The Need for Reason in a Soundbite World
I was standing next to an elderly lady at the newspaper counter yesterday and she commented “we probably can’t believe a word of what we read but I still buy a paper every day”. How do we make sense of what we read in a newspaper, hear or watch on the media or search on the internet in this post-truth era? Information is expressed in 140 characters. Continuous global news, with sensationalist headlines, is repeated every half-hour with little detail provided. The manner in which information is shared in the twenty-first century leads to people making snap judgements on events and situations. Views are shaped by a fast emotional response to information, not an analytical one. It is difficult to judge fact from fiction and this can be stressful as there is a sense that there is no firm ground on which to build truth or opinion.
My intention in this essay is to demonstrate that the generations living in today’s world of the global internet, and especially young people who have known little else, need to learn more about the inner workings of their brain so as to apply both intellect and reason, as well as intuitive emotion, when making judgements and decisions on what they are reading or seeing. This would include developing self-knowledge, identifying bias and prejudices, becoming aware of the impact of peer pressure and learning how to distinguish false news from fact. In essence, to learn the skills of rational thinking. This will not necessarily help them make a perfect decision but it may enable them to make a more informed one.
Thinking is difficult, so most people judge” Voltaire
We have learnt a great deal about the mind through psychology and neuroscience in the past thirty years. This knowledge can enable us to be discerning when analysing information. Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, fast and slow  describes how the brain works on two systems. System 1 is fast intuitive thinking where people often jump to conclusions emotionally before they know the facts. This can lead to erroneous solutions or premises. System 2 is slow deliberate thinking where we take time to summon evidence and analyse the information before coming to a conclusion.
The pace of life has accelerated in many ways. In my own business of professional training we used to run five-day residential leadership courses for executives. Nowadays one is expected to transmit the same information in a morning. On the internet people tend to be in fast-thinking mode as they submit or respond to data online. The brain is programmed to latch on to new information as it may alert us either to opportunity of sustenance for survival, which excites the brain, or alternatively to a threat. The brain becomes aroused and the autonomic system provides the physiology required in order to respond appropriately either to potential or to risk. This survival process works well in times of physical challenge but is unhelpful when reflective thinking is required, such as to analyse information and reach the detail beneath what one is reading. It can be helpful to understand this process as it is being activated every time a new email or tweet pings into our inbox.
The brain adapts to the situations it experiences frequently. Young people are being exposed at an early age to video games so their brains become shaped to expect fast interaction. Computer interface could be influencing the worldwide increase in cases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as the brain becomes acclimatized to speed of information and finds it difficult to concentrate when information needs to be processed more slowly. The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield  argues that video games and the speed of data retrieval on the internet can lead to addictive behaviours similar to gambling, by activating the reward system of dopamine which is stimulated by results, and inhibiting the frontal cortex that is considered to be responsible for planning complex cognitive behaviour, moderating social behaviour, and decision-making. The top ten video games are violent ones. There is evidence that this creates the danger that the brain is likely to respond more aggressively after watching or playing such games. Screen-based interaction only applies two senses, sound and vision. Our brains become less adapted to the holistic chemistry of human communication through eye contact, conversation, body language, pheromones. We see characters on screen as icons rather than emotional beings. This may be a factor in a measured decrease in empathy in college students over the decade from 2000-2010.  The icon on screen does not have an emotional history, we don’t know about their relationships or feelings: they are just a moving image, so we are less likely to care about them.
We are witnessing the malevolent result of this lack of empathy through the experience of students in school, where two-thirds of teenage girls report that they have been sexually harassed at school by boys.  This is affecting their self-esteem, wellbeing and academic performance. The viewing of online porn, which large numbers of young boys now watch regularly, can have an intimidating effect on both boys and girls.  Cyber-bullying, sexting and revenge porn add to these problems and both genders are viewing material that suggests that relationships mean little but body-image and sexual gratification mean much. How do the young make sense of this world of image and illusion?
