An interesting article appears in the latest issue of The Atlantic, arguing that the trend toward hypersensitivity on college campuses reflects an unhealthy and counterproductive set of coping mechanisms. Called "The Coddling of the American Mind," it points to a series of cognitive distortions that are associated with neurosis and shows how each of these is encouraged by the strange new campus culture of "trigger warnings" and "microaggressions." Authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that instead of cultivating supersensitive students who will be ill-equipped to deal with the sharp elbows and rough edges of the real world, colleges ought to train incoming freshmen in simple methods of identifying and combating cognitive distortions.
All of this is interesting enough in itself, but it got me thinking about a related but slightly different issue – namely, the Internet, and how it affects social interactions and personal well-being. It seems to me that the same cognitive distortions that are at play in the arena of the college campus are also very much on display in social media, Internet news sites, and blogs.
Let's look at some of these cognitive distortions, which were first popularized by psychologist David Burns, and see how they might relate to our everyday online experience.
Mental filtering - focusing on the negative aspect(s) of a situation while ignoring everything else. We see this all the time on political sites which exclusively report news detrimental to the other side of the partisan divide. The result, for people who rely on these sites, is the growing sense that everything in the world is going wrong and that those who are opposed to them politically have nothing positive to offer.
Black-and-white thinking - when anyone who disagrees with us must be evil or crazy. I've seen conservative sites that insist "liberalism is a mental illness,” and liberal sites that say "conservatism is a mental illness.” We also see this kind of thinking on sites devoted to Skepticism, in which anyone who suggests that there could be some merit to parapsychology is immediately disparaged as a nut, a moron, a liar, or a huckster out to make a quick buck. And we see it on New Age sites that similarly disparage anyone who registers even moderate skepticism as "part of the problem," a person with "negative vibrations," a cynic, “unevolved,” and so forth.
Jumping to conclusions. This fallacy seems to be particularly prevalent in social media, where the trend lately has been for outraged lynch mobs to go after some particular person who's offended them. In many cases, the outrage is based on a superficial and incorrect understanding of the situation – often taking something out of context. A recent example involves a dentist who killed a lion while on safari in Africa. When he made the mistake of tweeting a photo of himself with the carcass, he came under sustained attack from people opposed to big-game hunting. He even had to close his practice for a while and go into hiding because of death threats. And yet the full context painted a different picture than the simplistic story spread via Twitter. The game park's survival depends on the large fees paid by hunters. The dentist's native guides specifically directed him to that particular lion. And in the absence of any natural predators, some form of culling must take place to control the animal population. While it is still possible to disapprove of hunting as a sport (I'm not too sympathetic toward it myself, as my short story "Rite of Passage" makes clear), the full story at least made the dentist out to be something other than a heartless monster.
Fortune-telling and catastrophizing - the tendency to anticipate the worst possible outcome (fortune-telling), or to assume that this outcome has already occurred (catastrophizing). The two fallacies are closely connected. Such reasoning is found all over the Internet. Political sites see any policy they disapprove of as the harbinger of an unspeakable catastrophe. Skeptical sites insist that any acceptance of paranormal phenomena must lead to a new Dark Age.
Note how quickly the prediction (fortune-telling) turns into fact (catastrophizing) in the believer's mind. From arguing that current trends will lead to (say) dictatorship, the political writer segues into the conclusion that we are already in a dictatorship. The Skeptic's prediction that belief in the paranormal will bring on a new Dark Age quickly becomes the conclusion that we’re already living in a Dark Age of ignorance and superstition.
Another example would be sites devoted to arguing either for or against anthropogenic global warming, with proponents claiming that a planetary disaster of unprecedented proportions is now inevitable, and opponents claiming that any restrictions on carbon dioxide output will bring our technological civilization to a screeching halt. And then there are financial sites that see every market correction as the first step toward total economic, social, and political collapse, and keep their readers in chronic state of anxiety and panic.
Personalization - making everything personal. We need look no further than the comment threads of many sites and blogs to find people who immediately take any contrary opinion as a personal attack. Comment threads tend to deteriorate into mudslinging contests for this very reason. The fact that commenters can hide behind screen names and usually have no personal connection with their interlocutors makes it all too easy to lash out in an angry, sarcastic, or belittling fashion without worrying about the consequences.
