I tend to like people who agree with me. They are make me feel heard and often validate my self-perception. When I surround myself with “like minded” people my world feels safe, predictable and under control. However, if I never hear an idea or opinion that differs from mine, how will I deepen my thinking or broaden my worldview?
Scientists call this tendency to surround ourselves with people who agree with us Confirmation Bias and our brains are hard-wired for it. It is part of what makes us social beings and has helped us survive as a species for millennia. It also means that we often ignore or are unconsciously threatened by things that contradict our world view (Knoblauch-Westerwick and Meng, 2009). Confirmation bias accounts for our tendency to make choices based on information that supports our biases and assumptive worldview. Information from things like religion, political affiliations, and social groups. Not only do we make choices to belong to groups comprised of individuals who confirm our views, we are also influenced by individuals who belong to those same groups, institutions, affiliations.
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has found that our decisions are strongly influenced by our environment in what he calls the everybody else is doing it effect (Ariely, 2014). He found, through his studies on lying and unethical behavior, that when individuals identified a person as part of their social group (read: “like minded”) they were more likely to adopt the other person’s behavior. In Ariely’s research, students who saw a participant who was a fellow student (in this case Princeton) cheat and get by with it, they were more likely to cheat as well.
If we tend to surround ourselves with people who confirm our worldview and if we are influenced by those same individuals, how much more powerful are these influences with the addition of social media?
Social media is defined as social communities that use forms of electronic communication for users to share information, photos, videos, personal messages and other online content (Merriam Webster, 2016).
Social media has also taken the “everybody else is doing it” effect to a whole new level. Given that it has only been around since 2009, and only increasing, the true effects of social media are yet to be determined. What we do know is that social media transmits messages rapidly and exponentially, and is a natural conduit for, and likely amplifies confirmation bias. In addition, most social media is, at best, a disconnected (non-face to face) form of communication and, at worst, completely anonymous.
How our Communication has Changed Since the Birth of our Nation
Unlike the myriad options to communicate and form social groups today, in the early part of our nation’s development, there were only a few; and they were, by today’s standards, grindingly slow. One could speak to others face to face, read a newspaper or other written publication, disseminate flyers or other written material or communicate through public debate, forum or other physical gathering. Through these types of communication, one was often face to face with the person or persons with whom they were communicating, which would provide a natural and very human way to debate and discuss ideas, morals, values and opinions.
Another natural important difference between communication during the early years of our nation and communication today is time. Precisely because written transmissions of communication were so slow, they allowed time for people not only to talk face to face and to absorb and process their own thoughts and feelings, but time to reflect upon the ideas of those around them. Thus, the process of confirming one’s world view was a slow, deep, ongoing and bounded. There were only a limited number of individuals within one’s social circle because there was limited access to those outside one’s physical proximity. This bounded social grouping was important. If one disagreed with another, there was a certain amount of interaction that one was forced to have with that person-like it or not. Today, one has access, through the internet, to anyone else who has a computer in the entire world. And through social media, one can select those who confirm their world view with the click of a mouse or a quick change of settings, thus, narrowing and refining one’s world view and confirming one’s biases.
So the next time someone disagrees with you, take the time to consider their opinion, and perhaps respond with a thoughtful question. If you change your “settings” instead of the settings on your computer, you might be surprised at how much you can grow.