Reality Vs Meta-Reality

“I know what I like, and I like what I know;”
Genesis

I watched the Grammys on Sunday night. And as it turned out, I didn’t know what I liked. And I thought I liked what I knew. But by the time I wrote this column (on Monday after the Grammys) I had changed my mind.

And it was all because of the increasing gap between what is real, and what is meta-real.

Real is what we perceive with our senses at the time it happens. Meta-real is how we reshape reality after the fact and then preserve it for future reference. And thanks to social media, the meta-real is a booming business.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman first explored this with his work on the experiencing self and the remembering self. In a stripped-down example, imagine two scenarios. Scenario 1 has your hand immersed for 60 seconds in ice cold water that causes a moderate amount of pain. Scenario 2 has your hand immersed for 90 seconds. The first 60 seconds you’re immersed in water at the same temperature as Scenario 1, but then you leave you hand immersed for an additional 30 seconds while the water is slowly warmed by 1 degree.

After going through both scenarios and being told you have to repeat one of them, which would you choose? Logically speaking, you should choose 1. While uncomfortable, you have the benefit of avoiding an extra 30 seconds of a slightly less painful experience. But for those that went through it, that’s not what happened. Eighty percent who noticed that the water got a bit warmer chose to redo Scenario 2.

It turns out that we have two mental biases that kick in when we remember something we experienced:

  1. Duration doesn’t count
  2. Only the peak (best or worst moment) and the end of the experience are registered.

This applies to a lot more than just cold-water experiments. It also holds true for vacations, medical procedures, movies and even the Grammys. Not only that, there is an additional layer of meta-analysis that shifts us even further from the reality we actually experienced.

After I watched the Grammys, I had my own opinion of which performances I liked and those I didn’t care for. But that opinion was a work in progress. On Monday morning, I searched for “Best moments of Grammys 2019.” Rather quickly, my opinion changed to conform with what I was reading. And those summaries were in turn based on an aggregate of opinions gleaned from social media. It was Wisdom of Crowds – applied retroactively.

The fact is that we don’t trust our own opinions. This is hardwired in us. Conformity is something the majority of us look for. We don’t want to be the only one in the room with a differing opinion. Social psychologist Solomon Asch proved this almost 70 years ago. The difference is that in the Asch experiment, conformity happened in the moment. Now, thanks to our digital environment where opinions on anything can be found at any time, conformity happens after the fact. We “sandbox” our own opinions, waiting until we can see if they match the social media consensus. For almost any event you can name, there is now a market for opinion aggregation and analysis. We take this “meta” data and reshape our own reality to match.

It’s not just the malleability of our reality that is at stake here. Our memories serve as guides for the future. They color the actions we take and the people we become. We evolved as conformists because that was a much surer bet for our survival than relying on our own experiences alone.  But might this be a case of a good thing taken too far? Are we losing too much confidence in the validity of our own thoughts and opinions?

I’m pretty sure doesn’t matter what Gord Hotchkiss thinks about the Grammys of 2019. But I fear there’s much more at stake here.

Marketing Vs. Advertising: Making It Personal

Last year I wrote a lot about the erosion of the advertising bargain between advertisers and their audience. Without rehashing at length, let me summarize by simply stating that we no longer are as accepting of advertising because we now have a choice. One of those columns sparked a podcast on Beancast (the relevant discussion started off the podcast).

As the four panelists – all of whom are marketing/advertising professionals – started debating the topic, they got mired down in the question of what is advertising, and what is marketing. They’re not alone. It confuses me too.

I’ve spent all my life in marketing, but this was a tough column to write. I really had to think about what the essential differences of advertising and marketing were – casting aside the textbook definitions and getting to something that resonated at an intuitive level. I ran into the same conundrum as the panelists. The disruption that is washing over our industry is also washing away the traditional line drawn between the two. So I did what I usually do when I find something intellectually ambiguous and tried to simplify down to the most basic analogy I could think of. When it comes to me – as a person – what would  be equivalent to marketing, what would be advertising, and – just to muddy the waters a little more – what would be branding?  If we can reduce this to something we can gut check, maybe the answers will come more easily.

