Selective Exposure, Confirmation Bias, and Information Overload (Part 1)

You would think that we would be able to reason better in the age where we have more sources of information, better tools to evaluate information, and a broader range of available perspectives. But that does not seem to be the case. In fact, It may be the opposite. Foolish thought appears to be a bigger problem than ever.

But if you think about it, this should not be surprising. We live in an age of information overload. Robert Dykstra’s book, “Finding Ourselves Lost: Ministry in the Age of Overwhelm,” notes that we are drowning in information, and this leads to stress. So what do we do when we become overwhelmed in information?

  • We can vascillate back and forth as different information and perspectives are absorbed. That, however, adds to the stress.
  • We can bend to authority. Pre-modern thought tends toward ancient authorities (philosophers, prophets, holy writ, etc.). Modern thought tends toward modern authorities (scientists, engineers, recognized experts, etc.) However, most people who are reading this are probably more post-modern than they think.
  • We can practice selective exposure. This where we intentionally limit the amount of data and the sources of data.

Selective exposure is not in itself bad. We can’t handle all the information that is available. However, it can be a part of an ugly cycle.

  1. John (to name someone at random) comes into a situation with preconceived worldview and beliefs.
  2. John lives in a globalistic, pluralistic, multi-perspectival world with a huge amount of data to process.
  3. John, being human, doesn’t want to add unnecessary stress to his life. Unconsciously, John tends to find data that supports his preconceptions more compelling than data that challenges him to change. This is confirmation bias. Consciously, John tends to seek sources of information that he finds more compelling (ie. supporting his preconceptions) and avoid those sources that he finds less compelling (ie. challenging his preconceptions). This is selective exposure.
  4. John is not only a human, but a social being, and culture-creating being. Living in a multicultural, multi-perspectival, globalistic world, is stress inducing because it challenges one to rethink and change. As such, John is likely to slide into a sub-culture (either physical or virtual) that is consistent with his own beliefs and values. That creates what is colloquially called an echo chamber.
  5. This sub-culture tends to reinforce the beliefs of John, and may even move John to more extreme versions of his own previous beliefs. This feeds back into step 1 and the cycle continues.

There seemed to be a belief that globalism and technology would tear down cultures. Perhaps there is some truth to that… but as monocultures break down physically, they seem to increase in virtual communities.

I consider this to be a problem. It is a problem for society. It is a problem as one who wants to grow and learn as a person rather than simply spin one’s wheels. And as a missionary, I am called upon to be both cross-cultural and culturally sensitive. The cycle described above is damaging for missionaries, and ministries.

I will suggest a way that may reduce the cycle… in Part 2 (when I get around to posting it.).