught in a limited, personalised bubble where you’re isolated and cut off from the rest of the world… We sit in the confines of our values and beliefs and deem any information outside of this as either being produced incompetently or with bad will… scary.

The other factor that’s driving confirmation bias is the current shift towards a lack of faith in ‘experts’, particularly in the Western World. Globally, levels of trust in institutions, government and media are eroding. A global collective consciousness of cynicism seems to be growing as jaded citizens are sticking it to the man and turning to more independent sources.

We’ve seen layman’s become presidents, global markets crash, a disbanding of the EU and more driven by societies frustration and lack of faith in experts and institutions. Ironically, none of the so-called experts predicted any of these events which also hasn’t done anything for their credibility.

This is leading to an increase of know-it-alls who confirm their inaccurate opinions through their filtered media that boosts their egos. According to Tom Nichols, author of ‘The Death of Expertise’, a lot of us have become insufferable know-it-alls, locked in constant debate with others over topics we actually know almost nothing about…. sounds like many Friday night drinks with mates at the local for me!

This is especially obvious when you witness the new digital mob mentality that pollutes any comments section on social media. Trolls attack in herds using their selective sources and ‘facts’ to peddle angst and hate as their egos inflate behind a cloak of internet anonymity.

So, how do we survive in the post-truth world of filtering and personalising that breeds confirmation bias?

Well, like most things, the first step is realising what we’re doing and accepting that we may have a problem.

Secondly, if you really value information on a specific topic, choose legitimate sources. Use proper research methods and read a variety of diverse opinions on either side of a topic.

I also think that we seriously need to accept that, sometimes, we may very well be wrong.

We often allow bigots, naive people and internet trolls to ruffle us so much that we cling to our beliefs as part of our identity with utter disgust of other’s opinions. The problem then is that we apply the same defensiveness to rational, educated debate. We even think that if we change our opinion on a topic, it’s a sign of weakness or frivolity.

In actual fact, changing your mind and opinions based on new information is one of the most intelligent and creative things you can do.

I guess that we just need to be really careful about subscribing to only self-fulfilling sources and perhaps we need to make a conscious effort to push ourselves outside our comfort zone and allow uncomfortable information and views in.

We need our pulse on the world in general and this involves understanding global opinions that include the good, bad and downright ugly. I’m not suggesting some wishy-washy “everyone’s right”, let’s all sit around the campfire of collective consciousness and sing ‘Kumbahyah’ but… I think it’s simply dangerous if we surround ourselves only with people and media that agree with our values and beliefs and that this can ultimately stunt our mental growth as human beings in a diverse, imperfect and sometimes screwed-up world.

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