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd” Voltaire
There is a trend to revert to previous idealised times. Opinion polls suggest that people imagine there was a time when the world was more certain. Change seems to be both unpopular and also unexpected. We see this mirrored in the Brexit and Trump votes where people could be heard to say “we want our country back” . The implication is that things should not change, despite the fact that both the UK and US have always been in a state of flux. That is the nature of life. We cannot roll back the tide of history but we can challenge expectations to check that they are realistic. We need also to ensure that people have the skills to manage the life they are facing.
Expectations shape our experience and how we respond to events and information. They impact both emotion and behaviour. For example if we think our boss will give us a £200 bonus and we receive a £250 bonus we shall be happy and probably act more loyally to him or her. If, on the other hand, we are expecting a £200 bonus but only receive £150 then we shall be disappointed and may consider looking for a new job.
Checking whether expectations are rational and realistic enables us to stop and question whether we are making ourselves unhappy by imagining that life should be other than it is. There is a sense today, reinforced by media comment, that the world is a far worse place than it ever was, that any suffering must be wrong and that when anything does go wrong someone must be blamed – often the government. There is an uproar when accidents happen, when people lose their jobs or when there is an apparent injustice, followed by a demand that someone pays – again, often the government. But these expectations may well be unrealistic. There is no law of the universe stating that life will be fair nor to say that we should not suffer. Life can be unfair and it is doubtful that whatever a government tries to put in place to address a problem, their policies will be perfect or infallible. We live in an imperfect world and the people who govern us are human and therefore of necessity fallible. The expectation that all should go smoothly is unrealistic and upsets us. We need to be able to react to endeavour to improve situations when they arise and yet have the resilience to recognise that life has always provided challenges, and always will.
A blame culture leads people to look outward for answers rather than look inward to ask “what can I do about this?” Such an attitude disempowers so it is not surprising that there is an overall consensus among young people of a sense of powerlessness. A student from Sheffield University, reported that news leaves her feeling uninspired about the prospects of not only the country but also her own personal future. But are students accurate in feeling so helpless to shape their own future? The Millennials have been described as the “snowflake” generation and some would argue that life has never been better or more full of potential.
News and information has to be investigated carefully to balance up the narrative and check whether it is true or false. We have to check whether false hopes and entitlements have been dangled before us. Also whether things truly are as bad as the media suggests, when in fact millions of people have been taken out of poverty in the last decade, world hunger reached its lowest point in 25 years, global malaria deaths have declined by 60%, life expectancy in Africa has increased by 9.4 years since 2000, the proportion of older US adults with dementia, including Alzheimer’s, declined by 11.6% in 2000 to 8.8% in 2012, 93% of children around the world learned to read and write, which is the highest proportion in human history, and despite IS we are safer on a daily basis than at any other time in history. 
“Prejudices are what fools use for reason” Voltaire
The internet gathers people into homogenous antagonistic groups of prejudice where one presents itself as pure right-minded thinkers while dismissing another group as corrupt, power-hungry or evil. This can apply in many areas of life but examples are bankers, Brexiteers, Trump followers, the so-called wealthy elite. It becomes tribal, resulting in a form of group hysteria against certain parties as we have seen mustered against Caroline Criado-Perez in her project to have Jane Austen depicted on bank notes, and Gina Miller in her court fight regarding Brexit . Both have been threatened online with rape and murder.
Abuse is played out every day on the internet as people take positions on subjects about which they often know very little. It is the equivalent of hurling stones; not dissimilar to the market square of previous centuries where people gathered to throw rotten tomatoes at some unfortunate person in the stocks. However, as we saw with the Arab Spring and Brexit, the group has not necessarily given sufficient thought to the detail, nor identified an outcome. There is a focus on the negatives of what they don’t want rather than a planned vision of what they do want. This can lead them on the road to nowhere.
The network groups that form online can provide a place where people feel included. Belonging is a basic human need and networks bring together individuals who support one another. The danger here is that the group simply reinforces confirmation bias. It is a cosy feeling to read views that support your own and often people choose to expose themselves only to information with which they agree. Network groups can also normalise anti-social behaviours such as paedophile groups, porn or jihadis because it is so easy to find like-minded others online. This enables them to collaborate below the radar, in ways that jeopardise our safety.
