On the best of days, I tend to have a hate-hate relationship with most social media sites. This is probably going to sound funny to most everyone I know, since I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, not to neglect my own blog, all the time. The problem I have with them, and it’s worse these days in large part due to the charged political climate from the pending US presidential election, is that our biases tend to get in the way of our being, well, social.
By and far, one of the biggest stumbling blocks that we all wrestle with – but lose sight of – is the great pitfall that we call the confirmation trap. We are always looking for information that supports or even just confirms what we think is true, and we specifically make no effort to try to find evidence that disproves what we think is true. Hard work is only hard if we do it; otherwise, it’s totally easy.
My current example of this, is that the liberal media is actively trying to make out Donald Trump to be a racist, when he obviously isn’t. When I see my Facebook feed filled with articles like, “CNN Gets Busted for Making Trump Look Racist By Inserting Word He Never Said Into Quote,” I don’t even need to read the article to know that it’s true. It’s totally, completely true. That article confirms for me what I already know. Damn that liberal media – damn them! I can stop looking for actual quotes from Donald Trump in which he actually makes blatantly racist comments, that disprove for me what I think is true.
But then there are posts like this, too. Because this is supposed to make me feel better about something that I am supposed to already know and believe.
All kidding aside, there are far more serious ones as well. Take a look at this chart that Milo Yiannopoulos shared recently, about crime rates and #BlackLivesMatter.
This chart is not only very official looking (per 1,000,000 members!), it actually has a citation for its data that says it’s using data from the FBI. Being not just a college instructor but a career analyst, I pulled up the reference data set and then the original report, and learned a few things.
But what’s wrong here? It says it’s from the 2013 FBI report, Crime in the US. OK, well, the 2015 report has been released now – shouldn’t we be talking about current data?
And the 2013 data they reference? It’s only for murders with 1 victim and one known perpetrator – or, 47% of the known murders back in 2013.
And of that 47% in 2013? That’s not even the actual data from the FBI report. Here’s the actual data.
White killed by Black or African American: 7.15%, or 409
Black or African American killed by White: 3.3%, or 189
White killed by White: 43.84%, or 2, 509
Black or African American killed by Black or African American: 39.23%, or 2,245
Not listed in the FBI report? Anything about these number representing “per 1,000,000 members of the murder’s race” – and I am really unsure what that is suppose to mean, too.
But that is exactly how this conformation trap works. We see a pretty chart, with a bar graph, random numbers that tell us things we already know and look! There’s even a citation for a source from the FBI! That’s all I need to know. My biases are running amok, and social media has gotten the best of me.
In his Judgement of Managerial Decision Making, Max Bazerman talks about 13 other biases, all of which relate to how we use social media:
Ease of recall: We post things to social media off the top of our head, without actual checking anything. We are entirely OK posting things like, “Hillary Clinton has AIDS,” without giving it a second thought or consideration for facts. Not checking Google, not checking Snopes, nothing. We post whatever vivid memory we have, because sure, that sounds good. (There are some great references for easily checking facts in this Julie Smith post, We Need to Talk About Leslie Jones in addition to those in her great book, Master the Media: How Teaching Media Literacy Can Save Our Plugged-in World.)
Retrievability: We all post stuff differently, based on how our brain works and how it retrieves information. I get around to posting to social media most often about things related to the two new graduate-level courses I am writing. So, if you read my Facebook timeline, you’d think I was obsessed with proving Hillary Clinton deliberately leaking classified information onto the internet by way of her private email server in order to pass it to Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Ricky Ames and Robert Hanssen. Or that somehow drones are involved in all of that. Or, it’s entirely possible that I am consumed writing these two new courses on counterintelligence and drones.
Presumed associations: We post stuff based on how we make easy links and associations between things – whether those links are real or not, of course. Goodness, this is why Pinterest has flourished. In my mind, if I can link CNN being liberal and CNN being anti-Trump, it takes no time at all for me to link CNN to being out to portray Trump as racist when I just know that he isn’t. Damn that network, damn them.
Insensitivity to base rates: When we have lots of general information, we tend to ignore it in order to focus on the very specific information. We do this every time one immigrant commits a crime, and we forget that the whole of the immigrant population in the state of Michigan is hard working and law abiding, and we post videos on Facebook in which the local police chief is asked her views on tougher national immigration policies that have nothing to do with her duties and responsibilities.
Insensitivity to sample size: When we see something on social media, and think, wow, that really is a trend, things really are changing.
Like that one Latino guy for Trump. No, all Latinos are not suddenly backing Trump. That’s not a thing. Sample size really does matter. Wanting to look for and see patterns and trends is not the same things as actually seeing them.
Misconceptions of chance: “That doesn’t seem quite right,” or “that doesn’t seem random at all” are the statements of just about every conspiracy / false flag posting on social media these days. We have this hard-wired, natural bias… against things that either are random, or aren’t actually random. For a lot of you, we don’t really understand what random really is, and so it confused us. And wow, does that show up on social media all the time. “Conspiracy Theory Claims Taylor Swift is Actually Satanic Leader Zeena Schreck.” I’m not making that up.
