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Tribal brain: cognitive biases and curious cases of content curation

Source: Shutterstock / Diego Schtutman

Human perception is a remarkable mechanism. Meaningless information enters our five senses and is transformed by transduction. Our sensations are disassembled, using ascending and descending processing, and reconstructed into a functioning external world model.

While we believe that our brains accurately perceive objective reality, the evidence1 neuroscience indicates that this understanding is flawed. Rather than perceiving an unbiased representation of the outside world, our brain filters information based on our past experiences. In other words, our brains construct our perceptions that can lead us astray – consider the relationship between distance and height. Because of this cognitive imprecision, all human perception is biased.

Why is perception so flawed?

Evolutionarily, it was important for humans to conform to tribal beliefs and behaviors for their safety. Physical threats abounded. While perception is inaccurate, our perceptual filters lead to decision making based on what we have already encountered – a healthy strategy in the chaotic world of our ancestors.

Human perception has evolved to reduce uncertainty and increase predictability. To maintain this certainty, our perceptual filters push us to conform. This facet of perception also leads us to discomfort – usually in the form of anxiety – when we step out of the normative behavioral manifestations of our tribe. Being an iconoclast and refuting the thoughts of your tribal leaders was definitely a bad idea.

Modern humans no longer travel the world afraid of predators, so is this evolutionary artifact of our past cognitive development any less beneficial? While cognitive imprecision can be emotionally beneficial, for most of us the physical danger of leaving the herd has been greatly minimized.

Decision making and our skewed brains

In the 1970s, as psychologists aligned the functionality of the human brain with computer models, Tversky and Kahneman began to investigate how people make decisions. Humans have limited time, information, and cognitive skills. For this reason, researchers have determined that we often rely on simplistic strategies or shortcuts when making decisions. As they have been named, these heuristics have made it easier for us to navigate the world. However, their use also often leads to errors in decision making via biases in our cognition.

Seek and you will find

Tversky and Kahneman’s research has prompted psychologists to uncover many cognitive biases in recent decades. Bias plays a central role in our modern struggle to adapt to the world of social media and conventional biased news media. Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek information that supports our assumptions, usually by interpreting evidence to confirm existing beliefs while rejecting or ignoring any inconsistent data. The tendency towards conformity combined with our propensity to verify our beliefs affects human behavior in a digitally connected world driven by social media and one-way news media.

Content curation

Never before have we been so masters of the information we consume. Social media and biased news sources, in general, have given us the ability to deal with our reality. Between the algorithmic preservation of content by big tech and our innocent clicks or our change of channel to block opposing voices, we can now build a very biased reality that does not challenge our belief system.

Is our content curation problematic?

Anyone who lives in the current political atmosphere has recognized that our political tribes seem to be heading to extremes. This phenomenon is likely fueled by our propensity for compliance and confirmation bias combined with our modern technological capabilities.

“We find comfort among those who agree with us, growth among those who disagree. “- Frank A. Clark

Many of us intuitively recognize Clark’s words as insightful. Despite this recognition, we struggle to translate their meaning into everyday life as we browse the media streams. It is uncomfortable to allow our firmly held beliefs to be called into question, while it is comforting to encapsulate our existence in filtering bubbles – in which we deliberately shield ourselves from divergent views. This filtering probably leads to extreme political ideologies and disgust towards people belonging to political “outside groups”.

What can we do?

Although we cannot fully neutralize our brains due to our perceptual wiring, we can become aware of the tendency towards conformity and confirmation bias. Before you block someone on Twitter or Facebook, stop and ask why you are doing it. If you find yourself responding that you don’t agree with the person’s point of view, consider whether you could use these alternative ideas as a potential opportunity for growth. It is essential to consider that physical threat is not equivalent to cognitive discomfort and that experiencing the latter can lead to recalibrating your thoughts and perceiving new possibilities.

While our evolutionary movement towards conformity and confirmation may have protected us from saber-toothed tigers or threatening tribes, as we move deeper into the interconnected 21st century, our tribal wiring may be at a disadvantage as it combines with our preference for social media and one-sided news sources.

So before you block, unsubscribe, or unsubscribe, think about what type of company you would like to live in.