“I might disagree with your opinion but I am willing to give my life for your right to express it” Voltaire
Headlines shout about judges being “the enemies” of the country, tweets trend on issues from greedy bankers to Brexit, Trump and the elite. We are reading and listening to opinions about situations and yet seldom know the source of that comment. Who are the journalists, tweeters and bloggers? What do we know about them? Are they people to respect or not? What is their political bias or prejudice? Through whose lens are we being judged? What are their values? Are they speaking with ethical intention? Just because someone is a celebrity does not necessarily mean that they are informed on a particular topic.
It is easy to pontificate about a subject without researching the detail but it can also be ignorant. To judge others spontaneously without knowing the full story is unprincipled. The skills of critical thinking enable us to question more deeply what we are reading or hearing. Fast thinking easily leads to what I would describe as group un-thinking or group hysteria. Slow thinking leads to individual opinion but requires time and reflection.
Emotive words are used to divide. Instead of discussing and exchanging facts and opinions people are reverting to personal abuse such as “racist, bigot, Little Englander, Remoaner”. Negative news is used by the media to sell papers and also by governments and charities in order to emphasize a problem and gain funds or support. It can give the impression of a brutal world where jobs are scarce, despite the fact that unemployment figures are low. There are headlines about “greedy bankers” despite the fact that the 2008 crisis was a result of mistaken policies of politicians, lax regulation, individuals borrowing more than they could manage, sub-prime debt, as well as the bankers. There is complexity beneath the headline. 
Teaching and applying the principles of simple logic is particularly relevant in the internet-age. For example the logic behind “some bankers are greedy therefore all bankers are greedy” is erroneous and makes no more sense than saying “Philip Green is wealthy and behaves badly towards his employees so all those who are wealthy must therefore behave badly “. This is faulty thinking. There is some truth but we must distinguish between a fuzzy generalisation versus the specifics of a situation.
Currently there is anti-elitist rhetoric but the narrative seldom defines what is meant by an elite other than an apparent hatred of experts. This could sabotage the success of the next generation in that all countries require an elite to drive forward economic stability and knowledge. It requires rigour and research to differentiate those who have become elite due to corruption or ‘celebrity status’ in comparison to those who have achieved a position through knowledge. ‘Elite’ is defined as “a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society.”  An example is an elite of Britain’s armed forces.
One wouldn’t question the concept of elitism when wishing to see an expert consultant in the NHS, nor a lawyer, chemist or engineer. Those who study and work hard within an area inevitably become elite, as experts within their own field. We need these minds and have been addressing for many decades now the difference between inherited versus meritocratic elitism. There is more to be done but we cannot afford to turn the young against the concept of an elite by connecting, with emotionally-charged headlines, wealth with greed rather than effort. People need to be encouraged to stop and think more carefully what is meant by a term before making a judgement as to whether something is good or bad, or maybe a mixture of both.
No country can afford to turn people off the concept of wealth-generation. Wealth in itself isn’t an evil. It can lead to employment and philanthropy. Bill Gates has spent much effort in reducing malaria deaths, Warren Buffet made a Philanthropy Pledge in 2006 in which he pledged to give away his Berkshire Hathaway stock to philanthropic projects and he has brought together many wealthy individuals who are pledging to give away some fifty percent of their wealth to good causes. The Sackler Foundation gives large sums to the arts and many of the major financial industries and entrepreneurs sponsor cultural exhibitions. Starting a business and building it up takes guts and risk and can benefit many, both those employed and those who supply or purchase goods or services. The tendency in the media and online to repudiate those who are wealthy is ignorant. The key is surely ethics – encouraging people to build their life and work on wise values and good intention.