Emotional reasoning - “if I feel it, it must be true, and the more strongly I feel it, the more true it is." It's impossible to avoid this fallacy if you spend any time on the Internet. All too often, arguments are made on the basis of strong emotion, rather than any factual basis. If somebody feels strongly that Obama is a Muslim who was born in Kenya and faked his birth certificate, it is simply impossible to talk him out of this opinion. He feels it, dammit, so it must be true – and who are you to question his feelings? Or, to take an example from the opposite side of the political spectrum, if somebody feels that the minimum wage should be $20 an hour, it's almost always a waste of time to point out that an unrealistically high starting wage will eliminate entry-level jobs and increase unemployment. Arguing for a $20 minimum wage makes a person feel good about himself – makes him feel that he is caring, kindhearted, and idealistic – and this feeling is more important than any facts.
I've also seen this fallacy displayed on paranormal sites where evidence is presented without much concern for accuracy. When I point out that certain case histories have been misreported, I sometimes get the reply that the factual particulars don't matter – we shouldn't get "bogged down" in details. What this means is that we shouldn't pay attention to facts that get in the way of the feelings we want to have.
A few months ago I encountered a very clear example of this fallacy on Facebook. The above image of a monkey carrying a puppy had gone viral, with the caption that the monkey was rescuing the dog after a factory explosion in China; the uplifting message was that if animals can show such concern for each other, then surely we as humans can do no less. Well, I Googled it and quickly determined that the story was not true. The photo was not taken in China, and there was no factory explosion. In fact, the monkey was not rescuing the dog, but just playing with it, as the photographer herself has stated. But when I mentioned this, the reaction I got from other people on Facebook was sharply negative. They didn't want to know the truth about the picture. One of them told me explicitly that it made her feel good to think that the monkey had rescued a puppy, and she didn't want her feelings altered by facts.
Always being right. This one speaks for itself. Many online arguments continue in perpetuity, with neither side willing to give in or walk away. And the longer the argument goes on, the more likely it is that other fallacies will come into play – that the combatants will start to personalize, engage in emotional reasoning, catastrophize, resort to black-and-white thinking, and so forth.
In listing these distortions, I don’t mean to suggest that I'm immune from them myself. Sadly, the opposite is true. For instance, my insistence on getting the facts about the monkey picture was probably a case of “always being right.” I’m prone to catastrophizing when it comes to political developments. I often have a mental filter about current events, seeing only the negatives (which make headlines) and ignoring the positives (which are easily taken for granted).
There’s nothing new about these distorted ways of thinking. People have always reasoned fallaciously in just these ways. What is new, I think, is the extent to which we're exposed to cognitive distortions on a daily basis if we spend a lot of time online. Chronic exposure to social media, political sites, comment threads, and even blogs like this one can subtly teach us counterproductive and illogical ways of thinking; the more we encounter these fallacies in other people without recognizing them, the more inclined we are to duplicate their distortions. Then we ourselves encourage the same kind of distorted thinking in other people, and the fallacies spread and intensify.
The rise of the Internet has obviously contributed to the growing polarization of our society. The most often-cited reason is that the Internet allows people to hang out in isolated echo chambers and groupthink ghettos where their own biases are constantly reinforced. While this is true, another factor is that so much online commentary and discussion engenders black-and-white thinking, mental filtering, catastrophizing, and other fallacies that encourage us to demonize anyone with a different point of view.
This may also partly explain the sharp polarization between Skeptics and proponents of the paranormal, who seem to have so little common ground. Sometimes when arguing against certain dubious pieces of evidence for life after death, I’ve been told, “You’re only helping the Skeptics when you do that” - as if what matters is not getting at the truth, but winning the debate. This mindset can take hold most easily when the opposite side is viewed as evil, vicious, duplicitous, and lacking in any positive qualities - a view encouraged by most of the cognitive distortions listed above.
Is there any solution? Actually, yes. The best way not to fall prey to these errors is to identify them in our own thinking and then replace our distorted thought patterns with more realistic ones. Many articles and books offer advice on how to do this. There are also apps, such as this one for the iPhone, which allow you to write out your troubling thoughts and then identify which cognitive distortions are at work.
Besides all that, it would probably be helpful for all of us to spend less time online. Speaking of which, I think now I'll turn off my computer and head outside.