Let’s start with branding. Your Brand is what people think of you as a person. Are you a gentleman or an asshole? Smart, funny, pedantic, prickly, stunningly stupid? Fat and lazy or lean and athletic. Notice that I said your brand is what other people think of you, not what you think of yourself. How you conduct yourself as a person will influence the opinions of others, but ultimately your brand is arbitrated one person at a time, and you are not that person. Branding involves both parties, but not necessarily at the same time. It can be asynchronous. You live your life and by doing so, you create ripples in the world. People develop opinions of you.

To me, although it involves other people, marketing is somewhat faceless and less intimate. In a way, It’s more unilateral than advertising. Again, to take it back to our personal analogy, marketing is simply the social you – the public extension of who you are. One might say that your personal approach to marketing is you saying “this is me, take it or leave it!”

But advertising is different. It focuses on a specific recipient. It implies a bilateral agreement. Again, analogously speaking, it’s like asking another person for a favor. There is an implicit or explicit exchange of value. It involves an overt attempt to influence.

Let’s further refine this into a single example. You’re invited to a party at a friend’s house. When you walk in the door, everyone glances over to see who’s arrived. When they recognize you, each person immediately has their own idea of who you are and how they feel about you. That is your brand. It has already been formed by your marketing, how you have interacted with others your entire life. At that moment of recognition, your own brand is beyond your control.

But now, you have to mingle. You scan the room and see someone you know who is already talking to someone else. You walk over, hoping to work your way into their conversation. That, right there, is advertising. You’re asking for their attention. They have to decide whether to give it to you or not. How they decide will be dependent on how they feel about you, but it will also depend on what else they’re doing – ie –  how interesting the conversation they’re already engaged in is. Another variable is their expectation of what a conversation with you might hold – the anticipated utility of said conversation. Are you going to tell them some news that would be of great interest to them – ask for a favor – or just bore them to tears? So, the success of the advertising exchange in the eyes of the recipient can be defined by three variables: emotional investment in the advertiser (brand love), openness to interruption and expected utility if interrupted.

If this analogy approximates the truth of what is the essential nature of advertising.  Why do I feel Advertising is doomed? I don’t think it has anything to do with branding. I’ve gone full circle on this, but right now, I believe brands are more important than ever. No, the death of advertising will be attributable to the other two variables: do we want to be interrupted and; if the answer is yes, what do we expect to gain by allowing the interruptions?

First of all, let’s look at our openness to interruption. It may sound counter intuitive, but our obsession with multitasking actually makes us less open to interruption.

Think of how we’re normally exposed to advertising content. It’s typically on a screen of some type. We may be switching back and forth between multiple screens.  And it’s probably right when we’re juggling a full load of enticing cognitive invitations: checking our social media feeds, deciding which video to watch, tracking down a wanted website, trying to load an article that interests us. The expected utility of all these things is high. We have “Fear of Missing Out” – big time! This is just when advertising interrupts us, asking us to pay attention to their message.

“Paying attention” is exactly the right phrase to use. Attention is a finite resource that can be exhausted – and that’s exactly what multi-tasking does. It exhausts our cognitive resources. The brain – in defence – becomes more miserly with those resources. The threshold that must be met to allow the brain to allocate attention goes up. The way the brain does this is not simply to ignore anything not meeting the attention worthy threshold, but to actually mildly trigger a negative reaction, causing a feeling of irritation with whatever it is that is begging for our attention. This is a hardwired response that is meant to condition us for the future. The brain assumes that if we don’t want to be interrupted once, the same rule will hold true for the future. Making us irritated is a way to accomplish this. The reaction of the brain sets up a reinforcing cycle that build up an increasingly antagonistic attitude towards advertising.

Secondly, what is the expected utility of paying attention to advertising? This goes hand in hand with the previous thought – advertising was always type of a toll gate we had to pass through to access content, but now, we have choices. The expected utility of the advertising supported content has been largely removed from the equation, leaving us with just the expected utility of the advertisement itself. The brain is constantly running an algorithm that balances resource allocation against reward and in our new environment, the resource allocation threshold keeps getting higher as the reward keeps getting lower.

Is Google Politically Biased?

As a company, the answer is almost assuredly yes.

But are the search results biased? That’s a much more nuanced question.

