If you had to pick the most dangerous animal between a tiger, shark, deer or leopard, which one would you choose? If like most people, you picked one of the three carnivorous predators, you just experienced our brain’s powerful, but outdated hardwiring.
The human brain has evolved over millions of decades, whereas modern society as we know it – is barely a few thousand years old. Written language is a recent flicker in mankind’s timeline and the proliferation of millions of data points bombarding us every day is a phenomenon, less than a generation old. Our (hopelessly outdated) brain is layered with biases over millennia; which lead to wrong judgements in the modern context.
Tigers, leopards and sharks evoke a primordial fear in our collective consciousness, inherited from prehistoric times, when our ancestors could encounter them regularly – which fortunately is not the case anymore. This fear is reinforced by what is known as the availability heuristic. Every time a shark attacks a swimmer or a leopard snatches a kid – that event is plastered across media, creating such an outlier noise, that our brain interprets multiple reports of the same incident – as discrete events – thus magnifying its resonance.
Deer, rabbits and several such seemingly harmless animals cause far more human deaths in vehicle accidents than all tigers, leopards, sharks and every other dangerous animal put together. This same availability heuristic also shocks us into vociferous protests when two dozen passengers die in a stampede at a railway station, while we are unaware that Mumbai metro has been claiming a dozen lives every single day for years! We scream blue murder at the municipal authorities whenever our cities are flooded, yet not a single channel or article dwells into climate change.
The killing of a single child in a school galvanises us into demonstrations, while we overlook thousands of children who die because of unsafe transportation, poor hygiene, spurious medicines, assaults, child labour, organised rackets of begging, prostitution and other horrible depravities. Societies spend billions of dollars after few hundred souls are killed by terrorists but continue to tolerate close to two hundred thousand yearly casualties in largely preventable road accidents. Contrary to our beliefs, our thinking is neither rational nor logical.
Even when faced with life threatening situations, the need to conform to stereotypes is so overpowering, that people who could have escaped from collapsing towers, mill around hoping that everything will become normal. Beach goers who watch the sea receding into distance, simply stare at the oddity, instead of running away from clear and present danger. Surprisingly the more analytical, educated or logical a person is, more likely that they will be a slave to their biases, in some extreme cases, even taking their own lives in pursuit of literally nothing – like the blue whale.
News like any other communication – of which advertisement is a great example – has impediments to objectivity that are both internal to the brain and external in the environment. Here are some startling counter intuitive examples.
Research proves that when opinionated people are presented with facts, which both support and debunk their point of view, most choose to assimilate only data that favours their stand, completely ignoring the contrarian information. This is accentuated in the digital age where scores of arguments, both for and against, any issue can be found instantly. Are statins good for controlling cholesterol? Hundreds of credible medical articles say so. Are the success rates of consuming statins worth the side effects? Again hundreds of equally credible sources counsel against statins.
A further spin is added by articles that question the credibility of their opposition’s view by insinuating that they toe capitalist pharma companies’ agenda, while other papers question the competence of opposing authors. If this is the ambiguity even in regulated disciplines, imagine the confusion when it comes to amorphous issues like political orientation, tolerance and religious ideology.
Some external factors that inhibit objective bipartisan thinking, are the echo & filtering effects. Most of us like to think that we are diverse, rational and unique personalities, but that is a fiction of our brain. The truth is, that we have much more in common with our work colleagues, our social and travel circles than we believe. We tend to cluster in homogenous groups which have opinionated and usually parochial thinking. The lobbies for and against – death penalty, abortion, privacy, state surveillance, environmental degradation and even human rights – are all clusters whose members believe that most people are in agreement with them (echo effect of hearing the same opinion from people around them). In addition, every effort of theirs to get a contrarian view is stymied by online algorithms that filter information before it reaches them. For example if a person were to search for articles on a political issue, chances are, she will be shown results which are very similar to what her neighbour thinks. That’s because we tend to live in similar social strata and search algorithms are designed to be super localised. This filtering phenomenon has a double whammy. Not only does it convince us that we were right to begin with, but even our online searches “confirm” our belief.
Given that more access to information does not translate into better knowledge – modern societies get myopic and insular in their views – unwilling to even consider alternatives or compromises. And in a world with shrinking resources and increasing contenders, that will inevitably lead to conflict.
What is the way out?
Firstly, we must realise that mostly every piece of news that’s delivered via media is second hand, which means in essence – it is hearsay. Most reportage has a skew to it and increasingly, many are becoming blatant advertisements. Also, appreciate that social media platforms create an echo effect with the same information being ricocheted in multiple instances or variants.
So if there is an issue you feel strongly about, you will have to make the effort to get to the primary source. For example, do you think climate change is an issue? Then talk to those who are most affected. Speak to people who have been forced to migrate into cities because of reducing water tables. Interact with farmers and fishermen whose livelihoods are directly connected with weather. Do you believe the situation in Kashmir is worse now? Visit Kashmir and interact with the locals. Speak to individuals who have lived or served there. They are the primary sources of information. Similarly, reach out into social and economic strata different from your own. Seek contrarian views and reflect on their arguments dispassionately. Examine the source of the story as much as the substance. Sift facts and evidence from opinions and conjectures. Don’t attempt to convince others, instead try to absorb divergent perspectives. And be prepared to change your own view point – perhaps more than once.
If this sounds like a lot of work in a world that delivers pre-processed, concise and polarised opinions right into your smartphones, that is true. It is much harder to gather objective facts before forming an opinion, than it is to find facts which support a pre-formed opinion. Which is why we must question anything that comes to us easily, because chances are, the hard work has already been done by someone with an agenda. Usually, their agenda.
The author is former CEO, NATGRID and he tweets @captraman. Views are personal.