Why do we need yet another website? Well, read on and you’ll find out.
Before I try to convince you why you need to keep reading this website, let’s all agree to something very simple: Plato and Socrates were very smart guys, with lots of innovative ideas. I mean as a typical Greek teenager forced to translate Politeia (aka Republic) from ancient to modern Greek and to study ancient Greek texts, so that I can successfully pass my exams, I don’t know much about philosophy. Strike that. I know almost nothing about philosophy.
I care about facts and about how people respond to these facts. I’ve stored information about human behaviour in order to understand decision making and opinionating. And while I was reading my notes, so that I can write this piece, it roughly happened what Plato describes: the correct piece of information has been successfully retrieved from the darkest depths of my soul (i.e. knowledge as remembrance, oh gosh my high school teachers would be so proud!). I realised that Plato’s caveman was prone to confirmation bias, to illusionary truth effect and she’d most likely end up losing or polarising an argument.
Many interpretations have been given to Plato’s Politeia and the Allegory of the Cave but if you want to read about these, well, you need to Google. Here, I will use this to illustrate behavioural concepts that are relevant to opinionating, decision making and our wider engagement with today’s media; because, in my opinion, Plato, 2354 years before Tversky & Kahneman publish their article about human biases and heuristics, talked about concepts used today to understand human reasoning.
Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained their entire lives and they can only look at one thing: whatever they encounter in front of their faces, without being able to turn their heads around. Long story short, these guys watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them. These shadows were the prisoners’ reality. A prisoner gets free and forced to stand up and look straight toward the light. In the beginning, it’s extremely difficult –almost impossible – for her to believe that what she’s always known has been a big, fat lie. After a long and painful process – and persistence by external forces – she realises that what she was used to view were mere shadows of objects, not the objects themselves. The real world was so cool that the freed prisoner didn’t want to keep the newly acquired knowledge for herself but she wanted to share it with her fellow dwellers, so that they, as well, could go out of the cave and into the sunlight. However, when she returned to the cave, blinded due to the darkness, the prisoners did not only refuse to undertake this journey but they would even kill her if they had the chance.
Socrates in Plato’s Republic illustrated concepts that would win two Nobel prizes: one with Daniel Kahneman in 2002 and another one with Richard Thaler in 2017. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but the bottom line is: we are not as awesome as we think we are.
Humans are faced with bounded rationality, lack of time and overwhelmingly high number of choices (or information). Bounded rationality implies that individuals have both information constraints and limitations in their cognitive capacity to perceive all aspects of a complex problem. So, not only are we not as bright as we think but we don’t even have the time to reflect. And on the top of that, there are so many choices available out there, so much information, so many news articles and opinions, so many different shampoo brands that we just need a break.
So, what do we do?
We use mental shortcuts (i.e. heuristics) to make our life easier. And these mental shortcuts come with a bunch of cognitive biases. So, individuals not only tend to interpret information in a way that their existing opinion is reinforced, disregarding anything that clashes with their version of truth (aka confirmation bias) but they, actually, end up strengthening their misperceptions when they’re confronted with the corrective information (aka backfire effect). Our complex lives make us reluctant to change, leading us to believe that it’s better to stick with what we know, even if the benefits of a potential new situation may be far greater (aka status quo bias) -kudos to Plato because he wrote about status quo bias in 380 BC.
And there’s more. Humans make judgments about the likelihood of an event based on how easily an example, instance or case comes to mind (i.e. availability heuristic). Basically, if you remember something then this becomes a universal truth, an undeniable fact. However, our memory fails us more times than we’d like to count: we don’t have the hard drive to store all events, all articles, all opinions that we’ve come across in our life, so, we’ll remember the ones that were more intense, more vivid, more salient. That thing you’re so sure about may not be the most accurate but simply the one that you remember more easily compared to the other, less sexy thing you saw on the same day. Something that is connected to the availability heuristic and it is used to explain the spread of fake news is the illusory truth effect. Each time a reader comes across a story on social media, regardless of whether this story sounds credible, it makes a subtle impression. With every share, every post, every comment, this story grows more and more familiar. This familiarity creates the inaccurate impression that this story is actually true –or better said, it creates an illusion of truth – kudos to Plato again.
Now, let’s say that misinformation can be presented in a salient way with emotional words and pictures and therefore you can recollect it much more easily than a long Guardian article. So, you not only remember unverified or fake information, but you will also repeat it to others, who will grow familiar with this and they will take it as an actual fact. These fellow prisoners, on their turn, will repeat the story and this is –roughly – how fake news spread across the web. As you’re prone to various cognitive biases, you will passionately refuse any evidence showing the contrary to your built-up misperception.
What can we do about it?
On this website, we’ll try to express comments about a variety of subjects based on objectively informed opinions. We’ll try our best to dismantle popular opinions founded on misinformation or misperceptions. Don’t worry, we’ll, also, discuss human biases and the way they manifest themselves in our everyday life – and who knows, we may even use behavioural insights to answer eternal questions such as: is he/she into me? (I’m sure Daniel Kahneman didn’t have that in mind when he won the Nobel Prize for the use of fundamental insights from cognitive psychology but sometimes we need to spicy science up).
Against all odds, we CAN become more rational thinkers. We can find the tools to win the next argument about feminism and to engage more people in constructive dialogues. We can think of ourselves as Plato’s prisoners: the climbing towards knowledge is long and painful, deeply disturbing and sometimes, even suffocating. But once we get there, it’s totally worth it.
So, shall we?