In the era of hyper-information, which began with the development of the network and was further amplified by the use of social media, we have access to an unlimited range of news. How does our brain react to this constant flow of stimuli?
To answer this complex question, we must refer to the cognitive bias’ utilization when we are overwhelmed by a flood of information, as happens, for example, with social networks.
The leading role is played by the confirmation bias, i.e. the tendency to search for and prefer the information that confirms our initial beliefs. The psychological experiments have proved how individuals collect or remember information in a selective way and interpret ambiguous evidence to support their pre-existing assumptions. This bias results in an excessive confidence in one’s personal opinions and prevents any change of mind in spite of evident contrary proofs. According to this mental automatism, there are both the tendency to believe that what we hope may come true (wishful thinking) and the limited ability of men to re-process information. Moreover, it is certainly easier for the individual to validate his/her initial ideas instead of performing a complex comparative and scientific analysis to assess their validity.
This behaviour is supported by another bias, the status quo, an evaluative distortion connected with the resistance to change associated with the tendency not to make any decisions likely to alter the current state, although they may be positive. Every change is regarded as a loss.
Eventually, our opinions are influenced by the anchoring bias, which leads us to a strong connection with the initial information with which we come into contact; the information is intended as an “anchor” and is used to make any subsequent judgments during the decision-making process. The contents similar to it tend to be assimilated, while those deviating from it are usually removed.
The group bias produce effects to similar the confirmation bias and leads to the overestimation of the skills and value of one’s group, regardless of its nature (social, cultural, etc.) as well as to the denigration and discrimination of any extraneous group. This cognitive error generates the attitude, frequently observed in cultural and academic circles, to favour the people belonging to one’s group and to exclude the external people, thus avoiding any confrontation and strengthening one’s beliefs.
The echo chamber effect
The joint action of these biases has a major impact within the micro-cosmos of social media, which has become the reflection of the real world. The infinite amount of the content conveyed does not increase the knowledge of the user and leads to the strengthening of one’s initial ideas and the identification with a virtual group that represents the subject. Instead of analysing and comparatively analysing arguments different from ours, we tend to ignore them and even despise them. This results in the “echo chambers” phenomenon, i.e. glass bells where one’s preconceptions are amplified by the communication and repetition of the same messages within a closed system. Inside an echo chamber, the users can find information that validates their pre-existing opinions and activates the confirmation bias. This mechanism strengthens one’s beliefs and radicalises them, without adding anything to information and knowledge. The result is the ideological extremism that we are observing today and in which we are taking part, where political debates and confrontations have been replaced by supporters and verbal violence. It is impossible to process any critical thought free from biases, and the tribal law will win.