Sundar Pinchai testifying before congress

In trying to answer that question last week, Google CEO Sundar Pinchai tried to explain how Google’s algorithm works to Congress’s House Judiciary Committee (which kind of like God explaining how the universe works to my sock, but I digress). One of the catalysts for this latest appearance of a tech was another one of President Trump’s ranting tweets that intimated something was rotten in the Valley of the Silicon:

Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal? 96% of … results on ‘Trump News’ are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous. Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!”

Granted, this tweet is non-factual, devoid of any type of evidence and verging on frothing at the mouth. As just one example, let’s take the 96% number that Trump quotes in the above tweet. That came from a very unscientific straw poll that was done by one reporter on a far right-leaning site called PJ Media. In effect, Trump did exactly what he accuses of Google doing – he cherry-picked his source and called it a fact.

But what Trump has inadvertently put his finger on is the uneasy balance that Google tries to maintain as both a search engine and a publisher. And that’s where the question becomes cloudy. It’s a moral precipice that may be clear in the minds of Google engineers and executives, but it’s far from that in ours.

Google has gone on the record as ensuring their algorithm is apolitical. But based on a recent interview with Google News head Richard Gingras, there is some wiggle room in that assertion. Gingras stated,

“With Google Search, Google News, our platform is the open web itself. We’re not arbiters of truth. We’re not trying to determine what’s good information and what’s not. When I look at Google Search, for instance, our objective – people come to us for answers, and we’re very good at giving them answers. But with many questions, particularly in the area of news and public policy, there is not one single answer. So we see our role as [to] give our users, citizens, the tools and information they need – in an assiduously apolitical fashion – to develop their own critical thinking and hopefully form a more informed opinion.”

But –  in the same interview – he says,

“What we will always do is bias the efforts as best we can toward authoritative content – particularly in the context of breaking news events, because major crises do tend to attract the bad actors.”

So Google does boost news sites that it feels are reputable and it’s these sites – like CNN –  that typically dominate in the results. Do reputable news sources tend to lean left? Probably. But that isn’t Google’s fault. That’s the nature of Open Web. If you use that as your platform, you build in any inherent biases. And the minute you further filter on top of that platform, you leave yourself open to accusations of editorializing.

There is another piece to this puzzle. The fact is that searches on Google are biased, but that bias is entirely intentional. The bias in this case is yours. Search results have been personalized so that they’re more relevant to you. Things like your location, your past search history, the way you structure your query and a number of other signals will be used by Google to filter the results you’re shown. There is no liberal conspiracy. It’s just the way that the search algorithm works. In this way, Google is prone to the same type of filter-bubble problem that Facebook has.  In another interview with Tim Hwang, director of the Harvard-MIT Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative, he touches on this:

“I was struck by the idea that whereas those arguments seem to work as late as only just a few years ago, they’re increasingly ringing hollow, not just on the side of the conservatives, but also on the liberal side of things as well. And so what I think we’re seeing here is really this view becoming mainstream that these platforms are in fact not neutral, and that they are not providing some objective truth.”

The biggest challenge here lies not in the reality of what Google is or how it works, but in what our perception of Google is. We will never know the inner workings of the Google algorithm, but we do trust in what Google shows us. A lot. In our own research some years ago, we saw a significant lift in consumer trust when brands showed up on top of search results. And this effect was replicated in a recent study that looked at Google’s impact on political beliefs. This study found that voter preferences can shift by as much as 20% due to biased search rankings – and that effect can be even higher in some demographic groups.

If you are the number one channel for information, if you manipulate the ranking of the information in any way and if you wield the power to change a significant percentage of minds based on that ranking – guess what? You are the arbitrator of truth. Like it or not.

The Psychology Behind My NetFlix Watchlist

I live in Canada – which means I’m going into hibernation for the next 5 months. People tell me I should take up a winter activity. I tell them I have one. Bitching. About winter – specifically. You have your hobbies – and I have mine.

The other thing I do in the winter is watch movies. And being a with it, tech-savvy guy, I have cut the cord and get my movie fix through not one, but three streaming services: Netflix, Amazon Prime and Crave (a Canadian service). I’ve discovered that the psychology of Netflix is fascinating. It’s the Paradox of Choice playing out in streaming time. It’s the difference between what we say we do and what we actually do.