What is needed is perspective. Rabble-rousing tweets and headlines skew the facts that some wealthy people are greedy and others generous, that some bankers are unethical and others honest, that some politicians can be trusted and others can’t, that some economists can predict the future and others can’t. We can’t necessarily reach a wise judgement unless we explore the complex detail that exists within these contexts.
“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking” Voltaire
Surveys suggest  that young people are feeling gloomier about the future than at any point in the past eight years. One in four youngsters between the ages of 16 and 25 report that they do not feel in control of their lives. Low levels of self-confidence are leading to 45% feeling stressed about body image and 37% stressed about how to cope at work and school. The numbers of students seeking counselling for exam stress  is rising and more than a third of teenage girls in England suffer depression . Are their anxieties realistic or have they been shaped by the negative headlines that bombard them on the media and lead to disappointment? If the population is so stressed how come Euro 2016 and Pokemon Go were the most Googled questions in the UK in 2016? This doesn’t suggest deep concern about the political or economic realities people are facing.
But are the young receiving sufficient balanced information for them to appreciate how life has improved in the last fifty years? Are they being prepared to manage the world they will face? They are growing up in an era of idealistic and relentlessly positive news on the one hand where there is celebrity and where, on Facebook or Instagram, people only post their good news. On the other hand there is doom and gloom spread by the press and politicians. There is little middle way. They are besieged by images of stars and models. Social media results in the young comparing themselves to these figures but they are generally trying to measure up to a false or unachievable photograph, where the model’s image has been edited to unrealistic proportions.
All is certainly not what it appears. Young people, when asked, state that they want to be famous. But famous for what? In previous generations when students were asked what they wanted to be they would reply “a lawyer, teacher, doctor”. Fame in itself may not be a rational goal. Many celebrities end up in The Priory or in addiction. Yet the young don’t seem to make the association that fame and wealth are not necessarily going to bring them happiness. Celebrities suffer anxiety as much if not more than anyone else. They grieve when they lose a child or parent, and struggle over very public divorces. Many people are famous but possibly not for the skills one really admires or wishes to emulate – for example Hitler or Jack-the-Ripper.
To be meaningful, fame needs to be based on values, so we need to support children to ground themselves on the personal values that help them live life well and make good decisions. These don’t have to hinge on some religious premise or book. Simple principles such as treating others as you would wish to be treated yourself, seeking to do good rather than evil, not to hurt others, can all guide more collaborative rather than divisive behaviour online.
Are we giving this generation of “network young”, as they have been termed, the moral leadership that underpins constructive behaviour? Are we helping them analyse and make wise decisions? They aren’t seeing it from their political leaders who seem to be able to tell lies or knife a colleague in the back then shrug it off when found out. The term “post-truth” can give children the impression that it is ok to tell lies in today’s world. But of course it isn’t. Moral leadership comes from all those involved in raising children – parents, extended family, friends, teachers, community, government and beyond.
Parents and teachers alike seem nervous of offending or upsetting children but is this providing them with the resilience skills that young people need to manage the world of soundbites? If our universities are anything to go by, we appear to be producing students who demand ‘safe space’ rather than debate, and who appear unwilling to tolerate contradictory opinions. This doesn’t bode well for our future as this type of thinking can lead to fundamentalism, fascism and even dictatorship. [
It is important that we provide a realistic picture of what it takes to manage life and work. We need to help students identify what success means to them. Employers report that young people are unemployable as they don’t have the work ethic or social teamworking skills to succeed. We read of young boys believing it is not ‘cool’ to succeed at school. If they watch The Apprentice  they could gain the impression that being ruthless will get them to the top of business with little effort.
But overnight success is extremely rare. Most CEOs, entrepreneurs, writers, painters, pop-stars or actors have put in many hours of practice and grit to gain success. It takes determination, failures and hard work. If students feel it will come easily they will be disappointed. We need to enable the next generations to develop the emotional and practical ability to manage the complexity of a flexible global workforce. Specific examples of hard-won success can inspire them as they set out on their careers in an uncertain and challenging world. It is particularly useful to provide case studies of those who have come from poor or difficult backgrounds, have worked hard and made a good life for themselves. It is also important to enable young people to see that the greatest success of all is happiness on a daily basis, which often starts with self-acceptance and loving relationships in the home.
