Monoculture Of The Mind: How Social Media Makes Us Dumber

March 17, 2012 8:50 am

An unsurprising fact about human nature: the people we find the most agreeable are the people we agree with the most.

These are exactly the same people who become our friends in social media — on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. But so what? We’ve always had friends with similar ideas. And groupthink has existed since the first group on Earth.

Narcissus by CaravaggioTwo Significant Differences

Here’s what’s new. And the more actively you participate in social media the more important they are.

1. Our friends are omnipresent in a way they have never been before.

2. The biases and beliefs of those friends are polluting our information streams.


If you participate extensively in social media, your peer group surrounds you every day. Psychologists know that conformity is driven by “implied presence“ — even when others are not physically present.

And while there’s a lot of knowledge and comfort to be gained, it can breed naïve overconfidence: “everybody KNOWS (insert latest fad here) is the next Google.”

Social Media Pollutes Our Information Streams

Before social media, our info streams were relatively pure. We sought news out from a variety of sources, edited by people who mostly didn’t know our biases or cater to them.

But now with social media, our friends and colleagues send us links they think we’ll find interesting. The stream comes to us.

At first, it feels amazing. “Great article!” “Amazing data!” “Thanks, that link you sent really crystallized this! I’ll Re-Tweet it to everyone!”

But eventually you hear the same things over and over again. What’s going on?

Despite good intentions, our friends are unknowingly polluting our information streams with “stupid juice”. The links reflect their biases. Worse, their biases are likely to be so similar to our own that we won’t see it as bias. We’ll see it as “truth”.

Watch Out For Confirmation Bias

If we’re not very careful, we can begin to feel that our ideas are more and more correct. Why? Because we get more and more “unbiased” signals that our instincts are right and less signals that we’re nuts.

This can lead to confirmation bias, which can lead to “disastrous decisions, especially in organizational, military, political and social contexts.”

Eight Symptoms Of Groupthink

Irving Janis, a Yale research psychologist, listed eight groupthink symptoms. How many of these apply to the social media relationships you have?

  1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking. (Are we heading for Web Bubble 2.0?)
  2. Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
  4. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, disfigured, impotent, or stupid. (How many social media gurus have written about “big dumb agencies” and “clueless clients who just don’t get it”?)
  5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”. (I expect to get a few annoyed emails from friends after this post goes live.)
  6. Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  7. Illusions of unanimity among group members: silence is viewed as agreement. (71 percent of Tweets are ignored. Ideal for Groupthink!)
  8. Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

A New Year’s Resolution: Detox Your Info Stream

Examine how much of your information comes via social media. If it’s more than 50%, you have a seriously polluted information system.

Add diverse, dissenting voices to your stream. Identify skeptics and pay close attention to what they say. Ask, “what if they’re right, and the voices in my echo chamber are wrong?”

Ask “qui bene?” – who benefits? When you read a glowing report about the spectacular growth of social commerce, check who wrote it. If it’s by the CEO of a company that sells social commerce solutions, it doesn’t mean it’s not true. But it absolutely does mean that the CEO wants to get you excited about it. And ask what the base was – it’s easy to show 500% growth when last year’s base was 2 people.

Lastly, unplug everything. Leave your mobile devices at home. Go take a long walk in the woods, or on a beach.

Let’s make this the year we react less, and think more.

P.S. Please re-tweet this article to all your friends. If their biases are anything like yours, you can be sure they will love it!

P.P.S. Technology is making our biases (and our thinking) worse. Check out this TED Talks video for more.

 Image: Narcissus by Caravaggio (Wikipedia)


  • George Simpson

    I would tell you that I agree with everything you have said here, but don’t want to contribute to the strengthen of your own biased POV.

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