Sammy Nickalls
January 09, 2016 7:56 am

If you found this article through Facebook, sorry, but the past several minutes have made you dumber. OK, that’s almost definitely an exaggeration, but a new study suggests that the social media platform may actually lower intelligence due to confirmation bias.

“Confirmation bias” is a tendency to look for support and validation in our beliefs — even by misinterpreting information — rather than consider alternative possibilities. That is, it’s the reason why it can feel good for some to be surrounded by those who are like-minded because it can be uncomfortable to have our beliefs challenged and reassessed. However, the study suggests that due to Facebook, confirmation bias can lead to a rapid spreading of misinformation (i.e. incorrect political statistics that reaffirm beliefs, or even conspiracy theories. Sound familiar?).

The study, which was led by the Laboratory of Computational Social Science’s Michela Del Vicario, analyzed the behavior of Facebook users during the years of 2010 to 2014. The ultimate goal? To analyze whether people who are online actually encounter opposing viewpoints, or whether they gate themselves off from such discussion and surround themselves with only those who see things the same way as them. Using a truly massive data set of literally all posts during that five-year time period, the study analyzed how conspiracy theories, science news, and “trolling” (the intentional posting of incorrect information) were spread on Facebook.

The study found that Facebook users overwhelmingly chose to share articles that had ideas they accepted and ignore those that did not — which makes sense. However, a result of this that’s a little more jarring: The researchers essentially found a whole bunch of little communities that all believe the same, because again, confirmation bias. And some of those little communities are exactly where conspiracy theories can truly thrive, because there’s no dissenting opinion to stop them from doing so.

“[U]sers mostly tend to select and share content according to a specific narrative and to ignore the rest,” Del Vicario and her co-authors said in the study’s report. And this confirmation bias shows in “homogeneous, polarized clusters” online.

So how does this make us dumber? Unless we’re actively pursuing other views and opinions, we’re inadvertently, yet sort of purposely, surrounding ourselves with only views we’re comfortable with — and thus, we’re encouraging the “proliferation of biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumors, mistrust, and paranoia,” according to the study. Yeesh. Oh, another important thing to note? If we’re doing this on Facebook, we’re probably doing it on other social platforms as well. (We’ve all unfollowed someone on Twitter because of a *controversial* tweet, after all.)

As Bloomberg notes, the study does not mention the related phenomenon of “group polarization,” which is a result of these communities: When like-minded people interact, their opinions often become a more extreme version of what they once believed, and “whenever people spread misinformation within homogenous clusters, they also intensify one another’s commitment to that misinformation.” Plus, whenever people find out others agree with them, they become much more confident and more extreme — which is the perfect breeding ground for made-up political statistics and conspiracy theories, as well as those obnoxious Facebook arguments we all hate so much.

So how do we counter this? No, there’s no need to delete your Facebook account and toss your laptop out the window. Just keep yourself in check. Remember that there are other views other than your own, and try to actively seek out those views and consider them. Engage respectfully with those who believe differently than you, and have real discussions. And most of all, don’t share something that makes you feel better about your beliefs without fact-checking.

(Image via Shutterstock.)

Advertisement