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Filter Bubbles Aren't Just Online, They're Also in Your Head

Just like on the internet, your brain is selectively distorting your reality.

Key points

  • Similar to internet algorithms, your brain has cognitive mechanisms that create personal filter bubbles.
  • These filter bubbles shape your interpretation of the world and the actions you take.
  • To not get trapped in your mental filters, slow down, challenge negative biases, and seek alternative views.
Source: Nicholas Horn/Unsplash
Source: Nicholas Horn/Unsplash

If you use the internet, you’ve probably heard of a filter bubble. Internet sites and social media platforms use algorithms that show you content based on your previous interactions, likes, and shares. Over time, this creates a filter bubble where you only see content that aligns with your interests and beliefs, which serves to convince you that your beliefs are true. But what you might not know is that in similar fashion, your brain has several mechanisms to filter information, creating personal filter bubbles that profoundly shape how you live your life.

Self-created filter bubbles happen through various cognitive processes, and they have multiple consequences. They shape your experience of what’s happening by forming a lens through which you see and interpret the world. On the internet, because things are being presented based on past user history, no two people get the same results when they search for something on Google or open their news feed. In real life, no two people are experiencing an event or seeing a situation in the exact same way, because we all bring our own past experiences and biases to situations, causing us to process them differently.

Filter bubbles can cause you to stay stuck in self-created and often self-limiting patterns of thought and behavior. If you’ve ever wondered why change is so hard, it’s because your mental filter bubbles make it difficult to see different possibilities. If you hold the belief that you’re not someone who can have a high-paying job, you won’t look for one and you’ll only seek out and see jobs that match up with what you think you’re worth.

Filter bubbles can also prevent critical thinking and can lead to a limited and biased view of the world, where people don’t consider alternative viewpoints and don’t engage with others outside of their own circles. When we only consume information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and values, we don't question the veracity of that information or properly evaluate the evidence.

Some of the ways your brain creates mental filter bubbles are:

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias happens when people tend to seek out and interpret information in a way that confirms their existing beliefs. For example, if someone has a history of being cheated on, they might believe all men are cheaters, and look for signs of being cheated on in a new relationship. This person might interpret innocent actions by their partner in a negative light, such as assuming their partner is flirting with someone when they're simply being friendly.

Confirmation Bias in Memory

Our memories can also be subject to confirmation bias. We may remember events or information that confirm our existing beliefs more vividly than information that contradicts them. For example, if someone believes that they are not good at public speaking, they may remember instances where they struggled or received negative feedback more than instances where they did well.

Selective Attention

Selective attention is the process by which our brains filter out irrelevant information and focus on what we deem to be important or what we already believe. For example, if you hold the belief that you’re not likable and you go to a party where 10 people say, “Hi, it’s nice to see you,” and one person says, “Oh, I wasn’t expecting you to be here,” you are likely to go home and fixate on the "I wasn’t expecting you to be here" comment—I wonder why they weren’t expecting me? Did they not want me there? Were other people thinking I shouldn’t be there? Was my invitation a mistake? I shouldn’t have gone. I knew no one liked me. The other 10 people who said it was nice to see you might as well not have existed. You forgot about them long ago, because you selectively paid attention to the one comment or piece of evidence that supported your existing belief.

So, how can you avoid getting trapped in the filter bubbles created by your brain? Here are a few strategies:

  1. Slow down and take the time to monitor your own thinking. Reflect on decisions and avoid making impulsive choices based on emotions or intuition. Gather information and take time to evaluate different options. Be mindful of your own thinking patterns and biases. Regularly reflect on your decision-making process and evaluate how your biases may be influencing your choices.
  2. Identify and challenge negative biases. If you think you may have negative self-biases, try writing them down and examining them objectively. Once you have identified negative beliefs, look for evidence to the contrary. For example, if you believe you are not good at public speaking, remind yourself of times when you have successfully spoken in public.
  3. Question assumptions. Actively seek out alternative explanations and diverse viewpoints. This can be done by reading articles or watching videos from sources that have a different perspective than your own. This can help broaden your understanding of the world and challenge your pre-existing beliefs. Keep an open mind and be willing to change your opinion if new information emerges.

While you can’t prevent your brain from creating selective filter bubbles, you can become more aware so that you don’t have to be limited or trapped by them.

More from Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D.
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