I recently came across a much-shared social media post on the complex issue of impact of demonetization on the poor and an interesting question popped up in my mind. How do we decide what to believe and what not to, especially when it is near impossible to verify?
As poor Indians are all around us, we can personally observe the state of at least some of them to get an insight; but, as there are a billion of them, statistically speaking, no one is likely to have access to a sample size that is dependable enough to be sure. In that case, why do people presume that a random writer on social media is more believable than what their maid or cleaner is telling them?
The answer of this question is hidden in the fact that all biology is commerce driven by the currency of energy. Human brain is a great example of how energy commerce impacts evolution, as the need of conserving energy has forced it to opt for a compromise; that unfortunately, is now turning into a dangerous loophole worth becoming aware of.
It may sound strange to us doubting Thomases, but human brain is actually more keen to believe than question, as believing saves it from spending energy for processing information. This makes a lot of sense because, in its entire course of evolution, brain has rarely encountered manipulative misinformation.
Unfortunately for human brain, it now faces an unprecedented challenge as it regularly encounters misinformation. If it tries to verify everything that is coming in, it can end up wasting a lot of energy and time in processing what can be irrelevant, and if it believes everything, it runs the risk of being fooled. So, it is forced to find a middle path of trusting and believing some sources without questioning them.
As individuals can gain from misinforming while organisations or institutions with authority are less likely to benefit from misleading, brain uses a simple strategy of not questioning any source of information that it perceives as non-individual organisation and in position of authority.
This shortcut evolved by brain is turning out to be a dangerous optimisation as it offers a loophole to anyone who wants us to believe something without questioning it.
Historically, this loophole was difficult to exploit because the facade of authority was not easy to acquire. In not too distant past, authoritative mediums were few, such as regal, academic or religious titles that communicated through podiums of respect or through books, but situation has suddenly changed with emergence of social media with unprecedented reach.
What makes social media dangerous is its institutional identity in the minds of those who don’t understand its structure. It has provided a false facade of authority to those who are communicating through it, so most brains are lapping up the information coming through social media without questioning it.
The problem is made worse by constant bombardment of information that we face today, making verification of incoming information a practically impossible task for the brain. The net result is, we are now sitting ducks for those with agendas and access to social media platforms.
If we wish to escape this manipulation, our only hope is to return to our own observations and judgement. We may not be able to access sample sizes to arrive at absolute truth, but we are surely safer using that path than falling prey to those who want to control our opinions.
So, if you wish to know about Indian poor, talk to your maid or cleaner and form your own opinion. That is the better way to fight those who want to control us through information-manipulation.