And internet companies like Facebook have exploited it

By Dave Ellison, Pelican Rapids

Contributing columnist 

Our country is divided; some say more than at any time since the Civil War. Red vs blue, with way too little purple in between. Why? 

There’s no shortage of fervently held, sharply divided opinions on TV, radio, Facebook, and Twitter. Most of them boil down to something like “They (those who disagree with us) are idiots (or thieves, Socialists, fascists, racists, elitists) because…” 

Fortunately there are smart, thoughtful men and women who prefer careful observation to shouting. Cognitive and social psychologists have been studying how our species makes decisions for several decades. What they’ve learned through years of rigorous experiments explains a lot about the mess we’re in and points to a way out. 

It’s all about bias. 

When a psychologist says “bias” she refers to a long list of common errors of thinking or perception that are made by humans of all ages and political persuasions. 

As an emergency physician I was very fortunate to recognize several nonlethal errors of thinking early in my career that dramatically exposed some of my own biases. The experience sparked an enduring interest in the study of cognitive errors. 

One way to think of these errors is mental shortcuts or rules of thumb. In many ways the information processing capabilities of the human brain compared to that of a good laptop or even a cell phone is pathetic. We make up for our lack of brute processing power with an array of very efficient mental shortcuts or cognitive biases. The reason we use them is that they work… most of the time. When they don’t we can make very serious errors and never see why.

Confirmation bias is possibly the most common. 

When a piece of evidence or an observation confirms what we already believe, we are much more likely to see it as credible. When it conflicts with what we “know” we usually ignore it. So we go through life seeing what fits with what we believe and ignoring everything else. 

The internet has exploited, magnified, and monetized this flaw in our thinking. Internet sites track and remember what you look at, like, and are interested in, and then show you more of the same. Your attention is their product. They sell your data to anyone who wants to know how to grab your attention to sell you their product, candidate, or world view.

It works. It works so well that Facebook, Google, and other online companies are the biggest and most profitable on the planet. Unfortunately there’s a hidden cost. To keep you engaged websites, media, and social networks are designed to show you more and more intense images and stories. Fear, anger, outrage keep us looking for more. The result is that we all end up more firmly convinced of more extreme versions of what we already believed and, of course, Mark Zuckerberg gets even richer. We are being manipulated. Our worldview is being distorted for profit. 

The antidote, the way out, is not easy. Media feels good. It’s like having your brain tickled. Many of the reward circuits involved in gambling or drug dependence are activated by media. The more we use radio, TV, Facebook,Twitter, the more we want to watch or listen. 

Withdrawal is uncomfortable, but necessary. 

The first step is to pay attention to how it affects us. How do I feel after I watch the news or look at Facebook? Do I really want to feel anxious or angry? If not, walk away. The next step is even more important. Find something to replace it, something real and constructive. Do something. Talk with a friend or even better make a friend. Listen carefully to someone you disagree with. Look for common ground. Most of us just want to be heard and respected. 

This spiral of fear, anger, hatred, and isolation is no accident and it’s not inevitable. 

We can stop it … together.