How social media misuse may damage our intelligence

Column box-Dr. Carl E. Balita-Entrepreneurs’ Footprints

Availability of and access to information is not enough to enrich our intelligence. It is how we use them to make us who we are and become who we envision ourselves to be. In the information and conceptual age, social media, if not used properly, may damage our intellectual abilities.

In the same social media, that is supposed to connect and inform us, is where disconnections and conflicts arise. These are expected in human dynamics, but the exponential effects of social media interactions open floodgates of thinking, feeling and behaving that transform into the habits and tendencies that reduce our intellectual power and social character.

We thought that we are rational and aware. However, often, we respond automatically and unconsciously, especially in the digital space. Bashing may now justify itself as freedom of expression. Cancel-culture becomes a new escapist norm of punishment by threatening to unfollow and zone out. Social media influencers have become new authorities in what used to be a professional discipline and space of learned practitioners who are educated and trained both in the art and the science of communication and journalism. The rules of engagement in social media have become bleak, drowned by the noise in the digital environment where everyone has become entitled to their own self-asserted rights and their own subjective opinion. Social media has affected our thinking to form habits that endanger our intellectual (and even moral) processes.

Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to the fast and intuitive system of thinking which relies on mental shortcuts—called heuristics—to navigate the world more efficiently. There is a system which is slow, introducing deliberation and logic into our thinking. Both systems impact how we make judgments, but heuristics is in charge a majority of the time.

Aggravated cognitive biases

Cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that impacts one’s choices and judgments. It is a concept of cognitive bias first proposed by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in a 1974 article. Cognitive biases increase our mental efficiency as they enable us to make quick decisions without any conscious deliberation. But because it is based on unconscious deliberation, they can distort thinking, leading to poor decision, judgment and action.

There are many cognitive biases but most relevant is the confirmation bias, which is a bias of belief in which people tend to seek out, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms their preconceived notions and ideas. In other words, people attempt to keep and sustain their existing beliefs by paying attention to and searching for (and sharing) information that confirms those they believe in.

Notice that in social media, we like, share, and post information that confirm what we are already biased about from the beginning. Such bias discounts information that could challenge the pre-conceived belief. This limits the view and negates another perspective that can enrich our points of view. Note that a political fan would never share anything about the acts of another politician on the other side, no matter how commendable it could be. The same goes on the other side of the fence. Confirmation bias is one reason why it is so challenging to have a logical discussion about polarizing hot-button issues like politics, religion, and show business.

Social media provides for artificial intelligence based on the algorithm of our preferences and feeds us with more of what we demonstrate is our preferences. The antivaxxer who once liked or searched about the dangers of vaccination will continue to receive more posts, links and information to confirm such dangers of vaccination. The automatic feedings of the same algorithmic patterns will deepen the bias and will blind the person of anything inconsistent with it.

The confirmation bias hardwires our thinking and limits the appreciation of perspectives not aligned with our biases, and this leads to habits that are difficult to break. During the political season, our confirmation bias will disable our appreciation of the other candidates and will miss a more intelligent objective decision—and this bias will be aggravated by social media, which will be exploited by the candidates.

Misplaced critical thinking and dominance of opinions

Critical thinking refers to our ability to postpone or delay judgment so as to gather more evidence and be more objective. Related to confirmation bias, misplaced critical thinking is not achieving objectivity and poisons the intellectual processes. Having critical thinking is mistaken to be the same as being critical. The latter becomes a fault-finding search for what could feed the ego of knowing how to critique —mostly in a negative way.

Furthermore, the evidences being fed by social media support only that which is pre-conceived already. There is also a misconception that opinions are evidences, which of course is not, or, if at all can be regarded as evidence, is the weakest form. And in the verge of all the false and misinformation, opinions become coated with baseless and wrong information. The objectivity is hardly achieved and stubbornness ensues.

Subjectivity limits critical thinking. And with Dunning-Kruger Effect, the less competent become more confident, while the expert appears more grounded, if not less confident as how they should be.

In social media, we are all witness to how ordinary laymen can attack even the most educated expert by citing their opinions and baseless evidences gathered from unverifiable sources in social media. Many people have not learned the educated discipline of verifying sources and validating contents but are convinced that what they know are “gospel-truth.”

Judgmental tendency drifting away from empathy

IT was disgusting to read recent posts of even highly educated people celebrating the death of a person who belongs to another political color. Where is empathy when the dead is judged (and cursed) for her political affiliation? This is a fundamental attribution error, which is the general tendency to attribute another individual’s behavior to their affiliation or personality rather than the situation and external factors. This form of bias dampens kindness and empathy and promotes hate, which basis is just the bias. And others join the bandwagon, another cognitive bias.

Social media could have communicated kindness and bridged understanding to nurture our social and belonginess needs during the crisis. It is achieved by some who are incessantly neutralizing the negative digital space through their positive, inspiring, and empowering contents. Some have drowned in the wilderness, as, just like the traditional media and show business, the controversial and the negative sell more.

To overcome the risk of intellectual (and moral) degradation brought about by social media, one may need to anchor its use on respect and tolerance, empathy and kindness, sensitivity and responsibility. Tolerance allows us to hear-out and appreciate someone else’s perspective, even inconsistent with our own. And it takes a lot of respect to be able to do that. Empathy makes us feel what others feel while maintaining objectivity (while sympathy is subjective). We have to anchor empathy with kindness, especially in this most trying time when we all need friends not enemies. Social media does not exempt us from responsibility as our right may end where someone else’s right begins. Sensitivity is mindfulness of the outcome that our social media use may bring, not only for our cause but also for the people around us. 

Technology, like social media, does not make us good or bad. It amplifies who we really are. May our pandemic experience incite us into using social media to make ourselves more intelligent enough to make better choices and take life-giving actions based on kindness and goodwill.


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