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Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday, the only weekly newsletter that, not gonna lie, gets a little bit jealous when you open up and read other newsletters. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to help you become a slightly less awful human being.
This week, we’re talking about: 1) cognitive biases and how they can make you an asshole; 2) that new Netflix documentary about social media; and 3) how people are mostly the same, even if we never realize it.
Let’s get into it.
1. The many broken ways of the brain – A couple of months ago, in response to the rising protests for racial justice, I spent much of that week’s newsletter discussing cognitive biases and how they distort the way we see the world. I spent a few paragraphs going over some of the major biases that seemed relevant to reading news: negativity bias, confirmation bias, impact bias, recency bias, etc.
That newsletter ended up being one of the most popular and shared emails since this newsletter’s inception. In the couple months since then, I’ve been meaning to write a more thorough article about cognitive biases but never got around to it… until now.
Read: The Cognitive Biases that Make Us All Terrible People (or read it in the iOS app)
For those who don’t know, cognitive biases are basically inherent “flaws” in our psychology—they’re the predictable ways we misjudge situations, filter information incorrectly, or jump to irrational conclusions about people or events. We all have them. We all succumb to them. And it’s only in understanding them that we can develop the self-awareness to guard ourselves against them.
Therefore, I’ve come to believe that they are one of the most important subjects to get out into the world right now. So, please read the article. Coming to grips with these biases is crucial if we’re going to survive the age of social media clickbait without killing each other… maybe literally…
2. The Netflix Dilemma – A few weeks ago, Netflix released a new documentary called The Social Dilemma that has since taken the internet by storm. About two dozen readers have emailed me since it came out wanting to hear my opinion on it. I finally got around to watching it this past week and I have a few thoughts.
The main thesis of the documentary is nothing new or surprising at this point: that social media presents a lot of challenges and threats to the social order and Big Tech has not been held accountable.
The documentary employs the “throw everything at the wall and see if something sticks” strategy of airing grievances about fake news, political polarization, mass surveillance, anxiety and depression, creepy advertisers, and so on.
I should start out by saying that I agree with the intent of the documentary — there are risks to social media, many of which we are just starting to understand. This is something I started writing about back in 2013. I then continued to write about it in 2014, 2016, 2017 (twice), 2019, as well as the beginning of this year. Social media and its effects also gets quite a bit of treatment in my book Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope.
So this is not a new subject for me. I bring this up simply to say that in the years I have been studying this issue, I have learned that this is a far more nuanced subject than most of the treatment critics give it.
For example, despite all of the kvetching about social media making people more anxious or depressed, the most solid research we have shows that it does not make people more anxious or depressed (the exception here might be teenage girls.) After all, anxiety, depression, and suicide have been increasing for decades. So has political polarization. So has mass surveillance. Fake news was a thing as far back as the 1800s. And while fake news may travel faster on social media than real news, evidence suggests that, by and large, most people who read and share these stories don’t actually believe them. They’re just trying to score points for their ideological team.
None of this is to say that social media doesn’t have problems. It certainly does. It’s just to say that, as always, it’s complicated.
So, on the one hand, I’m glad a documentary is out there bringing these questions to more people. We do need to be aware of these issues and, as I’ve argued for years now, we need to take a proactive approach to how we use technology.
On the other hand, Netflix has become the master of producing documentaries with a hysterical, “sky is falling!” tone to them. And this documentary was no different.
Speaking of which, while watching, it was impossible to ignore a brutal irony: Here I am, on Netflix, watching a 90-minute documentary about how addictive these algorithms are by big tech companies, how they steal our time and feed us disinformation and give us skewed perceptions of the world, how the companies are so big and powerful no one can keep them accountable — Wow, Netflix, tell me more!
3. Everyone is the same in that they hate those who are too different – But let’s try to end on a positive note. Let’s talk about the truths that are right in front of us, but we seem to be perpetually unable to see them.
A reader passed along a cool study he found a couple of weeks ago. Whereas most studies attempt to calculate the differences between populations, this study decided to take a massive dataset and calculate the similarities between the populations.
The study took a large international survey of 86,272 people and categorized them by age, gender, education, nationality, education, and religion. The survey asked them all questions to gauge their values around 22 different topics (trust in science, the importance of education, morality, etc.)
The researchers then cross-analyzed the data in every way they could to determine which groups of people around the world are the most similar and dissimilar. In all, they ran over 168,000 comparisons and found that, on average, people’s values were 93.3% the same. Of all of the comparisons, only 0.66% of them produced results where populations were more dissimilar in their values than they were similar.
Basically: the vast majority of the time, in the vast majority of circumstances, people are the same. They want the same things. They value the same things. They see things in the same way. Anyone who has traveled extensively to other cultures has probably noticed this themselves.
Yet, why do we focus so much on our differences? If we’re basically the same 93% of the time, why do we have so much war and bigotry and prejudice and anger over the other 7%? It makes no sense.
Freud called this phenomenon “the narcissism of the slight difference.” He argued—long before we understood what cognitive biases were—that the small differences between us are magnified in our minds and thus drown out our similarities. We take our common humanity for granted and instead obsess over subtle divergences in culture and character as if they are world-ending.
And I think this is what is driving the social problems that social media gets blamed so much for: The internet takes the narcissism of the slight difference and multiplies it a thousand times before you can get out of bed in the morning. Our minds are already primed to loathe any dissimilarities we spot between ourselves and others. The internet simply gives us millions and millions more dissimilarities to spot.
As I put it in an article six years ago, reflecting back on my years traveling across the world:
Until next week,