We can’t just listen to people we agree with

Enter the echo chamber.

New options “emerge” based on our previous decisions or associations. On Amazon, a set of recommended products appear underneath the product we’re currently looking at. On Netflix, a list of recommended movies appear based on previous titles we’ve watched in the past. On Facebook, suggested news articles or posts appear on our feed after we’ve liked a particular post.

Marketing is more personalized than ever. Almost all marketers from a 2015 survey said making marketing individualized – “true one-to-one personalization in a real-time context” – is a top priority. So the content being presented (or marketed) is all based on existing perceptions or beliefs, as actualized through our purchasing or consumption behaviors.

This type of marketing plays off human’s psychological propensity to search for or interpret information to confirm existing preconceptions. This is known as confirmation bias. We see new information from a specific point of view, and interpret it through this lens. Or, we hold a specific belief or worldview and, more often than not, only consume new information that aligns with this existing view, reinforcing it, and making it stronger.

Confirmation bias isn’t confined to marketing or politics though. When it creeps into science, the result is equally polarized viewpoints and a co-opting of the scientific method in favor of advancing existing preconceptions. In this case, researchers might formulate a theory or support a theory and then only reference evidence that supports that particular theory. This is what happens when PR trumps science.

This, of course, isn’t what science should look like. Researchers should consider the totality of available evidence to falsify a specific hypothesis (see the scientific method).

But it doesn’t always play out this way. A new study of scientific reports and comments on the health effects of a salty diet highlights this exact point. The hypothesis is that population-wide reduction of salt intake is associated with better health. Based on the evidence, some agree with it, others disagree.

The issue though is when researchers only cite/consider evidence supporting one side of the argument or another, rather than acknowledging the totality of evidence on the question, which, at this point, is mixed. And this is what the study found. From an article about the research, “…papers on either side of the hypothesis were more likely to cite reports that drew a similar conclusion than to cite reports drawing a different conclusion.” The study’s main author put it this way,

“Each [side of the hypothesis] is driven by a few prolific authors who tend to cite other researchers who share their point of view, with little apparent collaboration between the two ‘sides.'”

In other words, confirmation bias is deeply rooted in even the parts of society we expect to be free from such bias.

It’s a stark reminder of why we must go out of our way to seek out differing views and information. Our beliefs are valid. But they also come from a specific perspective. We see the world and filter information based on our own conscious or unconscious biases based on our own unique life experience.

This doesn’t mean we give up on pursuing what John Rawls called “the original position,” or a purely impartial point of view that is the foundation of reason and justice. In this way, we should be mindful of our biases, disclosing them, not discarding them. We should examine our firmly held beliefs and seek to understand those that may differ from our own.

As Adam Smith wrote in his 1757 work The Theory of Moral Sentiments,

“We can never survey our own sentiments and motives, we can never form any judgment concerning them; unless we remove ourselves, as it were, from our own natural station, and endeavour to view them as at a certain distance from us. But we can do this in no other way than by endeavouring to view them with the eyes of other people, or as other people are likely to view them.”

One of my favorite contemporary philosophers, Amartya Sen, elaborated on Smith’s notion in his 2009 work The Idea of Justice,

“…one of Smith’s major methodological concerns is the need to invoke a wide variety of viewpoints and outlooks based on diverse experiences from far and near, rather than remaining contented with encounters – actual or counterfactual – with others living in the same cultural and social milieu, and with the same kind of experiences, prejudices, and convictions about what is reasonable and what is not, and even beliefs about what is feasible and what is not. Adam Smith’s insistence that we must inter alia view our sentiments from ‘a certain distance from us’ is motivated by the object of scrutinizing not only the influence of vested interest, but also the impact of entrenched tradition and custom.”

It’s easy to confirm existing preconceptions. It’s harder to question them, and even braver to change them. But it’s this intermingling of ideas and dialectics (to use the term/process popularized by Socrates, Plato and Hegel) that advance knowledge in our unending search for Truth.


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