What Brain Science Tells Us About How to Win the Battle Against False Narratives and Divisiveness

Neuroscientist Amishi Jha explains why three built-in biases in the human brain are contributing to false narratives, divisiveness, and incivility across the United States, and how mindfulness in action can help boost our collective resilience.

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Images of the US Capitol overrun with rioters—and the aftermath of a walled-in iconic building guarded by razor wire and armed soldiers—remind me of a phrase from my undergraduate days: The personal is political. This 1960’s era slogan captures the interconnection between our private experiences and political systems and structures. My own sense of anger, moral injury, threat, fear, and overwhelm in the days after the Capitol siege are deeply intertwined with our national politics. And as we turn the page as a Nation, it’s worth understanding how the brain’s default tendencies, our built-in brain biases, have contributed to the rise in false narratives and divisiveness. To overcome this national predicament, we must overcome these brain biases. Unfortunately, as my lab’s research has found, this is difficult to do, especially when the very cognitive resources needed to do so are in short supply.  

At the University of Miami, my research team and I study the impact of mindfulness training on high demand groups like soldiers, first-responders, and elite athletes. We research questions about their psychological and cognitive resilience, as well as their ability to perform at their best when circumstances are extraordinarily stressful. The bad news is that over high stress intervals, their mood sours, cognition fails, and performance suffers as they go on autopilot. The good news is that mindfulness training protects against these effects and helps them bounce back. 

Findings like these lead me to ponder the role of mindfulness in boosting the resilience of our nation. But first, let’s discuss what we’re up against—the built-in features of the human brain that may contribute to the spread of false information and divisiveness in our country.

Cognitive Biases and the Human Brain

1. The brain has a truth bias: The moment you understand something you read or hear, your brain believes it’s true. This is why the moment just after is so critical. This is when your brain does the cognitive work of assessing if new information should be “un-believed”.

2. The brain has a novelty bias: Attention is captured by novel, surprising, fear-inducing information delivered on your social media feeds and generated in your mind. Novelty’s ballistic and automatic pull on your attention can happen without your awareness, over and over again.

3. The brain has a confirmation bias: What you believe narrows your attention. Information that aligns with what you already believe is overprivileged and disconfirming information goes virtually unnoticed.

Now, imagine you’re 11 months into a global pandemic. False narratives are running rampant. Social and political divisiveness is growing. Tempers are flaring as a stress-induced cognitive fog has settled in. Okay, you don’t have to imagine—this is the reality we’re living in. Under these circumstances, it’s even more important that we correctly categorize ideas as true or false, yank attention back when it’s been pulled away, and broaden our perspectives beyond existing views. Yet, the very cognitive resources we need in order to accomplish all this have become depleted because of the high stress circumstances we’ve been enduring. Is there a way out of this terrible Catch 22 of our collective moment? Yes, and it involves practicing mindfulness in action. 

Now is the time to extend the benefits of your mindfulness practice beyond the personal, to the social and political spheres you inhabit—as you engage with your social networks and newsfeeds in this overwhelming and high-demand era. So, let’s look next at some of the ways your brain can lead you astray, and how mindfulness in action can effectively combat those default tendencies. 

The Same Moment You Comprehend Something, Your Brain Thinks It’s True

The cornerstone of US democracy is the First Amendment guarantee of free speech: We believe that ideas should be freely expressed. Thinkers from Descartes to John Stuart Mills have argued that there was no danger or need to restrict ideas because educated individuals, through their own knowledge, logical reasoning, and debate with others could choose to accept or reject ideas they encountered. Just like a marketplace for produce, democracy is a marketplace of ideas; and just like fruits and vegetables, ideas can be inspected and selected for consideration, or disregarded.

This deeply held belief that humans are capable of comprehending ideas before accepting or rejecting them undergirds modern science and our democratic freedoms. It also resonates with our intuitions about how we think: We feel we are capable of understanding and evaluating an idea before deciding if it’s true. But the research does not support this intuitive take on how we think. Many studies have now confirmed that understanding an idea and believing in its truth occur simultaneously—it’s only after that initial belief that we can engage in further cognitive processing to “un-believe” an idea. Why? Because the brain’s capacity to comprehend ideas—which is an evolutionary outgrowth of its capacity to perceive sights and sounds from the environment—has a built-in “truth bias.” Seeing something co-occurs with your belief in its actuality. You see a cup on your table, and you don’t question whether it is really there or not. Seeing is believing. And, it turns out, comprehending is believing, as well.

