The Lizard Brain Feedback Loop
How we promote extremism one click at a time, and what to do about it.
Let’s start with the good news: the Internet, and the accompanying rise of mass media, has ushered us into an unprecedented era of information sharing. Knowledge is more accessible than ever. Unfortunately though, change on this scale has its ugly sides. Information is freer and more available than it once was, but not all information is created equal. On the information smorgasboard set before us it is not the most nourishing nuggets that are sought out first, but the most attention-grabbing. The lizard brain is hungry. It demands feeding. It will not wait.
In an information economy that is built on more clicks, more views, and more likes, it is the most extreme content that rises to the top. The more emotionally charged something is, the more likely it is to spread. And the more it attention it gets, the more revenue it produces — be it financial or ideological revenue. And the more successful (ie. revenue-producing) a certain type of information proves, the more likely the people who produce it are to create even more. I call this the lizard brain feedback loop. It is our most primitive selves gorging on high-calorie, low-nourishment information nuggets.
Stages of the Lizard Brain Feedback Loop
If we take a closer look at the lizard brain feedback loop, we can see how each stage feeds into the next, resulting in a vicious and unending circle of extremism.
Stage 1: Extreme Ideation
Humans may be the most intellectually advanced species on earth, but we still have our primitive tendencies. The brain stem, colloquially known as the lizard brain, is the part of the brain that governs our most base instincts: hunger; fear; anger; sex; survival; etc. To adopt a more expansive definition, we might describe the lizard brain as the part of ourselves that refuses to acknowledge nuance and logic. It wants what it wants — period. In truth, most of us are prone to occasionally turning over command of our thoughts to the lizard brain. And that’s OK. It’s natural. Problems only arise when the lizard brain refuses to give command back.
Imagine that an extreme idea enters your head and swims around for a bit. An idea that you know to be pernicious and illogical, but which you entertain now and then because it appeals to your lizard brain and provides temporary satisfaction. Upon further reflection though, you might see the idea to be cruel, or based on falsehoods, or simply misaligned with your fundamental values. And so, you dismiss the idea and return control of your thoughts to your higher-order self — the part that knows how to practice empathy and to approach conflict rationally.
But what if something interrupted this process of reflection? What if a delicious morsel of outrage was offered to you? Would not your lizard brain beg for you to snatch it up and feast upon it for just a little while?
Stage 2: Attention
The thing about the lizard brain is that it excels in driving impulses. Rationality and selflessness aren’t nearly as good at commanding immediate action (they are, after all, deliberative processes.) But when the lizard brain sees something primitive (sex and anger come to mind), it seizes control and sets your body in motion. It is for this reason that click-baity, outrage-inducing, all-caps headlines are so great at driving you to take a closer look.
Let’s go back to that inkling of extremist thought from stage 1. It has come and gone from your head, leaving behind perhaps just some faint traces. Now, imagine that you’re clicking around social media, or watching one of the 24-hour news networks, and something comes on that reminds you of that extreme idea. In no time, your lizard brain is leaping into action, demanding further investigation. Maybe you were too quick to dismiss the thought as unpalatable extremism. Maybe there is something to it after all. The Internet says there might be! Click! Click now!
Before you know it, your brain is neck deep in a buffet of outrage, anger, vengeance, and all other manner of cuisine that your lizard brain loves. You indulge, unable to help yourself, even as the rest of your brain is yelling “Stop! This does does nothing to nourish us!”
Stage 3: Validation
As with the body, the mind requires a healthy diet of intellectual sustenance. Sure, the occasional indulgence is fine, just as you might enjoy a bag of potato chips or a super-sized soda now and then. But what happens to your values when you sustain yourself exclusively on quick, easy, nourishment-free lizard food?
The validation phase of the lizard brain feedback loop is perhaps the most sinister. The extreme thought that you once pushed aside has grown — not with conscious intent, but through the manipulation of bad actors who have hijacked your attention. The more you subject yourself to extremism, be it in the form of a hateful social media post or an outraged newscast, the harder it becomes to differentiate between extremist thought and rational thought. Ideas that you might once have dismissed out of hand all of the sudden seem, somehow, legitimate. It’s an incremental process — validating extreme ideas bit by bit until they cease to seem extreme at all and start to appear downright rational.