For example, I do have a watch list. It has somewhere around a hundred items on it. I’ll probably end up watching about 20% of them. The rest will eventually go gentle into that good Netflix Night. And according to a recent post on Digg, I’m actually doing quite well. According to the admittedly small sample chronicled there, the average completion rate is somewhere between 5 and 15%.

When it comes to compiling viewing choices, I’m an optimizer. And I’m being kind to myself. Others, less kind, refer to it as obsessive behavior. This is referring to satisficing/optimizing spectrum of decision making. I put an irrational amount of energy into the rationalization of my viewing options. The more effort you put into decision making, the closer you are to the optimizing end of the spectrum. If you make choices quickly and with your gut, you’re a satisficer.

What is interesting about Netflix is that it defers the Paradox of Choice. I dealt with this in a previous column. But I admit I’m having second thoughts. Netflix’s watch list provides us with a sort of choosing purgatory..a middle ground where we can save according to the type of watcher we think we are. It’s here where the psychology gets interesting. But before we go there, let’s explore some basic psychological principles that underpin this Netflix paradox of choice.

Of Marshmallows and Will Power

In the 1960’s, Walter Mischel and his colleagues conducted the now famous Marshmallow Test, a longitudinal study that spanned several years. The finding (which currently is in some doubt) was that children who had – when they were quite young – the willpower to resist immediately taking a treat (the marshmallow) put in front of them in return for a promise of a greater treat (two marshmallows)  in 15 minutes would later do substantially better in many aspects of their lives (education, careers, social connections, their health). Without getting into the controversial aspects of the test, let’s just focus on the role of willpower in decision making.

Mischel talks about a hot and cool system of making decisions that involve self-gratification. The “hot” is our emotions and the “cool” is our logic. We all have different set-points in the balance between hot and cool, but where these set points are in each of us depends on will power. The more willpower we have, the more likely it is that we’ll delay an immediate reward in return for a greater reward sometime in the future.

Our ability to rationalize and expend cognitive resources on a decision is directly tied to our willpower. And experts have learned that our will power is a finite resource. The more we use it in a day, the less we have in reserve. Psychologists call this “ego-depletion” And a loss of will power leads to decision fatigue. The more tired we become, the less our brain is willing to work on the decisions we make. In one particularly interesting example, parole boards are much more likely to let prisoners go either first thing in the morning or right after lunch than they are as the day wears on. Making the decision to grant a prisoner his or her freedom is a decision that involves risk. It requires more thought.  Keeping them in prison is a default decision that – cognitively speaking – is a much easier choice.

Netflix and Me: Take Two

Let me now try to rope all this in and apply it to my Netflix viewing choices. When I add something to my watch list, I am making a risk-free decision. I am not committing to watch the movie now. Cognitively, it costs me nothing to hit the little plus icon. Because it’s risk free, I tend to be somewhat aspirational in my entertainment foraging. I add foreign films, documentaries, old classics, independent films and – just to leaven out my selection – the latest audience-friendly blockbusters. When it comes to my watch list additions, I’m pretty eclectic.

Eventually, however, I will come back to this watch list and will actually have to commit 2 hours to watching something. And my choices are very much affected by decision fatigue. When it comes to instant gratification, a blockbuster is an easy choice. It will have lots of action, recognizable and likeable stars, a non-mentally-taxing script – let’s call it the cinematic equivalent of a marshmallow that I can eat right away. All my other watch list choices will probably be more gratifying in the long run, but more mentally taxing in the short term. Am I really in the mood for a European art-house flick? The answer probably depends on my current “ego-depletion” level.

This entire mental framework presents its own paradox of choice to me every time I browse through my watchlist. I know I have previously said the Paradox of Choice isn’t a thing when it comes to Netflix. But I may have changed my mind. I think it depends on what resources we’re allocating. In Barry Schwartz’s book titled the Paradox of Choice, he cites Sheena Iyengar’s famous jam experiment. In that instance, the resource was the cost of jam. In that instance, the resource was the cost of jam. But if we’re talking about 2 hours of my time – at the end of a long day – I have to confess that I struggle with choice, even when it’s already been short listed to a pre-selected list of potential entertainment choices. I find myself defaulting to what seems like a safe choice – a well-known Hollywood movie – only to be disappointed when the credits roll. When I do have the will power to forego the obvious and take a chance on one of my more obscure picks, I’m usually grateful I did.

