We have access to more information and analysis than ever before. But is it possible we’re becoming narrower in our perspectives? Is the internet and 24-hour media cycle compounding innate flaws in the way we process information?
A few months ago I began thinking about how we are more inclined to read, digest and share stories that support our existing point of view and tend to reject those that don’t, regardless of their source or credibility.
I was interested in how this tendency might shape our knowledge and perspectives over time and what it meant for conflict resolution. Can any of us claim to have an objective view on complex issues? How can we better empathise with our adversaries and find common ground? Should we humbly accept that we are probably missing at least part of the picture and do more to challenge our own narrative?
While I didn’t know it at the time, I was writing about something called confirmation bias. Psychologists have studied this phenomenon since at least the 1960s and have used it to explain everything from the behaviour of overconfident investors to conspiracy theories and the persistence of widely discredited beliefs. Recently, the concept has featured prominently in efforts to understand our fierce disagreements over climate change.
Confirmation bias is probably nothing new. No doubt an evolutionary psychologist could come up with a fascinating story of how it gave our ancestors some sort of adaptive advantage. But today it is compounded by other factors. One is the size and diversity of the media space. The other, which I’ll get to shortly, is the way we use the internet and apps to filter information for us.
So looking first at the media environment. Today we all have our preferred news sources. Me, I usually get my day’s first dose from ABC radio over breakfast before a quick scan of the SMH on the way to work. Next I’ll probably check my Twitter and FB feeds to see what my friends are digging up. Sometimes I’ll have a peek at Google News to see how other media are reporting the day’s stories but like most people I suspect, most of time I default to one or two preferred sources.
The fact that this only puts us in touch with how one portion of the world thinks is apparent the moment we stray outside our “media comfort zone”. Recently while out running and with no new podcasts to enjoy, I started listening to the FM radio built into my smartphone. Being only FM and with poor reception it became a choice between 2GB, 2Day, Triple M and Nova. Now, before you accuse me of being a snob, I’m not making any value judgements here. I’m merely acknowledging the striking differences between commercial radio and, well, my usual media of choice. And if differences in our listening habits are any indicator, one segment of the population really is on another planet from another.
Here I am obviously departing a little from the phenomenon of confirmation bias, which concerns our tendency to gather and retain information selectively. My point is that just as we favour information that concurs with our beliefs, so too we choose media channels and information sources that best fit our attitudes and personalities. In turn we limit the exposure we’re getting to alternative points of view. We can literally forget how the other half thinks.
During a panel discussion at the recent Sydney Writers Festival, Malcolm Turnbull spoke of how today’s media accentuates partisan divides and drives the polarisation of public opinion. According to Turnbull, there was a time in the US not so long ago that almost everyone, Republican or Democrat, would get their nightly news from Walter Cronkite on CBS. Significantly, the media in those days was also primarily in the business of broadcasting news, not hours and hours of commentary. Today, if you’re a Republican you tune in to Fox News for a dose of politically loaded “news”, commentary and Democrat bashing. Likewise, if you’re a Democrat you tune in to NBC or CNN for your own unashamedly partisan serving.
So on top of our innate confirmation bias, today we are driven further into different camps by our choice of media. But that’s not all. The world of web 2.0, automatic news aggregators, social media and personalised content has thrown something else into the mix.
On my iPad I have a nifty little app called Zite (short for Zeitgeist), one of many apps and websites that automatically aggregate suitable web content for us based either on filters that we set up ourselves or by its monitoring of our internet behaviour. “With so much information available online today, it’s increasingly difficult and time-consuming to find the content we want,” says the spiel in the app store.
Zite monitors my Twitter feed and keeps track of articles I read, building up a picture of my personal interests. The app then recommends further articles it thinks I might like, compiling them into a personalised magazine. I can help it along by giving a “thumbs up” to particular authors, news outlets or subjects that I’d like to hear more from. I’d only used it a few times before it presented me with a collection of articles neatly organised into categories. It was a little creepy to see that Zite had quickly discerned my interests as well or better than I knew them myself, placing them under categories that almost exactly matched the list of tags on my website.
That’s all good. And don’t get me wrong – tools like this clearly have their uses. But is it really giving me a “slice of the Zeitgeist” as its developers claim? Or is it pushing me further into my own camp by cleverly selecting a few snippets of information and commentary that it knows I will like, while screening out the other 99.999%?
Let’s think of some other ways that apps, search engines and other software filter information for us. Google gets to know us through everything from our web searches to keywords in our emails. It uses this data to present us with product adds, search tips and choices that are inevitably more likely to lead us further down the path of our existing interests than to expand our horizons.
With Facebook the process is more proactive. Naturally, we tend to be friends with people who share our views and ideals. So we are more likely to share among ourselves information and articles that confirm these. Twitter may have a similar effect, depending on how we use it. (I say this as I know many of us find Twitter a particularly useful tool for getting to grips with the full spectrum of opinion, deliberately following individuals and news outlets who we don’t agree with.)
So where does this leave us? Arguably, most of this filtering is harmless. Perhaps even positive. It may help us connect with others, pursue hobbies and interests with greater satisfaction and avoid drowning in an ocean of information.
But when we find ourselves clashing over complex issues it pays to be acutely aware of our own confirmation bias, the media filter, and the various ways in which we either select information or have it selected for us.
This is not the same as saying that all information and opinion is equally valid. I am a staunch defender of the scientific method and as aghast as the next person at our loss of respect for true expertise and hard-won knowledge.
Nonetheless, accepting all the above, I think that if we want to find common ground on which to resolve conflicts, we’d do well to spend more time exploring contrary opinions and the information and values that underlie them, making the effort to speak to those outside our usual circles and be more accepting the limitations of our own intellect.
Oh crap, does that mean I need to go through another dose of commercial radio? Damn it! Shot myself in the foot again.