Friday, July 29, 2016

Shocking news can be a habit-forming drug

I read "The Information Diet" by Clay Johnson a few years ago.  He explained that he worked hard in a group of staffers for Howard Dean's presidential campaign. He was stunned when his candidate did poorly in some state primary elections.  Later, he realized that for months, he had only read and talked to people equally ardent about his candidate and had essentially been in a news bubble that effectively kept competing information out of his path.  A related book by Eli Pariser called "The Filter Bubble" focuses on the way people can arrange what seems like a flow of information and news for themselves but that is actually personalized to the extent that only news of a certain kind gets to them. 

I have read that Fox News is a leading, possibly THE leading news organization and that it has advanced, at least in part, by focusing on the news some people want to hear.  As far as I can tell, there is no way around the problem of having only limited and biased information in your mind.  Many experts can list mental habits that contribute to producing a one-sided mental picture of things.  One of the most basic and commonly mentioned is "confirmation bias". 

To quote from a previous post:

We have a couple, Mary and John.  Mary is quite annoyed when she finds the toilet seat up, especially if she doesn't realize its position until after sitting down.  John is pretty much a sharpshooter but realizes he needs to raise the seat before firing.  He knows that he does and she knows he doesn't. 

Prof. N. makes clear that when the confirmation bias is operating, John notes with pride, satisfaction and some feeling of unfairly being persecuted each time he does indeed raise the seat and lowers it afterwards.  Mary notes with a feeling that she is a good observer who remembers accurately when she is treated unfairly each time she finds the seat up.  The professor's point is that instances that confirm the position of each are noted while instances that do not confirm the ideas of each are handled quite differently.  Each notes with pride times that confirm their own position while sometimes literally not seeing instances that disconfirm their picture.  

Of course, either or both could take the nerdy approach and make a chart to keep a record of toilet seat positions.  They might install security cameras that could supply data as to what happened when.  However, without outside and impartial aid, our couple might go on for years, each staunchly maintaining their view, all the while feeling that they have actual experiences to back them up.  Each is correct and both are wrong.

Mind you, this tendency to notice and note and remember data that confirms what supports our ideas is built into our minds.  That is why it makes sense for the reporters and their editors to fashion articles and headlines to confirm our suspicions that others are cheating, lying, dishonest rats.

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