Facebook is a helpful way to keep in contact with old friends who you would otherwise lose touch with. I reconnected with someone I had not had more than passing contact within a number of years. What surprised me was that this person and I have wildly different political viewpoints. My first thought was “I bet she doesn’t know many people like me.” My second thought was “Why don’t I have more people like her in my circle?” To be candid, I have no interest in her favored political candidate. As a matter of fact, I am repulsed by this candidate. But, perhaps there is some merit in this person who has garnered enough support to be a presidential candidate. This encounter made me realize that my contacts are largely like-minded people, who support my perspectives, rather than challenge my thinking. And sometimes, our deeply held opinions are wrong, or don’t serve our best interests.
We would like to believe that our beliefs are rational, logical and objective. However, the fact is that we all fall prey to paying attention to the information that supports our beliefs and we ignore the information that challenges our assumptions.
People are biased toward confirming their existing beliefs. Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret and favor information that confirms one’s beliefs while giving less consideration to alternate information. This bias exists when we selectively take in information or interpret it in a biased way. This is especially true for emotionally charged issues and deeply held beliefs, such as a favored political party. With these charged issues, there is a tendency to interpret neutral or ambiguous evidence as confirming an initial belief. As a matter of fact, our attitude can become polarized when faced with a foreign belief, our beliefs can persist after evidence is shown to be false, and we can have a tendency to rely on information gathered early in a series, rather than later. Confirmatory bias can cause an inability to logically evaluate the opposite side of an argument.
Michela Del Vicario studied Facebook users over a five-year period to test a question: When people are online, do they encounter opposing views, or do they create the equivalent of gated communities? They found that users tend to choose and share stories containing messages they accept, and to neglect those they reject. If a story fits with what people already believe, they are more likely to be interested in it and spread it. The result is the formation of a cluster of like ideas. Once people find that others agree with them, they become more confident in their beliefs and then more extreme. Efforts to debunk falsehoods are often ignored, and when people pay attention to them, they actually strengthen their commitment to the false idea.
I’m told there are algorithms within every social network and search engine that provides users with personalized, and ultimately skewed, results. For example, if we click “like” on a post that we agree with, we will be presented with more posts of this nature, and less of the posts that we disagree with. Facebook confirmed in a paper that it often shows users news from users with similar political beliefs, and on average, you’re about 6 percent less likely to see content that the other political side favors. This means that who you’re friends with and their political beliefs influence what you see.
It is good to entertain divergent opinions. Befriend people across the spectrum of political, economic, racial, gender and religious realms. Engage in meaningful conversation with them as a means to challenge your thinking and assumptions.