‘We are hardwired to live in our own bubbles’

Secluded: One UK study found SNP and UKIP voters interact least with those they disagree with.

In an era of fake news and political division, some fear we are too quick to ignore the facts we don’t like. Now a new book says we evolved to think this way. Can we overcome our nature?

Liberal vs conservative. Young vs old. City-dweller vs countrysider.

Recent political events have exposed some stark divides in Western societies. People, it seems, are increasingly living in bubbles; they reinforce their own views and isolate themselves from those they disagree with.

Social media users risk entering “echo chambers”. Websites promoting previously fringe views have become more popular. Commentators bemoan the rise of fake news, conspiracy theories and “post-truth” politics.

Since the 1970s psychologists have written about two trends that may explain this. Cognitive dissonance is our ability to hold several inconsistent thoughts at the same time. And confirmation bias is our tendency to accept facts and opinions which reaffirm our worldview, and reject those which challenge it.

Now a new book has an intriguing thesis. In The Enigma of Reason, cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber say humans used to benefit from these phenomena — and have evolved to embrace them.

They argue that when our ancestors lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers, clear reasoning brought few advantages. In contrast, winning arguments helped to bolster their social standing. This helped individuals to avoid taking on the highest-risk roles — for example, hunting.

Other research suggests people experience a rush of dopamine when processing information that supports their beliefs. “It feels good to stick to our guns even if we are wrong,” wrote Jack and Sara Gorman in the book Denying to the Grave last year. Some studies also show that people with very strong views on a subject are likely to be less informed than those with a moderate one.

But such behaviour seems less helpful in the era of globalisation, the internet and social media, when we can indulge our own views so easily. “This is one of many cases in which the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up,” say Mercier and Sperber.

So is this just the way we are destined to live?

Bubbling under

Yes, say some. The world is changing fast, and evolution is not keeping up. Human beings are a highly flawed species — this is why, for example, we have spent many millennia fighting each other. We will seek out information which confirms our preconceptions and political polarisation, based on uninformed opinions, because we simply cannot help it.

Such pessimism, others respond. We are not prisoners of our psychology. We have created societies to encourage cooperation and overcome the worst aspects of our nature. We have learnt from our mistakes and made progress. We may not be born ready to assess facts and arguments carefully, but with education and patience we can learn to do so.

You Decide

  1. Do you ever worry that you are too closed-minded?
  2. Are we destined to live in our own metaphorical bubbles?

Activities

  1. Who or what gives you information about the world? Draw a word cloud (writing important answers bigger than less important ones). Discuss what you can learn from this with a partner.
  2. Write a one-page explanation of either cognitive dissonance or confirmation bias, so that someone three years younger than you could understand it.

Some People Say...

“Human beings cannot escape the failings of their psychology.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not that politically interested. Does this still affect me?
This is not just about your political opinions. It could help to explain the way you view any number of events or issues — including your thoughts on friendships, family relationships and your life at school. Besides, many issues which you do not consider political — such as a job you are interested in doing when you are older — may have more political significance than you realise.
But do I really need to challenge my own views? That sounds like a lot of effort.
Challenging your own opinions — for example, by reading The Day — will allow you to test them. This will then mean you can refine them, or perhaps change them. Then your opinions will be better informed and you will be able to defend them more confidently.

Word Watch

Events
In particular, the UK’s Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election.
Echo chambers
Where our own opinions are repeated back to us, investigated by several studies. This month the think tank Demos showed that politically engaged Twitter users interact with far more people who share their opinions than do not.
1970s
Stanford University research in the 1970s provided the initial evidence for these ideas.
Reasoning
In their book, published by Harvard University Press, the authors say our ability to reason evolved to solve the problems caused by living in collaborative groups — not to enable us to solve logical problems.
Denying to the Grave
Published by Oxford University Press, studying the difficulty of convincing opponents of vaccinations that the scientific evidence was against them.
Studies
A 2014 survey asked Americans how the USA should respond to the situation in Ukraine. Those strongly in favour of military intervention were less likely to know where Ukraine was.
Natural selection
The process allowing better-adapted organisms to pass on their genes, while worse-adapted do not.