“The brain is biased to believe that what it hears is true. It is captured by novelty and fear-inducing information.”

In research studies, when participants are overloaded or time-pressured and told that the ideas they are presented are false, they still believe them to be true. They even make consequential decisions guided by this false information. This happens not only when participants are told the ideas are false after they are presented or as they are presented, but also before they are presented.

This may seem at odds with your experience. You know that you are often able to distinguish true from false information. So how does this happen? Again, study after study suggests that after the initial belief stage, we further probe ideas to test their truthfulness, but we need three things to do so: knowledge, reasoning, and cognitive resources (attention and working memory). When participants were overloaded with demands or time-pressured (conditions which deplete attention and working memory), they failed to “un-believe” false information because they lacked the cognitive resources to do so.

Rampant increases in COVID cases, economic uncertainty, social unrest and political divisiveness, personal grief, hardship, and frustration describe some of the causes and consequences of our collective experience. In other words, the conditions are ripe for depleted attention and working memory—and there has been a commensurate rise in the spread of false information. Which brings us to another feature of your brain: your attention is captured by novelty. 

Your Brain is Captured by the Novel and Narrowed by the Familiar 

Our brains evolved to pay attention to information that is novel, surprising, and fear-inducing because that skill gave us a survival advantage. Now, false information (not sad or inspiring—but novel and fear-inducing information) spreads more rapidly, broadly, and deeply than true information, according to a recent study of viral Twitter posts. And we can’t blame it on bots. The researchers found that people are uniquely culpable for the disproportionate viral spread of false information. In addition to being captured by novelty, information processing is narrowed by confirmation bias. We selectively pay attention to information confirming our already held views, becoming increasingly blind to disconfirming or contrary information. This makes us more entrenched in our views and breeds divisiveness.  

To make matters worse, we are no longer living in a broad marketplace of ideas. The pandemic has constrained our social outings in the real world, meanwhile social media algorithms are creating social silos, where people with the same views talk to each other and share information, rarely interacting with those with a different viewpoint. And, even if you have managed to keep a multitude of perspectives in your social media feeds, anonymity and lack of direct face-to-face contact with others has eroded civility. Civil discourse, which has been a corrective force against false news in the marketplace of ideas, is a rarity. So, what can we do about this?

The Personal is Political

Many of us lean on our mindfulness practice in our personal lives to help us manage distressing thoughts and feelings generated within our own minds. We learn to pay attention to body sensations in the here and now when a difficult memory or a worry hijacks us. We remember that thoughts are not facts, which loosens their grip on us. We embody compassion and kindness. 

And now, we must be vigilant and apply mindfulness in our social and political lives. The good news is that mindfulness training bolsters the cognitive fuel we need to do so. There is growing evidence that mindfulness training strengthens attention and working memory, even in high stress circumstances. 

Mindfulness in Action When You’re Online

1. Do the cognitive work to “un-believe” false information. Use your knowledge, reasoning skills, your attention and working memory to evaluate information as true or false, and actively work to “un-believe” it when false.

2. Pay attention to your attention. Notice when your attention has been grabbed by novel, fear-inducing content. Notice if it’s overly narrowed on confirmatory information. Remember that you have the power to redirect and broaden your attention. Be intentional before you act. Start by not mindlessly clicking, liking, retweeting. 

3. Embody humility and civility. Just knowing we have biases doesn’t unhook us from them because many of our judgments are routed in processes we don’t have conscious access to. We think others are prone to bias, but that we are not—not so, we just have a blindspot for our own biases. Knowing this means we must have humility. We must take note of how often we have civil discourse and dialogue with those who don’t share our views. Challenge yourself to engage with those outside of your bubble more often.

Attention and working memory are key. We need these cognitive resources to evaluate ideas we are exposed to, redirect us when our minds get captured and hooked, and broaden our perspectives by considering those of others. By engaging in mindfulness practice, we are strengthening the very capacities we need to curb the spread of false information, reduce divisiveness, expand understanding, and increase our civility. 

Your personal mindfulness practice is not a side project. It is a pro-social political act.  Mindfulness in action is how we give peace a chance—in our own minds, and in our nation.

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