The Psychology of Bias in the Digital Age

Subtle yet powerful, the Internet is subconsciously driving our choices.

Posted May 09, 2017

Source: Source: Stocksnap

A new study, presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, examines parents engaged in a simulated medical dialogue with a physician and revealed that prior exposure to information on the Internet can influence both physician trust and the impetus to seek a second opinion. You can find more on the study in my recent Forbes story. So, simply put, the information that we see on the Internet can bias our trust and confidence in a relationship as a function of whether or not we are in agreement with the other party.  

Wait. So, my Internet surfing isn't just pragmatic and objective?

It seems not and it might very well impact how I might agree or disagree with my physician—the real expert in the discussion?

From one perspective, there's nothing really new here.  The role of 'priming' is well established. John Bargh is known for his work on how language can actually drive action. One of the most well-known of these studies reported that reading words related to elderliness caused subjects to walk slower when exiting the laboratory, compared to subjects who read words unrelated to the elderly.  Add to this the presentation of this work by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink and it's been thrust from science to pop culture. Here's how Gladwell discusses the power of priming. It's important to note that while given the popularity of this concept, Bragh's work as been called into question for a lack of reproducibility

So, where do all these powerful intellectual and visual stimuli exist today in our digital age? Without doubt, online information—facts, figures, selfies, opinions, rants, news, weather, to name a few—are part of the tsunami of stimuli that can prime our opinion. And to consider that these 'primers' may be subconscious yet manifesting in a real-world conscious level is not only interesting but downright scary.

And while the study reference here was about clinical dialogue between a pediatrician and parents, another interesting area of discussion might just be politics and how the Internet can drive perception.  Today, the United States stands divided like no other time in history.  A pew poll from January 2017 supports both the wide differences and dramatic rate of change in political division.

Another division that seems to reflect today's political climate might also be not just the political posture but the actual sourcing of news itself. I would argue that many people 'self-select' new and information sites that supports their view.  And, the polarization of many media outlets support and drive this dynamic.  But can our '24 hour on' myopic stimulation also be driving an aspect of priming that support and drive the divide?

 Pew Research Center
Source: Source: Pew Research Center

And it's not only traditional news outlets. Our Facebook feeds are carefully and algorithmically crafted to support our 'likes' and help keep us captive to marketing and advertising tactics that support Facebook's revenue.  What emerges is a real and psychological echo chamber effect. And it's this constant reinforcement that can manifest in behavior that, in part, may reflect a bias from something that may be less neocortical and more limbic.

It seems we are stuck in vicious cycle where online information has become essential. Yet beyond essential, online information had become perceived as authoritative and definitive.  Even more interesting, online information has become easy.  And easy acquisition of information is, well, easy in way that makes Cliffs Notes almost burdensome and difficult.

Decades ago, we were made aware of the power of subliminal advertising in the class book The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard.  In it, Packard suggested that advertising can manipulate expectations and induce desire for products.  It seems that the online information may have the power to bring this concept right into the palm of our hand.

Even the new technology interfaces will play a role. Tomorrow's smart phone and computers will leverage mixed reality that incorporates virtual and augmented reality. And the power of these stimuli are undeniable. The challenge is to recognize how these facts or impulses can play a role driving behavior--consciously and and subconsciously.

The reality is that we live in complex digital world where information and interfaces are expanding at an exponential pace. And these bits and bites of stimulation can have a profound impact on our lives in a way that you might not even understand or notice.