Saturday, August 1, 2015

Know the whole story, you moron!

What the human being is best at doing, is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact - Warren Buffet

I initially wanted to title this piece Media segmentation and the confirmation bias. (Yawn! Yeah, I know.)  Glad to have your attention.
Aldous Huxley once famously said that facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. But if that incredible writer were alive today, he might want to reconsider or rewrite that quote. As far as the modern netizen is concerned, most of the content (s)he counters on the internet is to her/his liking. There are simple logical reasons for that:

1) While on FB, your brain constantly seeks posts that appeal to you. Your spend most of the time consuming content linked to these posts. When you come across a post you find disgusting, and if you are a typical FB user, you will SHOUT out a fitting reply and enjoy reading comments similar to yours. Is it any wonder that quotes, opinions and other kinds of memes that make you a 2-minute philosopher are going viral?
2) Your favourite news sites, portals, columnists and writers are your favourites for a reason. They comfort you and tell you the story from your favourite point of view.
3) You follow those handles on Twitter that already cater to your content taste
4) You use a search engine. And search engines love to profile you - slot you into a neat category. In other words, these engines know all or almost all of the following about you: gender, religious beliefs, nationalistic leanings, financial ideology (socialist, capitalist, intensely capitalistic, capital fundamentalist etc), political affiliations, hedonistic indulgences (food, drink, sex etc), leisure preferences (movies, music, travel etc), sexual orientation, literary tastes, ecological ideology and so on. Who knows, maybe in the future, your profile information could be used to create a robotic clone of you. That robot might not look as cool as you, but it will be just as intelligent about some things and just as moronic about others.

I hope I have riled you sufficiently by now. Does it soothe you to know that I catch myself being moronic every single day? Case in point being a disagreement I had with a friend about unconditional love. Within moments, both of us sent each other articles that subscribed to our viewpoint on the subject.

Even more telling is my exploration of what I call "spiritual determinism" - an idea propped up by burgeoning cults. The reigning Goddess of one such cult is Rhonda Byrne, the author of The secret. A book that wants you to believe that we can redesign our thoughts to re-programming their "vibrations", thereby creating spectacular results. In other words, we actually control everything that happens to us. Furthermore, we get exactly what we want. Everything. If that fat man expelled gas while riding up the elevator with you, you were craving for a whiff of methane. If you got blown up by a terrorist bomb, you and those 200 other idiots in the same train compartment wanted exactly that. If you got raped, you were jouncing for rough sex. Well, you get the picture.
As a counselor, I came across two clients who, while experiencing depression, read The secret. This made them feel like scum. They now wondered if they subconsciously wanted misery. Their depression deepened. So... I experienced the impact of this stupid idea with some intensity. Made me furious about these cults who roam around spewing a venomous idea. I scoured the internet, seeking slander against the idea. I found reams of such material. Gave me some solace.
Then one day, I decided to explore the idea from another standpoint. If a person has had a reasonably happy life and is pursuing excellence, how would this book occur to him? If he likes the idea, he might find more motivation to aim higher. He might even achieve a few of his goals. When he fails, he will believe (as the book asks him to) that he subconsciously didn't believe in succeeding. No harm, no foul. And since he now believes that kindness always begets kindness, he might be kinder to people. He will enjoy this idea till he dies or the bubble bursts. Cool.
Despite believing that polar opposite ideas have equal validity in different contexts, my emotions got the better of me on this subject. And my search engine didn't help me find the middle path either.

Never before has the media been more segmented. Never before have media houses been under more pressure to be "sticky" for their target audiences. Never before have those target audiences had such specific, narrow tastes. In fact, media barons and brand consultants are increasingly beginning introspection exercises by asking: who is NOT the client? By a process of elimination, they define their unique positions and identities.
So what can you do to obtain holistic perspectives on any topic, knowing that the very technology you use throws obstacles in your path? How do you plunder the depths of this medium with more than a trillion pages?
My process begins with a simple rule: if I find everything I read about a topic agreeable, I haven't read enough. See if the rest of my process makes sense to you:
1) Beware of "exception" conditions. We love to term facts that don't fit into our worldview as exceptions. Darwin, that most exacting chronicler, was no different. As a countermeasure, he took to quickly jotting down all exceptions and contradictions. He knew that our brain actively "forgets" discomforting evidence. Is it any wonder that he is most accurate scientist of that era?
2) Actively seek the opposite viewpoint. You'll have to routinely clear your browser history, use a browser that you haven't before, use the "Private Session" feature of your browser, or even use somebody else's computer - so that you can come across information that Google would otherwise "protect" you from. Also, use broad unopinionated phrases. Your blood pressure might spike from reading obnoxious beliefs held by those "other" people. On the other hand, you might learn something new.

If I didn't catch myself being moronic, I'd prescribe some more countermeasures for you. But this should suffice to begin to fight back against confirmation biases. If we could do the same against about 200 more well-documented cognitive distortions, we might actually make meaningful and sustainable progress as a species. That could augur well for our great grandchildren.

P.S: I owe a debt of gratitude to Rolf Dobelli, the author of The art of thinking clearly - and not just for informing this post.
P.P.S: Watch House MD to be amazed by a character who refuses to be comforted by platitudes or rationalizations. If somebody has created a character with higher critical thinking powers, I'd love to know about it.
P.P.P.S: Pic credit goes to these folks.