How the Internet is Confirming our Biases

Written by Peter Lyons-Gould

Confirmation bias is the tendency to prefer or favor information that confirms one’s preconceptions, regardless of what is true. An example would be a smoker seeing a poster of someone smoking a Kool Mild and thinking, “Hey, there must be something about that cigarette that makes it better for me.” They ignore all the statistics about health threats and the warnings on the box that “a light cigarette is not a safer cigarette.” People have a tendency to hear what they want to hear; it’s been proven in recent brain science. Companies that are concerned about profits more than anything else understand this tendency and play off of it in the way they market their products. In the world of technology, search engines like Google and Bing deliberately write code, choose images, and present specific information in ways that target reader’s confirmation bias so they will act in certain ways and buy certain things—regardless of how it will affect them. people are arguing that personalized search results lead to significant problems.

In a blog entitled “Is Google Making us Less Rational?” Julia Galef, cites an experiment done by Peter Cathcart Wason where subjects were given a set of numbers organized by a specific rule and asked what the rule was. People guessed things that fit with what they thought they knew, and each time they received confirmation that their answer fit the rule they grew more confident. People like to be right; they like to have things work out, but the only way that they would have been able to guess the real rule behind the experiment (random increasing numbers) would be to guess something that did not immediately make sense with their experience.

The blog Rationally Speaking then goes on to say that, “online search engines are by their very nature rich with potential for real-world applications of this experiment.” How you phrase a search is already imbedded with information that gives you a response that is likely to support things you already suspect; while more neutral searches will yield totally different results. I remember writing a paper about the Illuminati and how they use symbols like the pyramid and the all-seeing eye to influence and control people. This intrigued me. Part of me wanted it to be true. I immediately typed in a search for the pyramid on the back of a dollar bill and Illuminati and got thousands of hits confirming my conspiracy theory. I did not search that symbol separately or go deeper in my research, because I got confirmation right away. I felt right, and that felt good. I did not have a desire to do more.

Google recently announced that their page rank algorithm (the formula that determines which search results you get and the order in which they appear) will be partly dependent upon your past search history. http://www.mediumblue.com/ Google’s blog explained that they will be able to better provide you with the “most relevant” results possible. That is, relative to whatever your views and preferences are, no matter how screwed up they are. Less and less surprises, and more of what we already know—that is what Google is giving us. As one reader put it, “What I am looking for is not necessarily what I should always find.” As other search engines attempt to compete with Google, they will use similar strategies.

Google wants to make people’s lives easier, so people think that Google is valuable and will turn to it over other search engines. This raises traffic on Google and ups their advertising dollars. People will go to the place that will give them what they want. Google capitalizes on this by capturing people’s habits and feeding it back to them. Technology overall equates “easier” with “better,” but as a reader points out, easier is just familiar.

Whoever wins the confirmation bias race, wins the confidence of advertisers as well as users, and thus money. Over time, when search engines begin to charge for their service (and you know they will), our brand of choice will be the one that has successfully won our hearts and minds by giving us something we want badly: confirmation that we are right. And when they start suggesting that, “based on our previous searches, we might recommend these sites (a bunch of products you can buy),” then you can see the real agenda beginning to take shape.

I typed, “Is Google the devil?” into the search bar, and tons of propaganda came up including a theory that there are pentagrams hidden in Google maps. I went through YouTube videos to get pictures of the iconic logo nestled in flames or intertwined in red tails and horns. Even Google itself can’t escape confirmation bias, and maybe there is something in that that will save us.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. mishabrooks says:

    I wonder if there’s any way to organize massive amounts of information on the internet so that information is presented fairly, but also accurately. It seems to me that with so much misinformation out there, we must have some system of categorization that allows users to separate the relevant from the irrelevant. Perhaps there’s no way to do this without creating some form of information bias.

    1. amandalevin says:

      Fox News says they are already doing this…. The only way for info to be fair and balanced is for those taking in the information to have the ability to think critically, right?

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