This One Thing Will Make You Smarter
Last week, we cleared some space in our brains by unfollowing people or accounts who take up a lot of our emotional energy without adding much value to our lives. Now let’s flip that around and consider a better use of our time on social media, which also happens to be my very favourite activity for building intelligence.
Our brains evolved to employ a huge number of cognitive biases. These shortcuts are there for a reason, and we couldn’t function well without them. But they can also be the source of serious errors in thinking. While we can’t get rid of our cognitive biases, we can improve our thinking by being aware of a few key thought patterns that we may be relying on too heavily.
Interestingly, we have a much harder time noticing and questioning our cognitive biases when we’re under a heavy cognitive load, which is why we “made space” last week before moving on to this week’s activity.
A Few Common Biases
There are too many types of cognitive bias to list them all here, but a few that can prevent us from having a balanced understanding of many topics are:
Confirmation Bias: We favour and pay more attention to information that confirms what we already think we know.
False-Consensus Effect: Because we often spend most of our time with people who hold similar values and opinions to ours, we tend to think more people agree with us than actually do.
Fundamental Attribution Error: When observing others' behaviour, we tend to attribute it too much to their underlying personality, and too little to the context of that behaviour (which is the opposite of what we do when we observe ourselves).
So, for instance, when someone says something rude, we'll often assume it's because they're a mean person who doesn't care about others, when in fact, it could be that they're ill or under a lot of stress, which is causing them to be irritable and say things they normally wouldn't.
Which brings us to the Hostility Bias, which causes us to assume others’ actions have hostile intent, even when they’re ambiguous or benign.
Hack the Algorithm
Social media algorithms reinforce these biases by showing us content that is similar to things we’ve already viewed, from accounts similar to those we’ve already interacted with, and which tends to be rife with the Fundamental Attribution Error and the Hostility Bias.
But you can also get them to start showing you content that helps combat these biases, by seeking out people and pages who are intelligent, self-aware, and open to discussion, but who hold beliefs and values that are at odds with, or just completely different from, your own.
For example: As you may have noticed, I love skin care products that emphasize natural ingredients. I've built my livelihood around them, and I'm passionate about making the best of them available to you. However, a while back, it came to my attention that some very smart people (including many cosmetic chemists and toxicologists) did not feel the same way about natural products as I do.
I started seeking out thoughtful, respectful folks with intelligent criticisms of natural skin care and following them, and worked on moving past my knee-jerk reactions to their posts, caused by the above biases. I have learned so much. Not only did I start to understand what motivates them (which was very different from what I assumed motivated them), but I also came to see how some things I took for granted about natural products did not take into account the whole story.
Have I stopped loving skin care with natural ingredients? No. Are we going to stop carrying it? Nope. But thanks to "the other side," I'm making better product choices, and learning how to better communicate those choices in a way that (I hope) inspires balance and joy.
Choose One Thing
There are so many topics you can do this with. You could start small and follow someone who has criticized a book you recently enjoyed. Or you could go big and follow someone on the other side of the political spectrum from you. The key is to seek out those who are committed to rational thinking and respectful discourse (that is to say, not shamers or extremists).
I’ll admit this can be extremely uncomfortable, especially at first, and also tiring (there's that cognitive load again). If you really get into this, you might consider setting up a second profile or feed so you can dip into this type of content only when you’re feeling rested enough. It's hard work, questioning your assumptions - you're interrupting your brain's automatic responses and forcing it to do something it's not used to doing.
But I also think it’s important and worth it, especially in an age where we’re growing more and more fragmented and divided with each passing day.
A person's intellectual humility is thought to be correlated with their level of knowledge in general, and this is a way to cultivate both, if we're willing to put in the effort. Learning how to listen respectfully to those we may not agree with enriches our lives, expands our understanding of the world, and allows us to maintain more balanced perspectives.
This week, choose one opinion, big or small, that you hold strongly. Do a search and find some smart folks who have criticized this opinion. Choose one who is engaging respectfully with readers or viewers from both sides, and follow them on the social media platform of your choice. Over the next while, listen to what they say, and pay attention to your reactions. Do you notice any cognitive biases at play? Interact with their posts regularly so the algorithm continues to show them and similar posts in your feed. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Debra Purdy is the owner of ShopEco, a voracious reader, and a bona fide skin care fanatic.