One of our goals at CiviliNation is to help people learn how to critically analyze information and form fact-based opinions so they can move beyond simply venting online and actually engage in a fair and rational dialogue about the issues that are important to them.
Part of the challenge in doing this is overcoming people’s inherent bias in favor of protecting their existing beliefs and opinions. Journalist David McRaney’s post The Backfire Effect delves into the reasons:
Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead. Over time, the backfire effect helps make you less skeptical of those things which allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper….
What should be evident from the studies on the backfire effect is you can never win an argument online. When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel as though they are even more sure of their position than before you started the debate. As they match your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs….
As information technology progresses, the behaviors you are most likely to engage in when it comes to belief, dogma, politics and ideology seem to remain fixed. In a world blossoming with new knowledge, burgeoning with scientific insights into every element of the human experience, like most people, you still pick and choose what to accept even when it comes out of a lab and is based on 100 years of research.
In this Wall Street Journal article, Jonah Lehrer adds another element to the mix, namely the wisdom of the crowds:
In an ideal world, all this information would improve our beliefs. The range of viewpoints in the media and on the Web would be translated into a diversity of thoughts and collective wisdom. Alas, that doesn’t seem to be happening….
So many essential institutions depend on the ability of citizens to think for themselves, to resist the latest trend or bubble. That’s why it is important, as the Founding Fathers realized, to cultivate a raucous free press, full of divergent viewpoints.
And yet, while the Web has enabled new forms of collective action, it has also enabled new kinds of collective stupidity. Groupthink is now more widespread, as we cope with the excess of available information by outsourcing our beliefs to celebrities, pundits and Facebook friends. Instead of thinking for ourselves, we simply cite what’s already been cited.
We should be wary of such influences. The only way to preserve the wisdom of the crowd is to protect the independence of the individual.
While humankind has made tremendous strides in overcoming damaging and faulty views (think of the advances we’ve made in terms of civil rights, gender equality, environmental protection and many other areas), it’s often been slow and hard going, in part because of flawed ways of thinking. Nevertheless, we *have” progressed – which sets a good precedent for our ability to continue to strive for rational and fact-based discourse, despite the hurdles we have to overcome to get there.