Discover more from The Wisdom Project
Confirmation Bias: Why we live in Filter Bubbles, how they harm us, and what can we do about them?
Wisdom Letter #49 | Mind Your Brain
Have you heard about filter bubbles?
Its the idea that we only encounter opinions on the internet which are very similar to our own. The various social media algorithms tune their recommendations to serve us content that they already know we like.
Our social media feeds are based on the type of content that we have interacted with before. This results in the narrowing down of the kind of content we consume online, It reduces the probability of us interacting with any ideas and opinions not conforming to our own.
The Feedback Loop
This algorithmic curation turns into an endless feedback loop, a vicious circle, and the scope of our content consumption keeps getting narrower and narrower.
What results is a kind of a bubble of thoughts and ideas that we end up spending most of our online lives in.
These bubbles are called "Filter Bubbles".
Sometime they are also referred to as "Echo Chambers".
That's because we build walls around ourselves that echo back our own ideas and thoughts day in and day out. We don't interact with non-conforming opinions, which prevents us from ever breaking down these walls and ever escaping our echo chambers.
COVID & China
Lets talk about COVID and China for a bit.
In a pre-COVID world(all those years ago!) if you were an admirer of China’s politics, grit and hard-work then the virus outbreak wouldn’t have changed your opinion of the country now. You would still love them.
And back then, if you were a critic of the country and its controversial governing philosophy and politics, then their handling of the virus outbreak wouldn’t have changed your opinion of the country now. You would still hate them.
Look at a few statements about the Corona Virus and China—
China gave the virus to the world, it originated in the wet markets of Wuhan, or maybe a bio-weapons lab in Wuhan. Look at all the Chinese company stocks rise during the pandemic.
There is no evidence that the spread of the virus was an intentional ploy by the Chinese, it is not a bio-weapon, its a viral outbreak like SARS or MERS, one that epidemiologists have been predicting for a while now.
The COVID numbers coming out of China are not reliable, they are faking it, plenty more people must have died there, we just don’t know about them.
The way China has dealt with the virus is commendable, swift action at the right time has ensured the control of the outbreak. Its a model everyone else should learn from.
Your echo chambers will make sure that you see some version of 2 out of these 4 statements day in and day out. The 2 that you do see depends on what you already believed before the virus outbreak.
You will have to go out of your way to look at the other 2 dis-confirming opinions, and you will have to do a lot of work to study the logic behind those arguments.
Your filter bubbles are just confirming your existing biases, even a once in a century global pandemic cannot budge your strong held beliefs about a foreign country.
As you can imagine, there can be enormous downside to living in filter bubbles.
Most importantly, you are not exposed to fresh ideas. Which impacts your ability to broaden your mindset and grow as a human being.
It prevents you from becoming the best version of yourself.
In fact, echo chambers ensure that you end up becoming the worst version of yourself.
All your fears and insecurities get heightened with constant repetition, all your false beliefs get strengthened by constant regurgitation within your echo chambers.
You don't receive any evidence against your wrong held beliefs so you are never forced to question them, let alone change them.
Think about a hypochondriac individual, one who believes that there is a brain tumor lurking behind every mild head ache. Think about how super- scared he must be of the Corona virus right now.
How his social media feeds and search engine must be feeding into his fear of falling sick. How hard it must be for him to get information about managing the risk of the virus.
How can he know that with the right precautions, life can get back on track, he can go to work, earn a living and still stay free from the virus.
He may be missing out on vital lessons to live a full life in a post-COVID world.
Now, lets be honest. You are not perfect. Nobody's perfect.
Your beliefs are formed over a lifetime of varied accumulated experiences. They are always a "work in progress", constantly evolving and changing.
Exposing yourself to fresh thoughts from diverse people ensures that you constantly upgrade your thinking and your models of the world.
But your echo chambers prevent you from doing that. They ensure that you don't receive any diverse opinions and keep reinforcing the same stale beliefs that you already have.
This makes you angry, anxious and constantly stressed out.
You become full of resentment towards the world. You start getting enraged at the silliest of arguments and are ready to spew hate at anyone daring to cross your path online.
All this mixes up in your brain and gives rise to the hate you see all around you on social media today. It seems like ever since we came online, we, as a species have lost the ability to have a civil debate about any issue.
This also leaves us prone to negative black swan events both in our personal lives as well as in the world around us.
Black swans which are actually found to be grey rhinos when observed closely. But we miss those gray rhinos because we live in our own tiny little echo chambers oblivious of what is going on outside.
Its imperative then, that you breakout of your bubbles and learn to receive diverse opinions in your online lives. For that, you must first understand why these bubble form.
Why does it happen?
What causes filter bubbles or echo chambers to form at all in the first place?
The answer lies in one of the most commonly known cognitive biases called "Confirmation Bias".
Take any piece of information on the news today, and think about what your opinion is about the central issue in that news. There's a good chance that your opinion will be very close to your previously held opinion about the issue.
Even if the new information is absolutely against that opinion.
For instance, think about the news of a new experimental drug or a vaccine for Corona Virus. Lets say it gets endorsed by a controversial politician. Somebody who polarizes public sentiment for a living.
Now, instead of going deep into the research of the medicine and finding out more details about its efficacy, you will immediately pick a side and form an opinion.
If you are on the side of the politician, you will support the medicine no matter what, and if you are against the politician, you will be against the drug no matter what.
