The Negative Effect of Social Media on Critical Thinking

Social media provides fertile ground for radical changes in the way engaged users think by degrading their thinking process. My main finding is that regular social media use trains people to rely too heavily on heuristic or Fast Thinking, leaving them vulnerable to a further 5 psychological flaws that naturally reside in our evolutionary makeup...


In his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman examines two modes of thought:

Fast or Heuristic Thinking helps the brain to save time, where responses are fast, impulsive and automatic, applying to most of our decisions on a day-to-day basis. Slow Thinking is where our responses are considered, thoughtful and deliberate. These take more time and energy but benefit from detailed evaluation by the mind and so are more reliable. Slow thinking looks at the bigger picture and tends to overrule the temptation to give fast and impulsive responses.

Why Fast Thinking is the gateway to inferior critical thinking

As we know, the brain can learn new behaviours and habits because it possesses neuroplasticity. These changes happen because neural pathways make new connections via:

• environmental factors
• repetition
• psychological stress.

Social media provides fertile ground for radical changes in the way engaged users think by degrading their thinking process. My main finding is that regular social media use trains people to rely too heavily on heuristic or Fast Thinking, leaving them vulnerable to a further 5 psychological flaws (see below) that naturally reside in our evolutionary makeup. If not fully understood, these flaws can lead to poor decision making, degraded empathy for outgroups and low mental health outcomes:

The 5 Psychological Flaws

These 5 flaws make us think we have more power than we really do. They carry us away before we stop to think, especially if we’re busy. The more these vulnerabilities take hold, the more we struggle with decision making in the real world. As we look for more distraction on social media, a vicious circle results that can spiral us towards a host of mental health issues.

1. Cognitive biases

When people think of bias in the workplace it’s usually linked to Diversity and Inclusion and will take the shape of examples like affinity bias, in-group bias and confirmation bias. Unfortunately, regular social media use, turbo charges dozens of other biases that reach far beyond the traditional problem areas. The algorithmic nature of social media trains us to amplify our biases and to reinforce their value. When transferred to the workplace, this can lead to poor decision making, habitual overconfidence and confused communication.

2. Memory Flaws

In a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that appeared in Time online, researchers showed that those who documented and shared their experiences on social media formed less precise memories of those events. When we process our experience, we create long-term memories. Those memories form schemas (mental maps) which in turn build an understanding of our environment and increase our confidence. Unfortunately, the very nature of our interaction with mobile devices undermines that process since we can only remember what we really pay attention to. It becomes self-evident that social media consumers will find it more difficult to be focussed as the ‘information overload’ environment they experience trains them to be distracted. The inability to properly experience new learning leads to a cycle where degraded communication experiences form incomplete memories leading to commonplace mistakes such as misattribution, absentmindedness and suggestibility. Also, the sheer volume of information we process daily fatigues our working memory, thus impeding our potential to create strong long-term memories.

3. Fallacious Thinking

When people share information online, they do not always employ much rigour in the way they share that information. At the heart of Critical Thinking lies our ability to use reason and logic to evaluate and solve problems. Critical thinking doesn’t care about opinion. It only cares about the rigour behind the support for that opinion. The Fast Thinking encouraged by social media buttresses emotion, impulsivity and speed as we search for dopamine rewards. This desire can override the hard work necessary to properly evaluate a problem – for example mistaking opinion for evidence. Fallacious communication works because the emotional payload feels correct and overrides our need to think. If you get rewarded for not using your reasoning capability, then a Pavlovian desire to treat work related issues in the same way is at risk of becoming a damaging habit.

4. Magical Thinking

Given the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the safety and efficacy of vaccines, why is there such resistance? One explanation, says Eric Oliver, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago is ‘magical thinking’ – the idea that there’s an unseen force causing something to happen, when there is an observable and verifiable explanation to the contrary.

This entirely natural thinking flaw is related to our desire to have a sense of agency in our lives. As the world speeds up, part of our coping mechanism can take the shape of various superstitions, rituals and associations that help us make sense of our experience and help us feel in control. Some social media information actively encourages us to ignore rationality and believe in potentially dangerous anti-science and anti-rational hypothesis. The severity of the problem depends on the nature of the belief – for example, reading your horoscope is largely harmless; on the other hand, believing that vaccinations are a sinister plot can have multiple consequences for you and the people you interact with. Magical thinking in the workplace is common.

5. Heuristics

Heuristics are mental shortcuts that allow people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently. These rule-of-thumb strategies shorten decision-making time and allow people to function without constantly stopping to think about their next course of action. However, there are both benefits and drawbacks of heuristics. While heuristics are helpful in many situations, they can also lead to the cognitive biases described in section 1. above. Being aware of this might help you make better and more accurate decisions.

Conspiracy Theories

Social media are among the primary sources of news in the U.S. and across the world. Yet users are often exposed to content of questionable accuracy, including conspiracy theories, clickbait, hyper partisan content, pseudoscience and fabricated fake news reports. Psychologists understand that this controversial issue is common, including among otherwise intelligent people. Because posts on social media are typically very brief, especially on sites like Twitter where brevity is enforced, there is often little room for detailed argumentation, and therefore social media users sometimes resort to types of arguments that are simplistic, lack supporting evidence, and are based on faulty reasoning. When reading social media posts, you may intuitively know that an argument is wrong, but may not be sure why. The problem comes in that the adoption of delusions can hamper collaboration or create outright hostility between people with differing viewpoints.

Inside the mind of a conspiracy theorist

A conspiracy theory is an idea that a group of people is working together in secret to accomplish evil goals. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Please click this link to learn more.

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