“It is said that the present is pregnant with the future” Voltaire
If young people are indeed so anxious as surveys demonstrate then we need to act swiftly to empower them to feel that they can influence their own lives and manage the challenges they are likely to face in this competitive global environment. This includes managing their own emotional as well as mental state online and in the real world.
Accessing the ability to think calmly and rationally about what they are hearing or reading requires that they have the tools to move themselves out of a stressful state. The mind cannot think rationally when hyper-aroused, as the emotional brain hijacks reason. The practice of mindfulness can be beneficial as a first step. This is the practice of training the brain to pay attention on purpose in the present moment so as to be able to focus the mind. It can direct the mind and body to relax so as to enable the person to think coolly and objectively about a situation.
Once the mind is calm the individual is in a position to question their anxiety or disturbance:
- Am I taking things too personally?
- How does failing this (exam or project) make me a complete failure?
- How important will this problem be in six months?
- What’s the worst that could happen?
- Is my belief helping me achieve my goals?
- How else might I think about this situation?
- How could thinking differently about the situation or information impact the outcome?
- If someone has written something unkind or nasty about me does it make it a fact? Do I respect the person? Does it matter? Are there others who say kind things?
- What skills do I have to manage myself and my future?
This process leads the mind inward. Instead of being influenced by what is on the outside, whether it be on the net, radio, television or gossip, we are encouraged to draw on our own resources, connect with our own values and make judgements and decisions based on what we choose rather than being led by the voices of the media or the mob.
To manage life in today’s world we can support young people in developing self-acceptance, giving them the understanding that they have rights and needs that are equal – not greater nor lesser – than those with whom they interact. Self-knowledge and self-reflection are key to this learning and self-development. Basic principles include:
- Accepting that you are human and that humans are fallible
- Recognising that making one mistake does not mean that you are stupid
- Recognising that everyone needs to be sensitive to their impact on others
- Taking responsibility for yourself and understanding that you won’t be loved or approved of by everyone. Nor will others
- Focus on strengths, learn and adapt to put your weaknesses in context and build on achievements
- Seeking excellence and not perfection
Providing models to analyse personal responses to situations gives individuals the understanding that they may not have a choice regarding the situations they face but do have a choice as to how they respond to the situation. They can learn the interaction between thoughts, expectations and how they shape their emotions. That if they think a situation “must” go a particular way they will inevitably be disappointed if it doesn’t. That if they blame another person in thinking “they ought” to have understood how their behaviour hurt me and “should” have treated me with more consideration, then it is important to question themselves as to whether they informed the other person of their preferences. Also to question whether they themselves have behaved similarly, resulting in them hurting others in the way they have been hurt. The underlying thought, belief or expectation of self, others and life situations shapes the emotional response. The emotional response shapes the behaviour that follows – for example if a boy feels they have not been treated with the respect they were expecting they may hit the person whom they perceive treated them badly.
The role of hormones in shaping behaviour is also useful information for young people. Testosterone has been associated with violence, autistic-spectrum, and risk-taking. It rises when listening to loud music, watching one’s team win or watching porn. When elevated there is more likelihood of an outcome of behaviour that the person may well regret after the event, whether it be a sexual assault, car crash or gang violence. The understanding of the mind-emotion-behavioural process is essential information for any human being and the earlier we can teach it the better.
“Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so, too” Voltaire
To make sense of complex information requires good questioning techniques. Socratic models of challenging beliefs and situations can influence a student to question what they are reading and look beneath the headlines. They can become familiar with how their mind works when operating on System 1 fast-thinking and choose to switch to System 2 slow-thinking methods to analyse the facts so as to make evaluative judgements as to what they personally believe about a situation. For example they can be trained to question the phrase “all the evidence shows” which is often used by those in the scientific, academic, medical or economic world but ignores contradictory evidence. This was witnessed during the 2008 financial crash where neither Treasury officials nor economists all foresaw the crisis and where several economists held directly opposing views as to its provenance and impact.