Regression to the mean: We tend to ignore facts that are more extreme, and favor facts that are more mainstream. If it’s true, but outside of what we want it to be, we pretend that it’s not – even when it is.
What does that look like on social media today? Presidential polling. One minute, we’re yelling and screaming that the whole of the polling system is a bunch of bologna, because it currently doesn’t make our preferred candidate look good, but a few days later, when the numbers favor our candidate, the polls are the best things ever and we can’t shut up about them. We don’t have to like polling, we can have an opinion about and even speculate wildly about (and without any knowledge of) the ways the polling was conducted, but the polling data is the polling data – it’s a fact.
The conjunction fallacy: On social media, we all tend to look for and accept far more complicated answers for things that are not supported by evidence or facts, when a less complicated, more general answer is actually what is called for. Every single one of us armchair diagnosticians, who have no actual medical training and who have not actually spent time in the same room with her much less conducted a medical examination, have all pretty much concluding that Hillary Clinton couldn’t possibly have a cold or something as common as pneumonia, that she has to have Parkinson’s disease and, likely, advanced Parkinson’s. Because with the conjunction fallacy, the far more complex and convoluted answer makes far more sense when facts, research and evidence are not involved. It’s like social media was made for putting facts, research and evidence away and just jumping right for the brass ring of the most complicated answer and explanations of things.
Insufficient anchor adjustment: One of the great problems with social media is that it’s a never ending, always flowing river. It keeps going, even when you’re not looking. With this bias, we cling to ideas and beliefs we have even after we are exposed to ideas, facts and truths that could have, should have, and in so many cases, actually have shifted out points of view on a particular topic – our anchor point. As we gather and process new information, analyze it, and assimilate it in with that information that we have, we can and should adjust our thoughts and thus our conclusions, and be ever ready to draw new conclusions.
New conclusions, as in the shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa. As one of my former Sergeants said on Facebook, “It’s peculiar to me that anytime there is a press release by police departments with preliminary, unconfirmed, or limited reporting, they always seem to know or have enough information to corroborate actions of the officers involved to paint a picture of innocence or protocol. However, when they are presented with a question that raises doubt about the actions of the officers, they seem to never have enough information to comment or answer the question…” It can be difficult for us all to realize that Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby has been charged with manslaughter, after the police confirmed that Terence Crutcher was unarmed. Many of us will need to re-anchor our positions.
Conjunctive and disjunctive events bias: For so many of us, we think that things are always going to go well, and we are profoundly surprised when things do not. We expect things to come in under budget, and we expect projects to finish ahead of schedule. We as humans have this bias against the complexity in things, and we dismiss it. We hide it from our thought process, and we try to pretend it doesn’t exist.
Like overhauling all of the US health care system. Or what it would take to reform the tax system and the totality of tax laws in the US. Or the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, aka Brexit. Very simple sounding ideas that, once you ask an expert, you learn are amazing complex and riddled with areas that will completely and oh so easily derail the whole of the effort.
But on Twitter, with 140 characters, they sure sound easy.
Overconfidence: We all tend to be amazingly overconfident in what we post onto social media. We all know and truly believe that everything we post there is above reproach, and our belief in this only grows with the complexity of the question.
Case in point? We all know just what it would take to solve the problems in Iraq, to rebuild that country, and to defeat the growing Sunni insurgency there. Of course, this isn’t a bias that applies just to social media – just ask Colin Powell how easy it was to plan for and make any effort to rebuild Iraq after Coalition forces came into Iraq and wrecked the place. But if you look at social media today – or listen to US presidential debates – there’s no shortages of pundits and yahoos willings to offer their overconfident and oversimplified plans for quickly wrapping all that up in a bow and “solving it.”
We can’t move on and lead lives without these kinds of biases. They are just a part of how our brains work. The key part is learning something about how we think and process information, and coming to terms with these biases in order to better use our brains and sound less stupid. Factoring in these biases can become an everyday, every moment part of how we think and interact with others, in real life and yes, on social media. It’d be nice to live in a world in which we recognize the importance of sample size (“ooooh, you sample size is so biiiig!”) and when we don’t feel the need to regress to the mean because it just feels safer there because, you know, facts are scary. But facts are facts, good sources should be recognizable as such to all, and a little bit of research is only hard if you do it. If you don’t do it, bias is totally easy.
Art La Flamme is an Instructor and Graduate Faculty Member at Angelo State University, in their Department of Security Studies and Criminal Studies. He was a totally cute kid, right? He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on topics ranging from intelligence analysis to intelligence collection; from critical thinking to source analysis; and from intelligence support to policy and the decision making process to all about drones. He speaks often on topics related to leadership, personal and professional development, and his experiences as a combat Veteran. He blogs at artlaflamme.com and is on Twitter at @artlaflamme. When he talks, he uses knife hands, and when he drives, he always hits the apex.
My Bias is Better Than Your Bias by Art La Flamme is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Used with special permission from author.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.blog.artlaflamme.com/about-me/.