And yes, I did write an entire column on picking a movie to watch on Netflix. Like I said, it’s winter and I had a lot of time to kill.

 

It’s Not Whether We Like Advertising – It’s Whether We Accept Advertising

Last week, I said we didn’t like advertising. That – admittedly – was a blanket statement.

In response, MediaPost reader Kevin VanGundy said:

“I’ve been in advertising for 39 years and I think the premise that people don’t like advertising is wrong. People don’t like bad advertising.”

I think there’s truth in both statements. The problem here is the verb I chose to use: “like.” The future of advertising hangs not on what we like, but on what we accept. Like is an afterthought. By the time we decide whether we like something or not, we’ve already been exposed to it. It’s whether we open the door to that exposure that will determine the future of advertising. So let’s dig a little deeper there, shall we?

First, seeing as we started with a blanket statement, let’s spend a little time unpacking this idea of “liking” advertising. As Mr. VanGundy agreed, we don’t like bad advertising. The problem is that most advertising is bad, in that it’s not really that relevant to us “in the moment.” Even with the best programmatic algorithms currently being used, the vast majority of the targeted advertising presented to me is off the mark. It’s irrelevant, it’s interruptive and that makes it irritating.

Let’s explore how the brain responds to this. Our brains love to categorize and label, based on our past experience. It’s the only way we can sort through and process the tsunami of input we get presented with on a daily basis. So, just like my opening sentence, the brain makes blanket statements. It doesn’t deal with nuance very well, at least in the subconscious processing of stimuli. It quickly categorizes into big generic buckets and sorts the input, discarding most of it as unworthy of attention and picking the few items of interest out of the mix. In this way, our past experience predicts our future behavior, in terms of what we pay attention to. And if we broadly categorize advertising as irritating, this will lessen the amount of attention we’re willing to pay.

As a thought experiment to support my point, think of what you would do if you were to click on a news story in the Google results and when you arrive at the article page, you get the pop up informing you that you had your ad-blocker on. You have been given two options: whitelist the page so you receive advertising or keep your ad-blocker on and read the page anyway. I’m betting you would keep your ad-blocker on. It’s because you were given a choice and that choice included the option to avoid advertising – which you did because advertising annoys you.

To further understand why the exchange that forms the foundation of advertising is crumbling, we have to understand that much of the attentional focused activity in the brain is governed by a heuristic algorithm that is constantly calculating trade-offs between resources and reward. It governs our cognitive resources by predicting what would have to be invested versus what the potential reward might be. This subconscious algorithm tends to be focused on the task at hand. Anything that gets in the way of the contemplated task is an uncalculated investment of resources. And the algorithm is governed by our past experience and broad categorizations. It you have categorized advertising as “bad” the brain will quickly cut that category out of consideration. The investment of attention is not warranted given the expected reward. If you did happen to be served a “good” ad that managed to make it into consideration – based on an exception to our general categorization that advertising is annoying – that can change, but the odds are stacked against it. It’s just that low probability occurrence that the entire ad industry is built on.

Finally, let’s look at that probability. In the past, the probability was high enough to warrant the investment of ad dollars. The probability was higher because our choices were fewer. Often, we only had one path to get to what we sought, and that path lead through an ad. The brain had no other available options. That’s no longer the case. Let’s go back to our ad-blocker example.

Let’s say the pop-up didn’t give us a choice – we had to whitelist to see the article. The resource – reward algorithm kicks into action: What are the odds we could find the information – ad-free –  elsewhere? How important is the information to us? Will we ever want to come back to this site to read another article? Perhaps we give in and whitelist. Or perhaps we just abandon the site with a sour taste in our mouth. The later was happening more and more, which is why we see fewer news sites offering the whitelist or nothing option now. The probability of our market seeing an ad is dropping because they have more ad-free alternatives. Or at least, they think they do.

And it’s this thought – precisely this thought – that is eroding the foundation of advertising, whether we like it or not.

 

Why Marketing is Increasingly Polarizing Everything

 

Trump. Kanye. Kaepernick. Miracle Whip.

What do these things all have in common? They’re polarizing. Just the mention of them probably stirs up strong feelings in you, one way or the other.

