Designing our reality

In neuropsychology 101 we are taught that the human brain uses pattern recognition to match information from stimuli with information retrieved from our memory. Pattern recognition is mostly unconscious and automatic. It helps us navigate and survive in a complex world. However, the brain has a tendency to perceive patterns where there are none. This is known as false pattern recognition or apophenia. One of the most common examples of false pattern recognition is confirmation bias. The Oxford dictionary defines confirmation bias as “The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories ”.

As human beings, we want to confirm that our world views are aligned with the “truth” or “reality”. The way we view the world is closely linked to our existential being and our life purpose. If we can justify our actions and beliefs by linking them with aligned external phenomena, we basically reaffirm our purpose and existence. Problem is, by unconsciously aligning these fake patterns and connections, we design a comfortable life based on inaccuracies and false truths. The New Yorker hits the nail on the head: “We don’t learn rationally, taking in information and then making a studied judgment. Instead, the very way we learn is influenced from the onset by what we know and who we are.”

The echo chambers we base reality on

There are a few cases of confirmation bias that are relevant to our current landscape that I find extremely interesting:

There was clearly a common narrative in the last US election amongst certain groups, particularly the democrats. This group listened to similar news sources for their election updates (NOT Fox news), discussed the election with friends who most likely had similar view points to them (therefore confirming their beliefs) and trusted the election polls that came from credible organisations (who affirmed their point of view). They were pretty much certain Clinton had it in the bag. All patterns predicted Clinton’s success.

Fast forward to Trump’s victory… Instead of changing the political narrative and understanding how their biases clouded pre-election data, democrats and anti-Trump activists still rely on the same narrative. One news story that headlined earlier this year linked the Trump victory to Russian interference. Some other attempts to justify the victory (that came directly from CNN) included the rise of fake news on social media and rigged elections. By confirming these beliefs, the narrative stays the same: “Our political beliefs hold strong. We are still morally superior. The only reason the opponent won was due to his unsavory behaviour.” Confirming one’s beliefs with absurd stories is easier than admitting that your world view may be a bit skewed in certain instances.

The Washington Post recently touched on false pattern recognition and “echo chambers” exasperated by social media. Social scientists Walter Quattrociocchi, Antonio Scala and Cass Sunstein found “quantitative evidence of how users tend to promote their favorite narratives, form polarized groups and resist information that doesn’t conform to their beliefs….The study focused on how Facebook users interacted with two narratives involving conspiracy theories and science. Users belonging to different communities tended not to interact and tended to be connected only with “like-minded” friends, creating closed, non-interacting communities centered around different narratives — what the researchers called “echo chambers.” Confirmation bias accounted for users’ decisions to share certain content, creating informational cascades within their communities.”

This holds true to my experience with social media. A while back I started to wonder why there was such a disconnect between the news I was reading and the actual goings on in South African grass root politics. It now seems obvious. The majority of my friends on Facebook are white, middle to upper class citizens with pretty similar sentiments regarding our political climate. The majority of news sources I chose to follow were written by the same demographic.

So what?

So what do you do about the fact that you have designed a reality that fits your narrative, as opposed to crafting an objective outlook that consists of many opposing narratives?

ACKNOWLEDGE your bias. As humans, we recognise and align patterns to make sense of the crazy amount of stimulus we are presented with. Most of the time, we are unaware of the fact that the patterns we link may not be connected. By acknowledging this downfall, we become aware of alternative narratives and we are less likely to hold onto skewed world views. I recently read an interesting Medium article by Christopher Pierznik. He talks about a book he read that challenged his narrative:

“I cannot relate to everything in the book, nor should I. After all, it’s not meant for me. But I also don’t subscribe to everything in it, either. And that’s fine. Just because my thoughts don’t align perfectly with Coates’s doesn’t mean that he failed as a writer or I failed as a reader. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is precisely because I do not share these thoughts that it’s important that I read it and understand what Coates is conveying. Books let you enter the mind of a writer and when that writer’s experience and worldview are different than your own, you gain a much broader understanding of the world and those that inhabit it. Whether you agree or not is irrelevant.

What’s the point of reading and seeking knowledge, if all you’re doing is learning the same things over and over again? That’s not growth.”