Confirmation bias is what happens when we seek out information which confirms our beliefs. Now, doing this isn’t always bad, and it doesn’t mean that what you believe is wrong, but if you only seek information that confirms what you already believe, or your biases, you risk having a very lopsided perspective on a number of issues. Worse, it becomes harder for you to think critically about these issues and to change your mind when it would be right or intellectually honest for you to do so.
Exposing yourself to a variety of sources not only gives you a more balanced and complete view of something, but it will also help you better understand your beliefs and defend them more ably. I first learned this in college from Father Schall, who in our political philosophy course would quote Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274): “You don’t really know something until you know the reasons against it.” I’m impressed by that quote.
Now, these insights also apply to our social lives and the people we surround ourselves with, as Clay Johnson writes in his excellent The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption (O’Reilly, 2012):
“We all live in our own social bubbles, which we create and empower through our social relationships – and interestingly, new research says that these relationships have profound impacts on us. The friends we select, the communities in which we work, play, and love serve as filters for us. It’s too high of a cognitive and ego burden to surround ourselves with people that we disagree with.
“If you’re a Facebook user, try counting up the number of friends you have who share your political beliefs. Unless you’re working hard to do otherwise, it’s likely that you’ve surrounded yourself with people who skew towards your beliefs. Now look beyond political beliefs – how many of your friends share the same economic class as you?” (60)
When’s the last time you committed a poem to memory? What about a phone number or an address? Most of us don’t need to do these things any longer. Google, our laptops, and our many smart toys have made the need to commit information to memory obsolete. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but perhaps it’s worth reflecting on this change and what it means for our brains and our society.
In The Lost Art of Reading (Sasquatch, 2010), David Ulin quotes from Eva Hoffman’s Time:
“On one level we are relegating more and more of our mental operations to various technologies, with digital devices increasingly acting as prostheses for our faculties. We entrust our sense of spatial orientation to satellite navigations systems; we give mathematical calculations over to the appropriate gadgets…we have less need to remember information ourselves when so much can be stored in our computer’s memory. The feats of memory recorded in oral cultures, or performed by Soviet poets and writers under censorship, seem hardly credible within our zeitgeist. Nadezhda Mandelstam memorized all of her husband’s poetry because it was too hazardous to write it down. Solzhenitsyn committed to memory each page he wrote when he was imprisoned in the Gulag, and the destroyed the evidence. Such powers of retention are unimaginable to most of us and they may become even more so, as we transfer memory to the many storage places available to us – there to be filed way, for instant and effortless retrieval” (89).
In his extended essay The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Sasquatch Books, 2010), LA Times book critic David Ulin cites a 2009 study showing that in 2008, Americans consumed information for about 12 hours per day, and about 100,000 words per day. This, he explains, is the equivalent of a three-hundred-page novel, which at first seems encouraging. Except that much of this is a fragmented consumption of the “back-and-forth between texting, e-mail, print, Twitter, blogs and other websites,” amounting to what he calls a “collective data dump” (80).
He then writes:
“This is where reading, real reading, comes in – because it demands space…Perhaps most important, there is the way reading requires us to pay attention, which cannot help but return us to the realm of inner life” (80).
Then it gets really good:
He quotes a co-author of the study mentioned above, on the impact of these kinds of reading on deeper thinking: “Our attention is being chopped into shorter intervals and that is probably not good for thinking deeper thoughts.”
And from a psychiatrist working with ADD: “We have a generation of people who…are so busy processing information from all directions they are losing the tendency to think and feel. And much of what they are exposed to is superficial. People are sacrificing depth and feeling and becoming cut off and disconnected from other people” (81).
These insights should caution us against our often superficial habits of mindless information consumption (I myself am guilty of this), and more importantly, they should move us into being more intentional about doing the kind of extended, concentrated deep reading that is fast becoming a thing of the past for many.