Facebook is making many people miserable, and that tells us a lot. The Atlantic asked “Have Smartphones destroyed a Generation?” a few weeks ago. One way to see the problem is social media is making people much more anxious to fit in with the herd, because peripheral status is so much more visible. Pursuit of “Likes” substitute short-term immediate social popularity for developing your own path in any depth. That usually requires an ability to defer immediate gratification, gumption and often an ability to resist conventional expectations – the exact opposite of ephermal triumphs on social media.
That means it’s all very well to think about cognitive bias and Bayesian probability models and expected utility, as conventional policymaking does. But most people most of the time mainly care about how they fit in with other people, which is why a billion people are on Facebook and very few study statistics or Kolmogorov criteria. “Bias” thinking is mostly irrelevant to this pattern.
Indeed, one prominent scientific view argues that humans evolved larger brains in the first place to manage all the complexities of small group dynamics. We’re wired to think about status and reputation and pecking order, in-groups and alliances, who gets credit and blame, and who is ostracized or ignored. That, and cat videos, it seems.
There’s also some evidence that human culture has evolved to make us prone to imitate those with current high status in the group. For most people for most of slow-moving history, imitation and “liking” the correct things has been a better survival strategy than uncertain adaptation or change.
Social media as human catnip
Social media is all about these deep social instincts. Getting “likes” on Facebook is a very shallow reward, but it is instantaneously visible and quantified. It’s like catnip to our inbuilt mental software. Not getting validation from the peer group can make people disproportionately miserable. Similarly, Twitter has frequently deteriorated into hostile shaming and tweetstorms, making people fearful about saying anything at all.
There are strong forces in small group dynamics which push towards conventional thinking to please the groups’ vision of itself. Saying “we’re great” is guaranteed to get likes. Trying to divert attention to things that might rock the boat doesn’t attract many thumbs up. People instinctively resist things that don’t validate the group, and try to enforce conformity with group norms.
Groups also tend to become small and exclusive and inert, however. They have an inherent tendency become maladaptive and mediocre because they validate conventions instead of adaptation. They tend to become fixated on internal alliances and factions rather than adapting to change. Indeed, once a company or organization grows past a very small size, much of its energy starts to get absorbed by internal bickering, protecting existing territory, rivalry and gossip. People have a remarkable ability to fragment into competing small factions.
Stronger tools need to resist “like-“ability
Trying to impose a rational, neutral, dispassionate point of view has been the main way leaders have tried to cope with the fractiousness of our inbuilt software. But it usually does not work for long, as groups learn to express their factional interests in terms of universalistic language and high-minded ideas. People pay lip service to principles and go back to Twitter wars or ostracism campaigns. Indeed, it is gradually becoming apparent just how little durable success the social sciences have had in changing how people think and behave.
One of the only ways to do it is to pinpoint a few things in specific situation that don’t fit with the “”liked”conventional view and get people to try to pay occasional attention to those few limited anomalies, like grit in an oyster that can become a pearl. I call them “markers.”