Thoughts on Information Dissemination and Attention Spans in Today’s World

Whether it is Donald Trump being elected as the Republican nominee, Brexit, or any other serious topic in today’s world, there is a common link that I feel exists behind such instances. In this blog post I’ll try to explain what it has got to do with psychology, biases, and more importantly, thinking.

(Critical?)Thinking

Forget about critical thinking, even thinking in today’s world is underrated. It is too easy to make some believe in a notion, given that you have the apparatus for it. People fall for all kinds of bullshit, all the time. How many of us think before making decisions, whether it is choosing a school, a major, a political party or even a referendum to leave the EU or not? In my opinion, very few of us do that. Even when few actually think, it’s not good enough. That in itself is not surprising since the law of averages works everywhere, meaning most people are average at best when it comes to thinking. Combine this with the fact that people only listen to what they like, add a pinch of ignorance, and use this with short attention spans that we have today, and you can probably explain these occurrences which appear baffling to at least a section of society.

Information Dissemination and Thinking

Here’s a rough infographic I made to highlight what I think is a major issue when it comes to thinking in today’s world. Information penetrates at different levels within the population thereby making the judgement process skewed and in most cases driven by superficial evidence which might be misleading to say the least.

Information Penetration

I might be overestimating the number of people who actually think or I might just be wrong (in which case I would be happy to correct myself), but what I feel is clear is that thinking is a dwindling phenomenon. I discuss this further under Attention Spans.

There is just too much information and not enough time or interest among people to think about everything before taking a decision. I feel this can explain why masses are easily swayed by slogans and why politicians, celebrities, etc feel necessary to pander to the public every once in a while.

The Confirmation Bias

The essence of the confirmation bias is that you see what you want to see. Even when presented with evidence contrary to your beliefs or alternative to your thinking you choose to ignore those, sticking to what you think is correct.

Consider the ramifications this has over the events that I’ve mentioned at the start. Donald Trump supporters cannot see why he’s wrong, they can only hear sentences they want to.

While I’m no expert on the US elections or their mentality, the political polarization is there for everyone to see. Here’s an infographic on Political Polarization from Pew Research Center.

Political Polarization

This polarization I believe is in part created by the media. My dissatisfaction with the media in general is probably worth a blog post and something I might work on later. But just to connect the dots between the confirmation bias, not thinking and the effect of media on public sentiment here’s another infographic from Pew Research Center on Political Polarization and Media Habits.

Political Polarization and Media Habits

Some other interesting finds from this study (I’m summarizing them):

  • Consistent conservatives are tightly clustered around one news channel, meaning they receive most of their information from a single source thereby increasing the chance of bias creeping in. Also, they are more distrustful of news outlets in general. They are also more likely than other ideological groups to hear political opinions in line with their own views. They are also more likely to have friends who share the same views. See anything that strikes you ?
  • Consistent liberals rely on a greater number of sources for information and are in general more trusting of news outlets. They are more likely to unfriend or block people on social media because of political reasons, meaning they don’t want to hear the other side of the story?

It is clear that both sides of the political spectrum have biases which have now led to the creation of the biggest ideological gap in decades.

This article is not meant to discuss political ideologies, nor am I commenting on or comparing the two. I just happened to take this up as an example to explain my views on why these things could have happened.

Attention Spans

With the world becoming more and more “social” and the constant and unending flow of information, our attention spans have reduced to those of gnats. There is not enough time to put in the effort to understand and process information, but only enough to consume.

Here are some statistics from National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine and The Associated Press on Attention Spans and how they’ve reduced over time.

Attention Spans

Here’s a very click-baity article on the same: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/03/12/humans-have-shorter-attention-span-than-goldfish-thanks-to-smart/

There’s even a rebuttal saying Millennials are accused of having shorter attention spans and that is just because they have much better stuff to do. While that is very subjective and may be true to an extent, I disagree and find that a convenient excuse to ditch critical thinking.

Just to summarize this piece: Humans are prone to biases; not many people are up for thinking; the media has a role to play in this; shorter attention spans are making the problem worse; all of this can lead to instances that are high impact and may even be disastrous.

Just jotting down a list of topics that we considered important and now are as good as forgotten:

  • NSA spying scandal
  • Panama Papers
  • Every other mass shooting that is happening
  • Russia’s annexation of Crimea

The list is probably bigger and even I might have missed many but you get the gist. Issues, even important ones that don’t stay in the limelight are easily forgotten, gone, poof.

Bonus Trivia: The newest and fastest growing social media platform Snapchat allows you to post snaps or video stories with an upper cap of, well as you might have guessed, 10 seconds. Coincidence much? I think not.

Also, if on Snapchat, you can follow me on rrahul30. :P

Disclaimer: All views expressed are personal. As is with humans, I might also have certain biases or pieces of information that I might have missed; although I have tried to present a very fact-based opinion piece, any comments to ensure correctness are appreciated.

References:

  1. Infogr.am used to create infographics.
  2. Pew Research Center
  3. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  4. Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

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