Wait. Miracle Whip?

Yep. Whether you love or hate Miracle Whip is perhaps the defining debate of our decade.

Okay, maybe not. But it turns out that Miracle Whip – which I always thought of as the condiment counterpart to vanilla – is a polarized brand, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review.  And far from being aghast at the thought, Kraft Foods, the maker of Miracle Whip, embraced the polarization with gusto. They embedded it in their marketing.

I have to ask – when did it become a bad thing to be vanilla? I happen to like vanilla. But I always order something else. And there’s the rub. Vanilla is almost never our first choice, because we don’t like to be perceived as boring.

Boring is the kiss of death for marketing. So even Miracle Whip, which is literally “boring” in a jar, is trying to “whip” up some controversy. Our country is being split down the middle and driven to either side – shoved to margins of outlier territory. Outrageous is not only acceptable. It’s become desirable. And marketing is partly to blame.

We marketers are enamored with this idea of “viralness.” We want advertising to be amplified through our target customer’s social networks. Boring never gets retweeted or shared. We need to be jolted out of those information filters we have set on high alert. That’s why polarization works. By moving to extremes, brands catch our attention. And as they move to extremes, they drag us along with them. Increasingly, the brands we chose as our own identifying badges are moving away from any type of common middle ground. Advertising is creating a nation of ideological tribes that have an ever-increasing divide separating them.

The problem is that polarization works. Look at Nike. As Sarah Mahoney recently documented in a Mediapost article, the Colin Kaepernick campaign turned some impressive numbers for Nike. Research from Kantar Millward Brown found these ads were particularly effective in piercing our ennui. The surprising part is that it did it on both sides of the divide. Based on Kantar’s Link evaluation, the ad scored in the top 15% of ads on something called “Power Contribution.” According to Kantar, that’s the ad’s “potential to impact long-term equity.” If we strip away the “market-speak” from this, that basically means the Kaepernick ads make them an excellent tribal badge to rally around.

If you’re a marketer, it’s hard to argue with those numbers. And Is it really important if half the world loves a brand, and the other half hates it? I suspect it is. The problem comes when we look at exactly the same thing Kantar’s Link Evaluation measures – what is the intensity of feeling you have towards a brand? The more intense the feeling, the less rational you are. And if the object of your affection lies in outlier territory – those emotions can become highly confrontational towards those on the other side of the divide. Suddenly, opinions become morals, and there is no faster path to hate than embracing a polarized perspective on morality. The more that emotionally charged marketing pushes us towards the edges, the harder it is to respect opinions that are opposed to our own. This embracing of polarization in non-important areas – like which running shoes you choose to wear – increases polarization in other areas where it’s much more dangerous. Like politics.

As if we haven’t seen enough evidence of this lately, polarized politics can cripple a country. In a recent interview on NPR, Georgia State political science professor Jennifer McCoy listed three possible outcomes from polarization. First, the country can enter polarization gridlock, where nothing can get done because there is a complete lack of trust between opposing parties. Secondly, a polarization pendulum can occur, where power swings back and forth between the two sides and most of the political energy is expended undoing the initiatives of the previous government. Often there is little logic to this, other than the fact that the initiatives were started by “them” and not “us.” Finally, one side can find a way to stay in power and then actively work to diminish and vanquish the other side by dismantling democratic platforms.

Today, as you vote, you’ll see ample evidence of the polarization of America. You’ll also see that at least two of the three outcomes of polarization are already playing out. We marketers just have to remember that while we love it when a polarized brand goes viral, there may be another one of those intended consequences lurking in the background.

 

 

Avoiding the Truth: Dodging Reality through Social Media

“It’s very hard to imagine that the revival of Flat Earth theories could have happened without the internet.”

Keith Kahn-Harris – Sociologist and author of “Denial: The Unspeakable Truth” – in an interview on CBC Radio

On November 9, 2017, 400 people got together in Raleigh, North Carolina. They all believe the earth is flat. This November 15th and 16th, they will do it again in Denver, Colorado. If you are so inclined, you could even join other flat earthers for a cruise in 2019. The Flat Earth Society is a real thing. They have their own website. And – of course – they have their own Facebook page (actually, there seems to be a few pages. Apparently, there are Flat Earth Factions.)