The divisive black-and-white statements frequently used by politicians, trolls and the media disguise the complex grey areas underneath. Students can learn to notice generalisations such as always, never, no-one, everyone and investigate the specifics, to discover whether statements are accurate. They may discover that phrases such as “everyone says this is a great movie” actually relates to one person who happened to comment on the movie to a friend.
Good questions enable us to check whether our brain is working on fast processing. For example:
- What is the evidence behind what I am reading?
- Who is writing and what might their agenda be?
- What are their sources? Do I respect them?
- Is my belief about this information logical?
- Might I be exaggerating the importance of this problem?
- Who says so?
- Am I concentrating on the negatives and ignoring the positives?
But thinking is time-consuming and requires effort so many numb out instead. This includes watching video-games, surfing the net or spending hours on Instagram talking to friends. We feel we have no time but the key is to notice where we are focusing our attention when there is so much attractive diversion available.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities” Voltaire
The start of 2017 has seen many examples where people are responding quickly and spontaneously to sensational headlines rather than stopping to question whether the information is accurate. President-Elect Trump has been tweeting that the FBI were wrong in their assessment that Putin and the Russians have been manipulating the American election results before he had even met with FBI representatives to hear the details of their report.
In Germany there have been warnings from politicians about the increase in fake news after the ultra-conservative Breitbart party website spread false information that a church had been set on fire on New Year’s Eve by a group of 1000 men shouting Allahu Akbar. In fact a firework set a small area of netting on fire but Breitbart had used exaggerations and factual errors to create an image of Islamist aggression.
There have been reports of hackers in Eastern Europe, Russia and India being paid to spread false news, including hackers being paid to ‘like’ tweets or share stories that support the sponsor’s agenda.
We all need to make sense of this as the alternative is that there is a mob hysteria on an issue that could lead to civil war or vigilantism. The need is always to question the sources and intentions of what we are reading.
“Opinion has caused more trouble on this little earth than plagues or earthquakes” Voltaire
No-one could have predicted how the internet and continuous global news would shape our lives and our minds. We all need to feel empowered to manage the challenges of a fast-changing method of receiving information. We need to understand our own minds and its biases in order to be alert to the mistakes it might lead us into. The ability to connect with the rest of the world is both exciting and overwhelming. It encourages us to make quick judgements on issues rather than research and investigate the complex facts of a case. There has never been a more important time to learn how our brain processes information and creates reality. We can train ourselves to think more rationally and critically in an era that Charles Handy once described as The Age of Unreason.  We can also harness the internet to build collaborative groups that benefit the world.
Fast and slow thinking responses can be related to Aristotle’s theory of acting through voluntary and involuntary action, whereby a young child might act involuntarily whereas a wise and rational adult will make a decision through deliberation, as a result of significant reason and thought. Aristotle continues by differentiating an “incontinent” person, who acts spontaneously and emotionally, with the “continent” person, who acts through objective decision, not appetite.
In an era of false news and misinformation we would all benefit from seeking to become the continent individual who observes, reflects, analyses and bases their judgement on evidence, self-knowledge and personal values. These skills can be taught.
Written January 2017, Longlisted for the Notting Hill Essay Prize
1.Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow (Allen Lane)
- https://medium.com/future-crunch/99-reasons-why-2016-has-been-a-great-year-for-humanity-8420debc2823#.94r75drkw; Stephen Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature (Allen Lane); Johan Norberg: Progress (One World); Never Forget that we Live in the Best of Times (Philip Collins, The Times, 23.12.16)
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caroline_Criado-Perez https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gina_Miller
- Survey, Princes Trust Youth Index 2016
- BBC News, 30.9.15
- The Guardian, 22.8.16
- What’s Happened to The University: Frank Furedi (Routledge)
- BBC series The Apprentice
- 15.Charles Handy: The Age of Unreason (Random House)