Much of the recent political and media commentary focuses on an unfortunate trend: our susceptibility to a blind belief in fake news sites or the President-elect’s Twitter account, at the expense of factual evidence.
This may actually reflect a much larger movement toward a troubling change in how we tend to think or process information, as an individual, and as a society. Why do we ignore facts? What makes a person disregard logic in favor of emotion or the need to be right? And oh where has our ability for thinking critically gone? To do anything about this pattern, we need to understand some of the contributing factors. Social science can provide some informed wisdom in this regard.
Our attention span – you know, that ability to sustain attention on a single source of information or social interaction – is getting increasingly shorter. Scientific data in the past few years have documented an average attention span of about eight seconds. Think it about it this way – the average person cannot focus on a potentially important message concerning an imminent healthcare crisis, safety concern, or threat to his or her job for longer than it may have taken you to read this paragraph.
This fact isn’t new. The media have covered declining attention spans before. The causes are many, but perhaps the obvious accelerating factors of our poor attention abilities are globalization (i.e., an explosion in the amount of information we are exposed to) and mobile technology (i.e., quickening of how we gain access to information of varying quality). We love our iPhones and the ability to connect with friends overseas – and these are no doubt great things – but they come at a costly cognitive price.
Thinking is hard?
Then there is effortful thinking, or the lack thereof. Social and cognitive psychologists term this personality characteristic “need for cognition.” Roughly speaking, this is an individual’s preference for effortful thinking and complex mental activities. In everyday terms – your friend high in need for cognition is the one doing Sudoku, constantly engaging in high level chatter, and always seeking to understand how stuff works.
An overview of the science on need for cognition shows that lower levels of this individual difference lend one to be influenced easily by short messages or strong images, engage in biased thinking and partisan news sources, and fall victim to other ill sources of information. They can also become overwhelmed by complicated, layered information, instead favoring mental shortcuts to make decisions. So what’s the harm? In short, the strong potential for bad decisions. Low need for cognition can lead down paths of following stronger personalities (see below), contributing to prejudice and interpersonal conflict, and, at worst, serving as a precursor to some of the most tragic human rights issues in modern history. Don’t think? Then don’t expect the best to happen for you or society!
If attention span and mental effort are siblings in the downfall of facts, over-reliance on emotion is their not-so-distant cousin. Recent legal, social, and political science data suggest emotional personality characteristics may impact how we make decisions across situations. In short, the need for affect is the extent to which we prefer to avoid or experience and express both positive and negative emotions. In day-to-day life, our penchant for engaging affect may impact our preference for news sources, political party affiliations, and who we see as credible (say someone we are emotionally attached to over an established yet unfamiliar expert). In more unique settings, need for affect can impact much more serious outcomes. A skilled attorney, for instance, having factored you (the responsible juror-citizen) into jury selection and trial strategy, may cleverly play to emotions in order to sway verdicts and sentencing. And again, at the extremes, relying solely on emotional decision-making, especially based in fear and anger, can contribute to the same set of societal ills as low need for cognition. Social science does not tell you to disregard emotion. It simply warns of the dangers of letting emotions run your cognitive life.
The dangers of black and white thinking.
The style or manner of our thinking also matters. That is, fundamentalist thinking in any form has severe drawbacks. Put simply, fundamentalist thinkers can see only one side of the coin, an effect we might term all-or-nothing or dichotomous thinking (see here for more on these and other common thinking errors). As a result, they actively and ardently refute other perspectives as invalid. They are cognitively inflexible. They ignore facts in favor of confirmation biases. They make excuses at the expense of others in order to maintain the functions their fundamentalist thinking serves – very often maintaining a sense of identity, safety, or security. Let me be clear: Social science suggests that fundamentalist thinking comes in many forms – legal, religious, political, moral, social, and so on. If we can see past the idea that the religion, political party, etc… is not actually the problem, we may get somewhere. The problem, I would pose to you, is the manner in which fundamentalist thinkers choose to use the belief system to suit their own purposes, whether or not they are aware they are doing so.
It’s a Cult of Personality!
In the big picture, we often also fall prey to what historians and scientists might call a “Cult of Personality.” In other words, we follow leaders – political, social, religious – who are charismatic, dynamic and seemingly all-knowing, very often at the expense of our own identity and critical thinking. What is worse is that social science highlights the susceptibility of this pattern in times of extreme conflict, and that many perfectly mentally healthy people fall victim to this type of leadership (for a practical understanding see here for those who are susceptible to cult influence). In lesser concerning forms, a cult of personality can lead to an empowered person or group who merely acts selfishly on a small scale. In its worst manifestations, cults of personality gave us Hitler, Manson, and other of the horrific leaderships in history. I’ve lamented what seems to be a clear collective inability to discern and follow people of high character elsewhere, at least in the context of understanding 2016 election results. Let me build on this idea. Preventing ourselves from falling victim to a cult of personality is too a social responsibility.
So what do we do?
The first answer from my perspective, one always grounded in the view of an educator, is education. Try to reach and teach people the importance of, and methods for, logic, reasoning, and critical thinking. Do it early. Do it often. Read to your children. Discuss with your teenagers. Employ educational and teaching strategies that are based in scientific evidence, and that foster critical thinking and problem-solving skills over and above how to take a test or how to get a participation ribbon. Yes, this line of thinking is a long-term plan, but also one of dire need.
I also (with a hint of hopefulness) argue for the more short-term need for all of us to think and discern. Let me add that we also need to discuss. We must learn basic social and conversational skills such as active listening and perspective taking. Let me also double down: This is now our collective moral imperative. As cliché as it sounds, social science suggests that exposure to persons of differing experiences and viewpoints can be a good thing, as long as you can approach it with a flexible mind and minimal level of social abilities.
The writer would like to thank Irv Harrell (Old Dominion University) and Frank Golom (Loyola University Maryland).