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Something to think about... / blog
The Problem With Cognitive Ease and News

Written by on July 22, 2016

The always amazing Derek Muller, from Veritasium, recently published a great explainer video about how we are all susceptible to "cognitive ease".

Cognitive ease is the concept of which when you hear something repeatedly, your brain starts to form connections around it, thus making it easier for you to process later. And since we prefer things to be simple and easy, things that are easy to think about generally makes us feel happier.

This has a lot of implications in terms of happiness, relationships, and life choices, but for newspapers it's part of the problem that we all face with the rise of the misinformed.

But first, take a moment to watch the video:

As you can see, cognitive ease is an extremely interesting mental phenomenon, so what does that have to do with news?

Well, the problem is that if we tend to favor and trust things that are repeated often enough, it can also very quickly be used in a detrimental way.

Let me give you a simple example: after the failed coup in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quick to point his finger at his political rival Fethullah Gülen, and the media have spent the past week posting article after article with this specific accusation.

Sure, many media articles have been critical about it too, but the phrase "Fethullah Gülen was behind the coup" has been repeated over and over again.

Take the Guardian, where I counted 15 articles within the past day alone mentioning his name.

So, I now give you three possible versions:

  1. The people behind the coup were a small group within the military that truly did it to protect the future of democracy in Turkey, after seeing how Erdoğan had eroded several democratic ideals. In other words, the people who were behind it were exactly the ones who said they were behind it when they issued a statement as the coup started.
  2. The coup was some big conspiracy orchestrated by Erdoğan himself to secure even more power. Something many have started speculating about after the massive purge of what seems to be innocent people afterwards.
  3. The coup was planned by Fethullah Gülen in a bid to take power.

I don't know which one of these is the truth. For all we know, there might be a completely other explanation because nobody has provided any proof backing up their accusations.

But now think about this in relation to the concept of "cognitive ease". If you take a look at the media over the past week, which version has been the most covered by the press?

Yep, the third version. The newspapers have been absolutely filled with stories discussing the blame on Fethullah Gülen.

So, the media is causing a specific version of the event to be repeated over and over again, without data or evidence to back it up, causing that one version to become the "easy choice" for people to hang on to.

And, if you were to do a study today, you would probably find the same result as Derek Muller talked about in his video, in that people would choose to believe whatever it is that they have heard about the most.

Mind you, I'm not blaming the journalists here. Journalists have traditionally seen it as their role to merely be the bringers of news. And since this is what the politicians are talking about, this is what you bring.

The problem with that is that it assumes that people are informed to begin with. It assumes that if you merely tell people what is happening in the world, then people will have the mental insight to take a step back and make an informed choice of whether to believe in it or not.

But countless scientific studies have proven that this isn't the case. Instead, what is happening is that if we in the media provide a skewed narrative in which one version gets more exposure than another, these studies prove that this will make people misinformed.

And it's not just about Turkey. It's about everything. Look at Donald Trump, whom the media has covered to a far greater degree than anyone else. Imagine if John Kasich had gotten 20 times more exposure than Trump?

Or look at the UK and Brexit. Which side got the most airtime? The leave side or the remain side? For one thing, we didn't call it "Bremain".

As a media analyst, I constantly see the damage that this is causing. Not just to the public's perception of reality, but also to the media. We now constantly hear journalists and editors talking about the how we now line in a "post-fact" era.

First of all, I don't think this is true. If you look at the media today, the focus on facts has never been higher. The amount of time and focus being spent on fact-checking is amazing.

But the problem is with the way it's being done.

Whenever something happens, the media doesn't start with the fact. They start by repeating whatever someone said, and only later do they go back and fact check it.

I wrote about this in "The Increasing Problem With the Misinformed". Here I gave the example of sexual assault in Germany by immigrants. For weeks the German press published story after story linking immigrants (especially middle-eastern immigrants) to rape. But then, about a week later, the media looked at the numbers and found that refugees were no more criminal than Germans. But at this point it was too late to fact-check. The audience had already formed their cognitive bonds, and thinking of immigrants as rapists had now become the cognitive easy way to think.

The result of this was scary:

In voicing these sentiments, the SPIEGEL reader joined the ranks of a movement that seems to have gained momentum in recent weeks -- one that, to varying degrees, is claiming that journalists are no longer capable of being independent and unbiased.

"It is a phenomenon that defies simple description. According to polls, 40 percent of Germans believe the media are not credible. And the loudest of them all, people like Tatjana Festerling, an organizer with the anti-immigrant, Islamophobic PEGIDA movement, have even taken to calling on the public to get out the pitchforks to chase journalists out of newspaper offices.

You see what's happening here. Because the media had already forced one cognitive bond to happen, when they published the correction, they were perceived as untrustworthy and biased.

Obviously, the issue here is more complex than this. But this a real problem from a media perspective.

My advice to newspapers is to seriously rethink the way we cover news. When Erdoğan, for instance, blamed Gülen for the coup, the media should have demanded evidence *before* publishing that news. And if Erdoğan refused to provide that information (or if it wasn't credible), the media should have refrained from publishing that narrative and instead focused on the other issues.

I know this is much easier said than done, but look at the larger trends for how people think about the media and how that is changing.

We will always have people who are misinformed, and false narratives will always be published. Especially today, with how anything can be shared on social media.

Being a part of that as a newspaper is a big reason why the industry is doing so badly. We need to step above that and to be the place people turn to when they care about getting real insight and true cognitive bonds.

And when you think about it, it's not too much to demand that our sources should: "Prove it, or we won't publish that story".

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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