You will remain with your old familiar position irrespective of the actual details of the experimental treatment.
You won’t do the hard-work of reading up on the matter, and may be, just for once maybe, changing your stance on the issue.
This happens because your brain is lazy.
Your brain again.
Your brain is a moist computer with an obsession for conserving energy.
So it hates doing the hard work of investigating new information for non-confirming evidence. It just hangs on to any bit of information that already agrees with the models it has formed previously.
And in case there are some gaps in the new information? It just fills them up with past knowledge and sits happily with the satisfaction that its previously held opinions are not challenged at all.
In fact, almost all new information only cements old opinions even further.
Holding multiple contradictory ideas in the brain at the same time can lead to cognitive dissonance. A state which our brain doesn't enjoy much.
Your brain’s response to cognitive dissonance is akin to physical pain in the body. Its not welcome!
Dealing with contradictory ideas means diving deep into issues, thinking long about them, and trying to find a nuanced position which lies somewhere in the middle.
This is hard work for the brain, and a huge drain on your energy levels. Your lazy brain just hates doing that.
The Backfire Effect
A related idea to Confirmation Bias is the backfire effect.
When a friend or a news site or a twitter handle tries to present evidence that dis-confirms your previously held beliefs, you dig in further in those beliefs. All attempts to change your position by external forces backfire and end up strengthening that position further.
This happens because your brain tries to protect itself, it sees dis-confirming evidence as an attack on your identity, your ego, on you.
We see this all the time in online arguments these days, any issue quickly devolves into a 2-sided debate with each party ignoring any facts or evidence presented by the other side.
Its like they are talking past each other, instead of talking to each other.
Its evident that we live in a post-truth world where facts don’t matter, people believe what they want to believe, and all attempts to change their mind will backfire.
The Backfire effect is a relic from the past, its a survival instinct from our days of the African Savannah thousands of years ago. It has no place in the modern world, yet our brain clings on to it.
What can we do?
We can override the brain.
Yes, Yes we can!
We humans have been bestowed with our minds to rein in our brains.
We can consciously use our minds to sort through conflicting opinions and discover the nuance of an issue. Howsoever difficult it may be, we can hold multiple contradictory opinions in our head at a time.
Its a painful process, your brain hates doing it, your ever reducing attention span isn’t helping either, and your filter bubbles and echo chambers are making it worse by the day.
But you must do it, you must do everything you can to override your base instincts and think actively rather than being lead astray like sheep.
Coming back to the ‘COVID & China’ example discussed above, its important to note that there is no single source of “news” or “media” that will present all 4 statements together on one page for you.
And yet, that is your best strategy against confirmation bias, you must literally put opposing ideas together in front of your eyes on a single page and try to think through them, and appreciate the contradictions and messiness in the head that this process creates.
You must actively seek out new types of information from new sources, that is the only way your mind can explore and expand.
All of mainstream and social media is hell bent upon painting a nice clear picture of the world for your consumption, it wants to keep you away from all the messiness of the real world because its hard to digest and even harder to grab eye-balls with.
Its not aligned to their incentives.
But real life is not a clear picture, its messy and complex and self contradictory. And we can only make sense of it if we actively work towards forming our own understanding of the world.
Think about it.
Some Practical Tips to beat Confirmation Bias
Actively seek out diverse topics and people in your social media feeds.
Whenever you see a piece of news you care about, you should make an effort to look for evidence that doesn't conform to your previously held opinions.
Look for new takes on old issues, look for criticisms to your dearly held opinions, do the work required to hold an opinion.
Whenever you take a big life changing decision, actively seek dis-confirming opinions from people around you.
When you embark on a new project, do a Pre-Mortem— brainstorm all the ways the project can go wrong, write down a news story headline on the day the project will fail in the future. What will the news story say about how and why the project failed. List all of it down and now plan the project to cover all the bases.
We hope these steps will help you broaden your world view and think about issues better. They should help you beat confirmation bias and become a better version of yourself.
This post is part of a series where we explore the complex love-hate relationship between our minds and brains, find out more about the series— Mind Your Brain
Find out more about how the brain functions, read The Brain by David Eagleman. Its a science book written for non-scientists like us.
Checkout Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky. Its the seminal book on the workings of our minds and systems of thinking.
Also checkout SuperThinking by Gabriel Weinberg & Lauren McCann, its like the bible of cognitive biases and mental models.
If you’ve received this post from a friend, hit the subscribe button below to receive such Wisdom Letters directly in your inbox next week. It will help you spend your Sundays wisely.
Not an Email person? Subscribe to The Wisdom Project on Whatsapp to receive shots of wisdom directly on your phone.
Or ‘Like’ us on our Facebook Page. We will be in your feed and stories with byte size pieces of wisdom.
Wisdom is like love. It spreads when you share it with someone. Tell someone about this post and spread some wisdom :)
This was Wisdom Letter #49. In case you want to revisit any of the previous 48 letters, checkout our entire archive.
If you are wondering what this project is all about, checkout this intro post we wrote a while back.
Tell us what you liked or disliked about today’s letter. We really appreciate all the responses that we get and are hungry for more. Hit reply or leave a comment.
Aditi & Ayush
None of the links that we share here are affiliate links. We don’t intend to make money off of your purchases of any books or products that we recommend. These are honest recommendations that have worked for us and we share them without any ulterior motives.