In Hindu mythology, there is a story of a demon called Bhasmasuran who got the ability to incinerate anyone by touching their forehead (hence the name). He got this ability as a boon from Lord Siva after years of prayers. The first person the demon chose to test his newly acquired skills was on Lord Siva himself. Hindu mythology is laden with instances of such irony where a blessing given in good faith turns out to be a pain in one’s rear. So is the history of human civilization. We humans always overwhelmed ourselves with abilities that we can’t control, blind sighted by our know-it-all arrogance and the illusion of control – the central theme of my articles.
We have come so far with the information technology. Ordering data using databases gave us insights and control, improving the agility of our response to situations. Improved network connectivity and internet penetration improved the ability to collect more data to provide stronger statistical modeling. Thanks to advanced analytics, more data meant more credible insights and the “option” of acting faster before a situation goes out of control. These insights enabled us to forecast weather patterns, control disease outbreaks, advance research in genetic science. It also allows businesses to target customers effectively and, in a similar fashion, help politicians and religious leaders to preach their propaganda to those who want to listen to them. It brought the world even closer and tied more ends together.
However, while sorting information into groups for analysis, we inadvertently created silos or bubbles – a new kind of social segregation – algorithmic. To understand why these digital silos create separation in our society, we take a step back and appreciate our inherent weaknesses as humans – Cognitive Bias. I feel it is just the nature laughing at our expense.
Human beings are slaves to their instincts. These instincts formed during our evolution were a response to a particular external stimulus – threat or favor. For, e.g., the ability to organize ourselves into tribes with a hierarchical chain of command helped us make better decision and defense against the harsh elements of nature. This kind of organization (mob behavior) combines with other cognitive abilities were instrumental in making humans the deadliest animal on earth – including to themselves. Many of these instincts lingered around even long after the need of them ceased to exist. And they are wearing us down.
Social Media and exploiting Cognitive Biases
Introduction of the infinite scrolling feeds in social media and 24-hour news channels changed the way we consumed information. The idea is to supply us with too much information to narrow our thinking to what they want to think. The clickbait revenue model of modern news media forces them to repeatedly use certain specific words to paint a picture and stress certain focus points to itch the idea into a listeners brain. The news media then hands over the baton to Late-night hosts and comedians, who continue to stress on the same set of words and focus points. They often link the idea to something more personal, making it more ingrained into your thoughts. The information overload makes you tired and gives up thinking.
Personalization of feeds narrows the content to our interests. This feature is useful in a way because everyone does not want to see “everything that is going on.” However, focusing on one interest alone would lead to restricting the information sources to a few. The biases from these sources will be transferred to the user as well and only result in further reinforcement. Also, remember that in social media such as Facebook and Twitter, both personal, as well as external content, are mixed. We see photos of our friends as well as political memes in the same channel, often one after the other. Mixing these two channels makes everything very personal and limbs our rationality.
Now at this point, the users tend to reject any different idea because accepting an idea that goes against one’s view is painful, which further intensifies generalities, stereotypes, and other assumptions. The users end up projecting these assumptions and stereotypes on others. Such a kind of behavior could also be due to ‘anchoring’ or our bias to stick to the first piece of information we received which could be accurate or fake. Misleading headlines and click baits leave the readers to conclude on their own, falling for their emotions rather than logic. The situation is further complicated by the ‘group think’ mentality, where users follow the ‘coolest kid in the block’ for social acceptance or even just lack of caring. Emotions cloud rationality! Opinions override facts!
Why do we blame only the social media, when traditional media have been playing divide and rule for years? In contrast to conventional media, push notifications to keep us on the edge of our seats. Just think about how many times did you check your phone since you started reading this article. The time it takes for real and fake news to spread is the same. It hardly takes no time before a splinter can set the whole nation on fire. Thus, information overload, mob behavior, personalization, selective memory, stereotyping and groupthink intensified by personalized algorithmic feeds and clickbait business model have helped create social segregations on the internet, spilling over to the real world.
Breaking the Bubble
As mentioned earlier, businesses had a good incentive to go with the segregation – the classic ‘divide and rule’ policy followed by Western imperialists in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is only sensible to segment the customers so that we know where to focus and what to expect. However, when this segregation spills to our society, it would also force the businesses to take a side! If they take a side, they lose the market to a competitor on the other side. If they don’t do anything, then they might lose both the sides. So, in the end, the diving customers seems to have become counterproductive, just like Bhasmasuran’s boon!
How can business achieve control over the situation and effectively target customers without segregating them in the real world? Let us create a bubble buster journey for the customers.
- Introducing options – Let the customers know that the world is not just black and white but has 50 shades of grey in between. Drastic exposure to other ideas and options might push the customer away. The exposure to other options should be made gradually through strategically designed transitions. “It seems that you like our vanilla flavor. How about you try a scoop of our new Kiwi-Lime flavor and see how you like it?” – A traditional way to expose your customers to other options.
- Compare and Contrast – Show multiple options with easily understandable parameters to compare and contrast. Perhaps the ‘anchoring’ bias can be used to help the customer understand the differences. Help the customers decide by giving them facts that they can understand and relate. The WSJ tried this method by displaying on the news on Obamacare and ProLife activists on the same page. The readers now have the view of both sides of the story and can conclude on their own.
- Identifying the fundamental needs – The most cliché step in building a business and yet often forgotten. These expectations are fairly basic regardless which part of the political spectrum the customer belongs. Basic needs such as quality, brand value, a fair price are essential for anyone looking to buy the product. Therefore, it is important to reinforce to the customers that these factors hold good even for other options.
“If we see our opponents as people who disagree with us, but have, in other ways, pretty similar lives and pretty similar limitations to us, I think that helps us engage with politics more realistically.” – Jason Wilson, The Guardian
Social Media and businesses that rely on algorithms for business should change their approach by breaking the silos for their customers. Who knows, diversifying the options might open new markets itself (like Szechuan Pizza or Tandoori noodles)! The most important of all is to separate what is personal from what is external. Understanding the other side of your opinion is fundamentally about understanding where you stand in the world. That doesn’t make you good, bad or ugly. Understanding our biases helps us see beyond our fallacies and see the world as it is rather than through the algorithmic lens.