Did you hear about the 1966 rumour of Paul McCartney’s death? The flesh-eating banana scare of 2000? That 9/11 was staged by the U.S. government? If you don’t remember, it’s just as well; such unfortunate events do shake a person’s confidence in human cleverness.
Why are we so trusting about the information we receive? The short answer is that we’re social animals who depend on each other for information. This sounds benign until we realize that being social animals places us among species like lemmings, for whom following the leader can inspire acts of mass self-destruction.
Lemmings, known for leaping by the shovelful into the sea when their habitats become overpopulated, aren’t the only species of heedless conformists: In 2005 in Turkey 400 sheep fell to their deaths simply because their leader had jumped off a cliff.
Such things don’t often happen among canines, who, although also social animals, tend to exercise more independent judgment, making their own observations before following their peers. This is why they make such good service animals; even if told to cross a street, a guide dog will refuse to do so if it sees cars coming. In guide dog training circles such a refusal is described as “intelligent disobedience.”
When it comes to sharing information, we humans often appear ready to jump off metaphorical cliffs for fear of being left behind, not knowing that an initiative we’re following is dangerous and futile. Our history is full of examples of public figures and news sources leading whole societies astray. It seems that all you need to earn people’s trust is a position of authority and the application of this principle:
People are most easily swayed by information when it appears to come from the groups with which they identify.
Do we need to point out how vulnerable this makes us? Leaders take advantage of our herd mentality from the political right, left, and centre, their propagandists zeroing in on our urgent desire to belong, to be in the know, and to vent our spleen on those who oppose us. What makes this more alarming in our era is precisely the ease with which information can now be transferred and how quickly people can be manipulated. The aptly named “social media” has a tremendous power to inform, to shape opinion, and to mislead whole societies.
What to do? It’s easy to warn people to educate themselves not to be swayed by “fake news,” but finding truth and meaning in the sea of slanted media is getting harder and harder, and few can afford to spend time and money on the kind of liberal education that immunizes against ignorance.
Sometimes being better informed means getting away from the headlines and tweets and taking a little time to digest “deep” news—the histories leading up to current conflicts—before taking sides (or blowing a gasket from righteous rage).
It helps to hear views contrary to our own. A caveat: Seek out only the most reasonable people to introduce you to their arguments, as the angry ignoramuses will only cement you more firmly in your own opinions. When wise people get together for respectful dialogue they quickly realize that they all want the same things, and we only differ in how we should go about achieving them.
It also helps to stop conforming to the kind of “shoulding” imposed by the groups to which we belong, for example:
- If you’re pursuing wealth you should be against the social safety net.
- If you believe in social justice you should be against private schools.
- If you’re a Christian you should be pro-life.
- If you’re an environmentalist you should be against pipelines.
- If you’re a feminist you should insist that all our problems are the fault of men.
- If you’re a car manufacturer you shouldn’t believe in climate change.
None of these generalizations honours the subtle range of sincere beliefs and values in the individual heart, yet we fall for them again and again, choosing to accept our herd’s package tour over the more educational private excursion.
A few hints to keep you from succumbing to the follies of the herd:
- Be wary of “motivated reasoning,” that is, any argument made explicitly to support a cause.
- Look out for information couched in bombastic language (the alarm bell of faulty reasoning).
- Read less but better. Choose reputable sources and strive to understand what you’re reading.
- Bad grammar and spelling are indicative of sloppy research and/or thinking. If a news sharer takes the time to get to the truth of something they’ll also take the time to ensure it’s written well.
- Be aware that as social norms change, so do ideas. Very little is written in stone, and the best we can do is tell ourselves we’ll believe a statement if the evidence is there and only until future evidence comes along to contradict it.
- Get out of your comfort zone and be ready to reflect on differing points of view that differ from yours or those of your circle.
In brief, it’s all on you. Accept responsibility for being led or misled and hopefully you won’t be jumping off a cliff any time soon.