According to this Psychology Today article, they matter because we are completely incapable of ignoring them. Even when we know something isn’t true, it still impacts our thought processes because our brains cannot unlearn information we take in.
The example from the article is a good place to start:
Now imagine this scenario: You are a loan officer at a bank reviewing a mortgage application of a recent college graduate with a stable, well-paying job and solid credit history. The applicant seems qualified, but during the routine credit check, you discover that the applicant has an unpaid debt on their credit card account. One report says that the debt is $5,000 and the other says $25,000. Do you reject or approve the application? Or, do you wait until you can resolve the discrepancy and get more information?
These are two scenarios used with business students to illustrate how irrelevant information influences decision-making.
Logically, people should respond to these same scenarios in the same way. In both situations, the applicant definitely has at least $5,000 in unpaid debt. However, in the first scenario, 60 percent of students reject the applicant and 40 percent approve. In the second scenario, only 4 percent reject, 8 percent approve, and 90 percent wait. Of those who wait, when they learn that the debt is $5,000, 80 percent approve the loan.
Think about this. In both scenarios, the applicant has at least $5,000 in unpaid debt, but when the possibility of a $25,000 debt is suggested—and found to be untrue—people are more lenient. Their evaluation of the $5,000 debt is altered by the completely false suggestion that there is a $25,000 debt.
When I read that scenario, what it reminds me of is what we see on social media. There are plenty of things that we see that we know aren’t true, or that we later learn aren’t true, but they are still impacting our decisions. When we see posts about a conspiracy theory enough, even if we know it isn’t true, the fact that we’re seeing it becomes information we are now including in how we feel about it. Sometimes it can kick off a fear response. (I keep hearing about how dangerous vaccines are, and sure, I know there are no studies that actually show that, but maybe I should be afraid?) Other times it kicks off a response like the one above. (I was expecting tens of millions of COVID-19 deaths in the US, and there have “only” been 200,000, which IS horrible, but maybe the risk is not so real, or I can ignore it?)
We like to convince ourselves that we are rational. That we look at the facts, as best as we can, and make rational choices. But, it’s not true. And, more importantly, people who want to influence us know this. Why do you think stores almost always show you a “sale price” on an item? They want to implant in your mind the “reality” that if you wait and come back tomorrow, you might have to pay the higher price. (Hint, tomorrow, it’ll still be the sale price. Two weeks from now, it might even be cheaper, there are no rules about how this works.) We know that probably isn’t true, and maybe we even know that this isn’t even what we came in the store to buy, and we don’t need it, but enough of us will buy it that the stores will keep right on doing it.
And yes, even Russian influencers know it too. They know that if they keep pushing fake stories about how awful things in the US are, and how much certain groups are dangerous, and hateful, the more they will tap into our fear responses. So, again, we may know that news items are made up, but see enough of them, shared enough times, and that information sticks around. It rattles around our brains and starts to play with our imagination, even though it’s not true, or relevant to the decision that needs to be made. They know that if they can spark an emotional response, that emotion will impact what we do next.
They’re counting on exactly that.
So what can we do about it? Camille’s suggestions in the link above are pretty good. Don’t react to emotionally charged information right away, give it time to settle in your brain so that you can come back to it more thoughtfully later, and stop to consider what information we are sharing, and how it impacts people. Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it useful? Or, is it just an emotional response that isn’t going to be useful or helpful to anyone?
We may not be able to stop our brains from taking in information, it’s literally what kept humans alive for centuries, but we can be more thoughtful about how that information impacts us emotionally, and how the information we put out in the world may be doing the same for others, and think twice about doing exactly that.
Remember, just about everything you read or see, is being put out by someone with an agenda. Before you let your emotions run wild, figure out what that agenda is, and whether it’s something you want to be on board with. And if their agenda is harmful to you, and your emotional state, there’s no reason to keep submitting yourself to it. There’s no rule that says you have to follow anyone on social media, or real life.
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