As part of my day to day life, I work to increase my understanding of the world by exposing myself to new information and experiences. A decent portion of this is done by filling my commute and “filler” time with podcasts about various topics that interest me. In backtracking through the feed of one of my favorite podcasts, “Waking Up with Sam Harris,” I refreshed my memory by listening to his podcast with the economist Robin Hanson titled “Hidden Motives.” I will link to the podcast at the end of this post for you to listen as well. It’s a discussion about the hidden motives of our evolutionary psychology, and dives into our inner selfishness, hypocrisy, norms, signaling, and many other things we do as humans in our daily interactions. It got me thinking about a problem I often muse about to myself and others that stems entirely from our confirmation bias and need to maintain a consistent understanding about ourselves and the world around us. No doubt you’ve heard many people discuss the problem of echo-chambers, thought bubbles, group think, etc…but rarely do we actually attempt to combat these issues within ourselves. I’m not exactly certain why our collective evolutionary mind found these flaws to be conducive to survival, other than perhaps as a way to decrease anxiety in our ancestors, but needless to say it’s hurting us in our current day and age.
First, let’s examine what fuels this echo-chambering effect, and the chronic problem of placing ourselves into carefully selected information bubbles. There certainly seems to be an overwhelming psychological need for humans to preserve their current understanding of how the world works, and what’s “true” about the world around them. Presuppositions, or things that are assumed to be true before actually gaining the necessary information needed to verify their truth, play a large role in how we tend to seek out new information. In turn, we tend to seek out information which confirms our current understanding of the world (confirming our presuppositions). So, in the case of people who knowingly or unknowingly tailor their information inflow exclusively to right-wing or left-wing media, they’re doing so because their brain is — on some level — making a concerted effort to confirm its world-view. I think that this is incredibly harmful to our development as a species. This is actually the type of activity that police detectives try to avoid doing when investigating cases and assessing crime scenes. As Sherlock Holmes once pointed out, you must use facts to create theories, not the other way around. If you come into the situation with a theory already in mind, you will only consider facts that fit with your theory, and dismiss evidence that contradicts it. Similarly, if you function with presupposed ideas about what’s “true” about the world, you will find yourself giving primacy to information that fits with that worldview, and dismissing information that contradicts it. It’s truly amazing just how strongly some people will genuinely doubt the veracity of credible information, simply because it clashes with their worldview. It shouldn’t be difficult to see that this is a recipe for disaster, when it comes to trying to build a world that everyone can agree is fruitful, moral, and successful.
Secondly, we can see this phenomenon play out on a personal level as well. Not with presuppositions about the world, but with presuppositions we have about ourselves. Our attempts to confirm these presuppositions tend to materialize in our conversations and dialogue. Each of us has things we believe to be true about ourselves, but that inner belief isn’t sufficient, and so we seek to induce others into confirming that belief through our dialogue. Video-essay creator Nerdwriter1 phrases it perfectly saying, “when we speak to others, we’re often speaking to ourselves; attempting to frame dialogue so that the person we’re talking to will reflect back the things that we want to believe about us.” When we’re subtly trying to convince somebody that we’re a certain way, or have certain qualities, or know certain things, we’re also trying to convince ourselves of the same thing. We want the things we believe to be true about ourselves to be confirmed by those around us. It’s a cycle of information that keeps us comfortable, but leaves us ignorant of new information. It limits our brains from being able to further our understanding, because it’s safer to stick to what we want to be true. Where does this leave us ultimately?
The reason I write this isn’t just to harp on humanity’s flawed psychology, but to try and plant the idea that we should confront these tendencies, and intentionally subvert them. By making ourselves more aware of our brain’s tricks, perhaps that same brain can influence itself to abandon these defenses and pursue truth, regardless of the perceived danger of enlightenment. So I ask myself and the reader to intention yourself to seek new information, to embrace evidence that makes you uncomfortable, and to try and reevaluate your understanding of life and the world around you. Try as hard as possible to consider all of the facts before creating theories, both about the world and about yourself. Who knows? You might just find that the world is more intriguing, when you dig a little deeper. Maybe you’ll find out things about yourself that help you grow as a person. I don’t know about you, but I’m reminded of a wonderful tune by the Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger singing that, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.”
Podcast Link: https://samharris.org/podcasts/119-hidden-motives/
Nerdwriter1 Video Essay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHp639vhUJg