how confirmation bias became the most valuable and dangerous product in the world

A massively profitable global industry got that way by showing people only what they already believe. Now we’re dealing with the fallout.
crap for brains
Illustration by James Speed

According to a quote typically attributed to Winston Churchill, a fanatic is someone who won’t change their mind and refuses to change the subject. Normally, we tend to steer clear of such fanatics because if you’re arguing with someone yelling insane things on a street corner, you’ve already lost. But over the last decade, an insidious new idea took over social media and news startups. What if instead of fact checking and ignoring unproven, fringe ideas, they gave armies of fanatics exactly what they wanted? Think the moon is made of cheese? Sure. Convinced the world is ran by Satanic alien cannibal pedophiles? Why not. Need to find like-minded friends to dissolve an elected government over a public health measure? Go nuts.

If there’s an opinion you hold near and dear, there are a dozen pundits and sites ready to pat you on the head and take you further down whatever rabbit hole you want to go, as well as a noxious group of self-aggrandizing navel-gazers ready to throw themselves in front of those grifters to defend them from any consequences or criticism. Why? Simple. Because it makes money. In general, people like to be right and hate being wrong, so much so that when you’re confronted with evidence that your beliefs aren’t true, you may experience actual, physical discomfort as your brain has to work much harder to adapt to the new reality and re-align a worldview that may now form the bedrock of your identity.

Even more concerningly, people with more extreme views have a lower ability to understand nuance, making them less capable of performing mental tasks with lots of moving parts or a relatively large scope. It takes them longer to take in the big picture, and the bigger and more complicated the picture, the more time they have to spend processing it or to make decisions because they appear to treat any new stimuli with caution, and the more conservative they are, the more likely they are to negatively respond to novelty. It may be a significant part of what makes them gravitate to authoritarian or extremist ideologies because they simplify the world and validate fear and anger.

the business of confirmation bias

Simply put, a lot of research shows that the more conservative someone is, the more driven by fear they tend to be. And in the never-ending quest of social media algorithms to give everyone more of what they want to keep their eyes glued to the screens for ads, no matter how bad it may be, and the competition among writers, pundits, and podcasters to produce content which gets the most engagement for revenue-sharing deals and high-profile speaking gigs, what those people get fed ends up being fear and outrage. Instead of informing and educating them, their streams reenforce their preconceptions and fears, and introduce new ones, which makes them seek new things to fear or be angry about.

It’s even worse when the content keeping their attention is more subtle and buries a lot of that confirmation bias between hundreds of layers of fluff. Consider Joe Rogan, whose vast army of passionate defenders insist that he “just talks to all sorts of people and lets them answer.” And that’s all well and good, except when he talks to a Holocaust-denying neo-Nazi, or a conspiracy theorist responsible for years of harassment of parents whose children killed by a mass shooter at an elementary school, doesn’t do any meaningful pushback, and allows people sympathetic to those views to walk away with validation of their worst biases and impulses. It ensures that people keep tuning in but raises the question of why.

Of course, the answer to that is because they walk away with the dopamine rush of validation, and the economic incentives created by social media mean that it’s more important to either shock people with outrage bait or let them nod approvingly than it is to actually challenge or inform them. Any real cognitive dissonance means they just won’t spend as much time on an app or a site to see enough ads for you to make a profit, and if you don’t give them what they want, there’s no shortage of competitors happy to provide exactly that. And again, this is all well and good when you’re looking for more cute puppy videos or trying to navigate through thousands of recipes, but beyond dangerous when it comes to news and science.

the monstrously abused free speech excuse

Now comes the time when an army of “free speech warriors” appears to warn us about the horrors and cruelty of “cancelling someone” who was only exercising their right to legal and free speech. (Notably, the same group of people is oddly absent when school districts and the political activists pressuring them ban and burn books, and demand to establish a very literal thought police.) But this is a profound and bad faith misrepresentation of the problem. They aren’t defending people from jail time for saying something objectionable, they’re trying to defend them from the consequences of saying those objectionable things and stifle others’ right to free speech in criticizing them and voting with their feet and wallets.

What we’ve ended up with is a media environment where if your confirmation bias isn’t met, you can shop around the web until you find things with which you finally agree, and if one of your favorite sources for this confirmation bias is criticized or has to deal with an angry public, various social media influencers, grifters, and talking heads will swoop in to shield them from any consequences whatsoever, painting them as free speech martyrs. But far from defending freedom of speech, they’re defending freedom from consequence and criticism, demanding we tolerate intolerance because if you criticize literal Nazis waiving swastikas, well, you’re just as bad as them for refusing to give them a platform and a safe space to spew hate.

If that sounds monstrously, monumentally stupid, that’s because it is when you strip all those arguments of their purple prose about “freedom of speech and thought,” and point out the glaring hypocrisy of those who deploy them daily. The pseudo-intellectual shock jocks whose only skill to is to suck all the oxygen out of a room have absolutely no interest in anything past advancing their own grift and making sure their fans keep on nodding their heads and feeling heard and appreciated no matter how extreme their views become, warped by being force fed algorithm-boosted fear and outrage. This is why they gloss over the disturbing resurgence of actual out and proud Nazis and fascists; they’re afraid of losing likes and follows.

how to get out of the confirmation bias trap

All right, fine, you may be thinking. Confirmation bias is bad, and people are lying to me for a lot of money while entire platforms are built on nothing more than trying to rile me up. What am I supposed to do, fight my brain’s natural urges? Actually, yes. Exactly that. Knowing that brains are lazy and ripe for being exploited means you can develop a healthy shield of skepticism and critical thinking. Sadly, these terms were also hijacked by Grift, Inc. to pretend that selling you what you want to hear makes them visionaries with valuable advice and insight. But applying actual skepticism and critical thinking pulls you out of a lot of very unsavory clutches, and saves you a lot of money and stress, while leading to healthier public discourse.

What does that look like? It starts not by “getting all sides of the story” because that may be a huge waste of time and effort, since contrary to popular platitudes, not every opinion and hot take is worth examining. No, it starts with a simple question. What would it take to change my mind about this issue, and is that possible? First, that makes your mind more receptive to new viewpoints because you decided you will look for them. Second, it allows you to question your dedication to an existing opinion. If you say that nothing will ever change your mind, or that no lesser authority than a deity descending from the heavens could shake your faith, you’re very likely being unreasonable and need to reevaluate your stance and why you have it.

Unfortunately, this won’t work on people whose identities are now based around believing a contrarian worldview and that’s all they have going for themselves, and for people who have extreme views, id often wins out over reason. Some people are just lost causes, as cruel as it may sound, unable and unwilling to learn or change or challenge themselves, and no amount of prodding them will help. In fact, it may actually make them worse. But for many people, simply breaking free of going along with media personalities who only want to tell you what you want is already easy. All they need to do is keep their guard up and consider the enormous damage shielding public ignoramuses from consequences for their words and actions has done.

# politics // confirmation bias / psychology / social media

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