The New England Patriots heroically overcame adversity to beat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime in Super Bowl LI. That’s the story here in New England. Or, perhaps, Atlanta coach Dan Quinn’s bad decisions, tired Falcons players, penalties, the unlikeliest catch ever seen, and Patriots cheaters are what really happened. Which is it?
My message today (sorry to harsh your mellow on your glorious day, fellow New Englanders) is that we are all biased toward the stories of our tribe. This is more true now than ever, because of Facebook. And it is why you should always be suspicious when something appears to confirm what you already believe.
Northeastern University research explains why we fool ourselves
As Juliet Macur explains in the New York Times, psychology research reveals how we fool ourselves. Northeastern University researcher David DeSteno studied the phenomenon of how we believe what our group believes and use it to justify our actions. In his experiments, people made self-serving decisions when they thought no one was watching, then rated themselves as completely fair and honest. When DeSteno divided people into two “teams” — based on nothing but randomly giving them different colored wristbands — people tended to justify the actions of people on their own team, and criticize the actions of members of the other team.
“It’s not about the true facts, or about how honest you believe a group is, or what the group’s past behavior is,” [DeSteno] said. “It doesn’t matter what sport it is, or what team it is, or even if it’s sports at all. Just being a part of a group, any group, is enough to excuse moral transgressions because in some way, you’re benefiting from it. Your moral compass shifts.”
“What’s interesting to me is that smart people can see the same events, but can have such different views of an act that’s otherwise objective, like videotaping another team when it’s illegal,” DeSteno said. “Some people could see that and say it’s terrible. Others could say it’s not cheating because everyone’s doing it. Both groups of people would believe what their mind is telling them to believe.”
“But Brady cheated and got caught,” I hear you saying. (Or perhaps, “But they never proved that Brady did anything, and they ignored the physics.”) You will never settle this argument. There is evidence on both sides. Are you making your judgment based on which team you like, or based on the facts? If you believe what Professor DeSteno found, you should suspect your thinking.
Fake news, optimism, and other hazards to thinking
What does this have to do with fake news? Everything.
Everyone in America is on a team. You are on the blue team, the team that believes that Obama was great, global warming is real, and gay people should be able to marry each other. Or you are the red team, and you believe that immigrants and Islamic terrorists are the biggest threat to America, political correctness has stolen jobs from white people, and regulations are destroying America’s ability to compete. (Or, perhaps, you’re on the alternate red team that thinks that regulation is bad but trade deals are good, and Russia is not our friend.)
Whatever team you are on, it’s likely that more of your friends are on your team than the other guy’s. Just as in Boston, there are more Patriots fans than fans of other football teams.
Because your friends are like that, that’s what you see on your Facebook feed. If you see something you agree with, you click “like.” So even if your friends from other teams are posting stuff you disagree with, Facebook makes sure that you see more of the stuff from your team.
As Prof. DeSteno’s research shows, it’s not just Facebook’s filter that’s misleading you — it’s your own. You want to believe your team is doing the right thing and the other team is cheating. You want to believe that Hillary threatened the security of America with her email server, or that Trump won the election because Russia interfered. (And please spare me the comments about which of these is true, because you’ll just be making my point for me.)
This is the most fertile environment imaginable for fake news to spread. In the past, we chose our news outlets, and the news outlets reflected at least some balance, even if there was some bias. Now, with Facebook’s help, we see and believe the news that reinforces our own beliefs — regardless of whether it has any basis in reality.
It’s worse than that, because we all think in narratives — in stories. A story about how your side is right and the other side is wrong hangs together nicely. Our bias toward stories reinforces our desire to accept evidence that we are right and reject evidence that we are wrong.
There are smart people in my feed on all sides of the political spectrum. A few of the otherwise smart liberals post only liberal stuff, denigrate everything Trump and Republicans do, and repeat things they want to believe — but never things that call their own beliefs into question. The smart conservatives do the same. It’s as pointless as rooting for the Patriots or the Falcons based on the color of their uniforms. But once you join a team, you tend to excuse your team’s insignificant problems and point out the other team’s outrageous transgressions.
This is where optimism comes in. Of course we want to believe we are doing well. So we overrate our own successes. But optimism is dangerous. Optimism blinds you to real challenges you need to face. Everything is not going to come out alright and you are not going to meet that deadline — unless you assume there are problems, face up to them, and do the work. Positive thinking is fun, but optimists make me nervous. (Were you optimistic that Clinton would win the election?)
How to think clearly
It is our tendency to seek evidence that confirms our biases. It is our nature to believe in stories. It is our psychology to join hands with the rest of our team.
Fight those tendencies.
In How Not to Be Wrong, Jordan Ellenberg suggests that if you believe something, you should seek evidence that proves you wrong. That’s a good principle.
Form a hypothesis about the world. Then question it.
Read the arguments from the other side. Why do they think that stuff?
Solidarity with your team is valuable — millions of people marching with pink pussy hats matter. That’s how change happens. In New England, we want to believe that our support is the reason the Patriots won — that they are heroes, their flaws are small, and their hearts are large. That’s how Julian Edelman made that impossible catch. Because he is great, and we are great.
But there is something more valuable than your team.
It’s the integrity of your thinking.
If you think like everyone around you, how are we ever going to actually figure out the truth?