Perhaps the most troubling thing is this: it isn’t a joke. These people really believe the earth is flat.

How can this happen in 2018? For the answer, we have to look inwards – and backwards – to discover a troubling fact about ourselves. We’re predisposed to believe stuff that isn’t true. And, as Mr. Kahn-Harris points out, this can become dangerous when we add an obsessively large dose of time spent online, particularly with social media.

It makes sense that there was an evolutionary advantage to a group of people who lived in the same area and dealt with the same environmental challenges to have the same basic understanding about things. These commonly held beliefs allowed group learnings to be passed down to the individual: eating those red berries would make you sick, wandering alone in the savannah was not a good idea, coveting thy neighbor’s wife might get you stabbed in the middle of the night. Our beliefs often saved our ass.

Because of this, it was in our interest to protect our beliefs. They formed part of our “fast” reasoning loop, not requiring our brain to kick in to do any processing. Cognitive scientists refer to this as “fluency”.  Our brains have evolved to be lazy. If they don’t have to work, they don’t. And in the adaptive environment we evolved in – for reasons already stated – this cognitive short cut generally worked to our benefit. Ask anyone who has had to surrender a long-held belief. It’s tough to do. Overturning a belief requires a lot of cognitive horsepower. It’s far easier to protect them with a scaffolding of supporting “facts” – no matter how shaky it may be.

Enter the Internet. And the usual suspect? Social media.

As I said last week, the truth is often hard to handle – especially if it runs head long into our beliefs. I don’t want to believe in climate change because the consequences of that truth are mind-numbingly frightening. But I find I’m forced to. I also don’t believe the earth is flat. For me, in both cases, the evidence is undeniable. That’s me, however. There are plenty of people who don’t believe climate change is real and – according to the Facebook Official Flat Earth Discussion group – there are at least 107,372 people that believe the earth is flat. The same evidence is also available to them. Why are we different?

When it comes to our belief structure, we all have different mindsets, plotted on a spectrum of credulity. I’m what you may call a scientific skeptic. I tend not to believe something is true unless I see empirical evidence supporting it. There are others who tend to believe in things at a much lower threshold. And this tendency is often found across multiple domains. The mindset that embraces creationism, for example, has been shown to also embrace conspiracy theories.

In the pre-digital world, our beliefs were a feature, not a bug. When we shared a physical space with others, we also relied on a shared “mind-space” that served us well. Common beliefs created a more cohesive social herd and were typically proven out over time against the reality of our environment. Beneficial beliefs were passed along and would become more popular, while non-beneficial beliefs were culled from the pack. It was the cognitive equivalent of Adam Smith’s “Invisible hand.” We created a belief marketplace.

Beliefs are moderated socially. The more unpopular our own personal beliefs, the more pressure there is to abandon them. There is a tipping point mechanism at work here. Again, in a physically defined social group, those whose mindsets tend to look for objective proof will be the first to abandon a belief that is obviously untrue. From this point forward, social contagion can be more effective factor in helping the new perspective spread through a population than the actual evidence. “What is true?” is not as important as “what does my neighbor believe to be true?”

This is where social media comes in. On Facebook, a community is defined in the mind, not in any particular physical space. Proximity becomes irrelevant. Online, we can always find others that believe in the same things we do. A Flat Earther can find comfort by going on a cruise with hundreds of other Flat Earthers and saying that a 107,372 people can’t be wrong. They can even point to “scientific” evidence proving their case. For example, if the earth wasn’t flat, a jetliner would have to continually point its nose down to keep from flying off into space (granted, this argument conveniently ignores gravity and all types of other physics, but why quibble).

Social media provides a progressive banquet of options for dealing with unpleasant truths. Probably the most benign of these is something I wrote about a few weeks back – slacktivism. At least slacktivisits acknowledge the truth. From there, you can progress to a filtering of facts (only acknowledging the truths you can handle), wilful ignorance (purposely avoiding the truth), denialism (rejecting the truth) and full out fantasizing (manufacturing an alternate set of facts). Examples of all these abound on social media.

In fact, the only thing that seems hard to find on Facebook is the bare, unfiltered, unaltered truth. And that’s probably because we’re not looking for it.