Step 4: Production
Unhealthy habits are hard to break, and that includes in the realm of information consumption. Once you start down the path of outrage, pulling back and reassessing what it is doing to you is incredibly difficult. In many cases, you might not even recognize the need to reassess — your lizard brain has been so continually validated that it no longer bothers to return control to rationality. And here we enter the final stage of the lizard brain feedback loop: production.
Extreme actors, who desperately want your attention and validation, are also very good at seeing when something is working. Whether it is for ideological or financial purposes, they will always work to maximize return on their information investments. If a particular kind of article, or news segment, or social media post gets lots of attention, then you can be sure that the producers will double down. More clicks means more advertising revenue. More likes, and more shares, and more retweets means more attention. And so on, and so forth.
Once an extreme idea has gained your attention, and validated the thoughts in your head that you once pushed away, it will naturally aim to grow. Extremism is, by its nature, insatiable, and it grows one click at a time. And because our modern information ecosystem survives on attention, the more attention we give to extremism the more extreme ideas bad actors create for us. It’s a never-ending nightmare that benefits the few at the expense of the many — particularly in a democratic society that demands cooperation to function properly.
Ending the Cycle
It would be easy to blame the media, and social networks, and a few bad actors for the predicament that we now find ourselves in, but doing so would be too simplistic. We are, all of us, responsible for the evolution of the society we live in. If we want an inclusive and cooperative society that recognizes the humanity of all its members, then we have to work for it. And truth be told, it’s going to be hard. It always has been hard and always will be. The lizard brain is stronger than we think it is. We are as primitive as we are modern.
Recognizing the vicious cycle that we’re now caught in is a good first step. Extremism is not a new phenomenon — it’s been with us since the beginning — but the modern information landscape does us no good unless we harness it in a way that is consistent with our shared values. Right now, we’re failing in that effort. There is, however, still time to turn things around. The Internet is filled with nourishing material, we just need to pull our lizard brains back from the outrage buffet so that our higher-order selves can do the ordering. To do this, there are a few easy steps that we can all commit to:
- Ignore Bad Actors: As we have established, extremism thrives on attention. The more attention we give, the more extremist ideas we’ll find. The most important thing we can do is stop giving extremism our attention. Next time you see a bit of outrage that appeals to your lizard brain, take a moment to consider what good will come of indulging it. Is that click-baity story really worth your time?
- Halt the Spread of Lizard Food: The thing about lizard food is that, well, it’s delicious. It feels good to consume outrage, and anger, and hate. It’s food that appeals to our most primitive and ancient selves. Moreover, it’s communal in nature. We love to share outrage with our friends, and coworkers, and even enemies. But sharing just feeds into the cycle. If it doesn’t provide you any nourishment, then it won’t provide your friends with any either. The sooner we stop sharing extremist material online, particularly in social media, the sooner it will go away.
- Reward Responsible Actors: We said in the beginning that the Internet represents the greatest expansion of knowledge sharing in history. Yes, there is a lot of terrible material out there, but there is also a lot of high-quality information to be had. We should be rewarding responsible actors by giving our attention to them. This does not mean that we can’t indulge our passions — responsible actors come from all sides of the political spectrum — it merely means that thoughtful, well-researched, fact-driven news, commentary, and analysis is more deserving of our attention than what our lizard brains would have us consume.
Humans are imperfect creatures, driven by a variety of impulses, indulgences, and desires. There is good in us, and there is bad — it is up to us to decide which ultimately prevails. We, as a society, have elected to live together under a communal system of government that takes into account the needs, beliefs, and desires of all its people. As noble an experiment as this is, it is also a difficult one. Diverse constituencies bring a diversity of values and experiences, which naturally leads to some degree of conflict. But conflict doesn’t have to mean that we sacrifice our fundamental values. We still have the choice to discard extremism. If we want to succeed in doing so, then we have to set aside the base desires of our primitive selves and choose a more nourishing information diet instead.