Here's an interesting tidbit published in Science Daily--researchers analyzed 91 studies that included over 8,000 people and found that most of the time we seek information that supports our viewpoints and then screen out everything else:
The researchers found that people are about twice as likely to select information that supports their own point of view (67 percent) as to consider an opposing idea (33 percent). Certain individuals, those with close-minded personalities, are even more reluctant to expose themselves to differing perspectives, Albarracín said. They will opt for the information that corresponds to their views nearly 75 percent of the time.
The researchers also found, not surprisingly, that people are more
resistant to new points of view when their own ideas are associated
with political, religious or ethical values. . .
This seems to be another piece of evidence that confirms my concerns about online homophily, which of course extends offline as well.
As humans, we're innate patternmakers. But to some extent, we seem bound to find data that supports the patterns we already see, as opposed to seeing new patterns in the data. A few years ago I was trying to learn how to draw using Betty Edwards' book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. What was most fascinating to me about the experience was how you have to turn off your left (analytic) brain in order to draw things as they really are. When the left brain is in full operational mode, we tend to draw not what we actually SEE (which is the raw data coming in), but our concept of that data. So we don't draw the face that's in front of us. Instead, we draw our idea of a face. For example, we don't place eyes in the middle of the face where they actually are. We put them toward the top because that's our construct of where they belong because of our hairlines. The point is, that while we think we see the data, what we really are looking at is our preconceived idea of what that information means.
I read with interest Nancy White's excellent post the other day on Skills for Learning Professionals Part 2. In it she says that scanning, filtering, connecting and sense-making are critical skills. I agree with this, but think that maybe Nancy didn't go far enough in thinking about how we develop these skills. She offered a series of excellent questions to ask ourselves in terms of our ability to do things like scan and filter, but they don't take into account the habits of mind and psychological behaviors we bring to the table in developing these skills. In light of our tendencies toward homophily and pre-conceived ideas, it would seem there are deeper issues at work that we need to consider:
- When we are scanning, how do we combat our natural tendency to only "see" information that fits with our preconceived notions of the world? The skill of scanning isn't just about how well we are able to manage a stream of information. It's also about our ability to actually SEE information in its raw form.
- In developing our filtering skills, how do we ensure that we are not filtering out information that doesn't fit wth our existing concepts and frames? I suspect that many, if not most of us, are likely to apply our filters in a way that shields us from data we may not want to consider. But this is not effective filtering behavior, particularly if we end up filtering out key data that would change our decisions or ideas about how things work.
- Creating a knowledge network is important, but if we are creatures of homophily, seeking out like-minded connections, then are we really using this skill to its full advantage? How do we make our networks diverse? As I've pointed out before, social technology tends to collude in this process of connecting us to like-minded people, for example suggesting friends who share our interests. But how do I ensure that I'm connecting to people who think differently than I do?
- How do we become capable of objective sense-making based on the actual data that is coming into us, rather than our IDEAS of what the data means? I think that the tendency to interpret information as its coming into our brains is so ingrained we don't even realize it's happening. That's why "beginner's mind" is an aspiration, rather than something most of us are able to do on a regular basis.
These skills are not just about the technology strategies we use to find, filter and make sense of information. They are also about the habits of mind that we bring to these activities. If we don't address both aspects, then we're missing something here.