It’s a remarkably important question – our actions are shaped by our view of the world, and our view of the world is largely shaped by the information we have at our disposal . . . and just as critically, by the information we don’t.
I remember discussing bias in newspapers on my A-Level General Studies course in school: left wing, right wing, progressive, conservative, reactionary etc. The teacher told us that people tended to chose a newspaper that reflected their own views, and suggested we should also read others from time to time; advice largely wasted on us, since most of us just read whatever newspaper our parents bought !
Her point of course was that we wouldn’t get the full complex picture from just one source.
It seemed wise advice at the time, but I’ve come to think she was only half right.
It’s not just that we tend to want news that confirms our existing view of the world (confirmation bias), but it’s also that our views of the world are, over time, shaped by the news we consume.
We’re just not as rational as we like to think – we tend to support arguments and ideas just because we’re familiar with them (exposure effect), we all respond to information differently based on how it’s presented (framing), we over-emphasize biases that differ from our own (hostile media effect), we often want to do and think the opposite of what anyone tells us (reactance), and we pay more attention to negative news than positive news because we’re programmed to respond to threats (negativity bias).
When we only had ten newspapers to chose from and three TV channels it was a fairly straightforward choice.
As is often the case, the arrival of the internet has made things both better and worse.
If we want to inform ourselves with a broad range of information and opinion we have now only to click – but the problem is we usually don’t.
We tend to stick to a limited number of sources that reflect our existing views and that we feel comfortable with. Another concern is the increasing amount of personal customization by Google, Facebook, Twitter and others, which is further reinforcing this trend. These sites all want to make it easy for us to find things similar to what we already like, and increasingly tend to offer us up more of the same, which means less diversity. Eli Pariser discusses this issue in his book The Information Bubble, and his interesting TED talk below.
I’ve come to think our limited willingness to explore points of view different to our own, and our limited awareness of the lives of people different to ourselves, is a important aspect of many of the world’s problems.
We’re more familiar with the lives of superstar footballers, pop idols, or fictional soap stars than we are of the world’s billion poorest people. We’re more willing to read opinionated blogs or columns on climate change, tar sands or international aid than we are to find out the facts for ourselves.
If we make little effort to understand the complexity of the world and its problems, or become familiar with the suffering and hardship of others, then we’re unlikely to be either motivated to try to change anything, or even if we do, stand much chance of being succesful.
Photo by NS Newsflash