Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 6 – Cognitive Bias

This is part six of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part five, visit Skepticism is a Virtue.

Cognitive biases are the shortcuts we take when thinking. And like many shortcuts, they can leave you lost in the woods instead of at your destination. An ounce of awareness is worth a pound of cure, so let’s look at a few of the big ones:

  • Confirmation bias
    The tendency to look for information that supports your view, ignoring information that contradicts it, and stopping when you find support for it.
    The Danger: if you’re looking for information that only supports your point of view, you’ll find it, whether that’s as mainstream as a given political stripe or as out there as world lizard people leadership .
  • Cognitive dissonance
    Our ability to embrace things we know are objectively inconsistent, contradictory or nonsensical, if it means avoiding admitting we’re wrong.
    The Danger: if you’re willing to go to any lengths to avoid admitting a mistake, you risk embracing increasingly dangerous, fringe ideas. Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, but he and his supporters continue to double down on the idea of “the big steal” rather than admit defeat.
  • Availability heuristic
    The idea that we overemphasize things that loom large in our mind or memory, even if they’re not that significant.
    The Danger: Threats loom larger than they really are, and opportunities seem golden when they’re actually “meh,” leading to bad decisions.

You can find an exhaustive list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia, more than you’d probably ever want to explore, but to confront disinformation, you need to become aware of your own cognitive biases. Then, you can begin to understand how to talk to people about theirs, the topic of our next installment.

Further reading: Nobel-prize-winner Daniel Kahneman’s best seller Thinking Fast and Slow.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 5 – Skepticism is a Virtue

This is part five of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part four, visit Ask Why.

Skepticism gets a bad rap, thanks to frequently being confused with cynicism, but they’re not the same. Cynicism distrusts everything. Skepticism trusts evidence. You can find a more detailed definition but that’s what it boils down to: evidence. We’ll talk more about that in a future post, but for now understand that skepticism is simply about believing things based on evidence.

Skepticism is hard. It’s a lot easier to nod your head and go along with someone when they espouse the virtues of Reiki, manifestation or Ponzi schemes. Questioning the evidence takes work, so why do it?

You can’t be swindled if you don’t open the door

In the era of door-to-door salesmen, legend has it one technique to avoid losing a sale was to jam their foot in the door. A good way to avoid pushy salespeople is to not open the door in the first place, which is also how skepticism works: if you question things from the very beginning, the door never opens long enough for the foot to wedge its way in.

The courage to look under the surface

Theranos continues to serve as an object lesson in skepticism. Elizabeth Holmes famously demanded absolute, unquestioning loyalty from her employees, which meant no skepticism: you drank the Kool-Aid or you were out. The skeptics were on the outside looking in, not the rank and file, and the ones who eventually blew the whistle had to stare unblinkingly at the evidence and admit to what they were seeing. They had to acknowledge and embrace their skepticism.

What would have happened if more people on the inside had the courage to voice their skepticism, and do so earlier? What if the board of directors had done so? Maybe the legions of investors wouldn’t have seen that investment evaporate if either of those groups had the courage to be skeptical.

In the age of disinformation, we all have a responsibility to be skeptical.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 4 – What’s Your Source?

This is part four of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part three, visit Ask Why.

In an ideal world, we’d all be extremely well-informed. We’d have the time and leisure to read up on issues and examine different sources, educating ourselves and coming to informed decisions about everything from local politics to global events.

In the real world, we all have jobs, kids to take care of, dogs to walk, bills to pay, dinner to make… none of us are Greek scholars, lounging around in togas all day, philosophizing over tumblers of retsina.

Painting of Plato's Academy by Raphael
Those Grecian lounge lizards….

So we have to put our faith in others to do the work of evaluating sources for us. That’s why mainstream media works: journalists are paid to do their homework and check their sources so you don’t have to. Unfortunately, mainstream journalism is dying. Newsrooms are shrinking, and investigative journalism is becoming an endangered species.

We’re also in an age when all the information in the world is at your fingertips. Unfortunately, that also means all the disinformation in the world is at your fingertips. That’s why asking where someone’s getting their information from is more important than ever.

A wedge-shaped conspiracy

A good example is Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that senior Democrats such as Hillary Clinton were secretly operating a pedophilia ring out of the basement of a Washington pizza restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant in question doesn’t have a basement, which should have been the first clue for anyone examining the theory that maybe it wasn’t totally factual.

More broadly, the sources for the conspiracy tend to be marginal (such as anonymous Twitter accounts), while the ones debunking it tend to be established mainstream media. All other things being equal, you’d be well advised to pay more attention to established media such as the New York Times than an anonymous Twitter account. That doesn’t mean the New York Times is infallible, or that anonymous Twitter accounts are necessarily wrong. It just means that the balance of probabilities would indicate the world’s largest newspaper is less likely to be making crazy stuff up than an information channel anyone can create in 10 seconds of their spare time is.

Regrettably, criticizing mainstream media simply because they’re mainstream, has become a convenient shortcut to delegitimize them and elevate some very strange ones in their place.

What’s your source?

That’s why it’s important to ask where someone’s getting there information. Doing so has the added benefit of depersonalizing a confrontation with someone operating under the influence of disinformation. It’s less of a direct confrontation when you call into question someone’s sources than it is when you call into question their beliefs.


Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 3 – Ask Why

This is part three of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part two, visit Stay Curious.

I wrote about the power of why previously, but it bears repeating, especially when countering disinformation.  “Why” is a tremendously powerful word, so powerful that asking it five times was entrenched as a problem-solving tool at Toyota.

It’s effective because it gets to the root of a problem. With each “why,” a layer is peeled away, and you get closer to the truth. Five is an arbitrary number; you may need more or fewer “whys,” but their power remains the same, as long as you follow two rules:

  1. Keep asking till you reach a reasonable root cause.
  2. Stop asking before you reach the absurd.

#1 above takes courage. People labouring under the influence of disinformation usually don’t take kindly to putting their beliefs under a microscope, which is what “why” does.

#2 takes wisdom, because asking “why” too many times takes you to a ridiculous place where you end up asking questions like “Why is the sky blue?” or “why does 2+2=4?”.

When used judiciously, “Why” makes people examine their beliefs in a way that puts the onus to justify them rationally on themselves. That reduces the potential for confrontation: when a conversation moves from “I disagree with you because I think your opinion is stupid” to “Tell me why you believe that,” you create the safety necessary for someone to begin to change their mind.