Forming beliefs in a world of filter bubbles

November 25, 2020

Why do so many Republicans still believe that the recent US presidential election was fraudulent? Is it possible to reach coronavirus deniers with factual arguments? A study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the University of Amsterdam provides insights into what it is that stops people from changing their minds. Their findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

By talking to other people and observing their behavior, we can learn new things, acquire new skills, and adapt to changing conditions. But what if the information provided by the social environment is inconsistent or contradictory? In a recent study, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the University of Amsterdam have investigated how people deal with information from diverse social sources, and how they use that information to form beliefs. "The internet, in particular, has dramatically changed the structure and dynamics of social interactions. The availablility of social sources is to some extent controlled by algorithms--what we see is biased in favor of our own preferences. At the same time, the internet gives us access to potentially conflicting views," says lead author Lucas Molleman, associate research scientist in the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and postdoc at the University of Amsterdam.

The researchers first conducted an experimental study with 95 participants from the United States. Participants completed an adapted version of the Berlin Estimate AdjuStment Task (BEAST), which reliably measures individuals' use of social information. They were shown images of groups of animals and asked to estimate the number of animals. They were then shown the estimates of three other participants and asked to make a second estimate. The more participants adjusted their estimates to those of their peers, the more account they had taken of social information.

Across 30 rounds of the task, the researchers varied the conditions of the study, presenting participants with estimates that deviated to a greater or lesser extent from their own estimate, and that were more or less extreme. The results showed that whether participants integrated information from the social environment in their second estimate depended on whether and how strongly their peers' estimates deviated from each other and from their own estimate. Participants were most likely to adjust their estimates when their peers were in close agreement with each other and their estimates were not too different from the participant's own. Higher variation in peers' estimates reduced their impact on the participant's own judgment. In general, participants gave more weight to their own initial estimate than to their peers' estimates. Overall, three adjustment strategies were identified: (1) sticking to one's original estimate, (2) adopting the estimate of one of the three peers, or (3) compromising between one's original estimate and the peer estimates. The relative frequency of these strategies differed significantly between study conditions. When participants observed a single peer who closely agreed with them, they were more likely to stick to their original estimate or to adopt the estimate of the near peer. When none of the peers were in close agreement with them, participants were more likely to compromise by adjusting their estimate towards, but rarely beyond, that of the nearest peer.

"Our experiment quantifies how people weigh their own prior beliefs and the beliefs of others. In our context, there is actually no reason to assume that one's own estimate is better than anyone else's. But what we see here is an effect known in psychology as 'egocentric discounting' - namely that people put more weight on their own beliefs than on those of others," explains co-author Alan Noveas Tump, postdoc at the Center for Adaptive Rationality of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. "What's more, our study reveals that this weighting is strongly impacted by the consistency of others' beliefs with one's own: people are more likely to heed information that confirms their own beliefs."

Building on these findings, the researchers developed a model that integrates the observed adjustment strategies and captures that people pay particular attention to social information that confirms their personal judgements. Using simulations, they then investigated how people would behave in real-life situations. For example, they simulated a typical filter bubble, where social information tends to come from like-minded people. They also simulated typical attempts to change people's minds by confronting them with information inconsistent with their own beliefs. Finally, they investigated how people react to being simultaneously exposed to different groups with extreme beliefs. Their simulations suggest that confirmation effects can lead to divergent social information being ignored, filter bubble effects being exacerbated, and people becoming more extreme in their attitudes.

"Although our study was experimental in design, our model helps explain many contemporary phenomena. It shows how the way people process social information can exacerbate filter bubbles on the internet, and why public debates often become polarized as people quickly become impervious to opposing arguments. As interactions increasingly often take place online, people can often find information that confirms their existing beliefs, making them less willing to listen to alternatives," says co-author Wouter van den Bos, adjunct research scientist in the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and associate professor at the University of Amsterdam.

In future studies, the researchers want to integrate further aspects of reality into the model to find out, for example, whether it matters whether social information comes from a friend, a stranger, an expert, or someone with the same or different political partisanship. They are also investigating how other people influence individuals' altruistic giving and compliance with social norms.

Max Planck Institute for Human Development

Related Human Development Articles from Brightsurf:

'Monster tumors' could offer new glimpse at human development
Finding just the right model to study human development--from the early embryonic stage onward--has been a challenge for scientists over the last decade.

How herpes infection may impair human fetal brain development
Three cell-based models shed light on how herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) infection, which can spread to the fetal brain during pregnancy, may contribute to various neurodevelopmental disabilities and long-term neurological problems into adulthood, according to a study published October 22, 2020 in the open-access journal PLOS Pathogens by Pu Chen and Ying Wu of Wuhan University, and colleagues.

New platform gauges effects of plastic nanoparticles on human development and health
A study released today in STEM CELLS outlines a new platform researchers designed that allowed them to investigate the potentially harmful effects of microplastics and nanoplastics.

Controlled human infection models and SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development
Infecting volunteers with COVID-19 may provide valuable insights for future rounds of vaccine testing, but would require very strict controls and is unlikely to advance the current slate of vaccines in advanced development, argues a group of infectious disease experts.

New method provides unique insight into the development of the human brain
Stem cell researchers at Lund University in Sweden have developed a new research model of the early embryonic brain.

UCLA scientists create first roadmap of human skeletal muscle development
An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA has developed a first-of-its-kind roadmap of how human skeletal muscle develops, including the formation of muscle stem cells.

First in-human study of drug targeting brain inflammation supports further development
MW189 blocks abnormal inflammation in the brain that is known to contribute to injury- and disease-induced neurologic impairments in a number of acute and chronic brain disorders.

Reconstructing the clock of human development
Researchers used iPS cells to reconstructed the human 'segmentation clock,' a key point in early embryonic development that determines how the body gets segmented.

Component of human breast milk enhances cognitive development in babies
CHLA investigators show that early exposure to a carbohydrate found in breast milk, called 2'FL, positively influences neurodevelopment.

Organoids open window into development of human forebrain
Brain region-specific organoids have allowed researchers to peer inside the complex programming of human forebrain development, a process once inaccessible to molecular study.

Read More: Human Development News and Human Development Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to