Are you an addict? You might be. Let me explain.
We all enjoy a bit of what behavioural economists call confirmation bias. We gravitate towards articles, or commentators whose world view corresponds with ours.
We do this because we are addicts. When we find opinions that validate our experience, the brain releases a tiny dose of dopamine, a feel-good chemical that gives us a sense of wellbeing, that all is good with the world.
It’s why we return constantly to the newspapers, websites, and social celebrities that reinforce our views. We’re hooked, in every sense of the word.
The social hangover
No surprise then, that when we encounter the opposite of our firmly held opinions, we become grumpy, peevish, stressed. (Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance).
So, if your favourite political commentator is the equivalent of a Friday evening Negroni cocktail, the counterview is your ‘never again’ hangover on a Saturday morning.
What’s the solution? The best approach, from experience, is to do the exact opposite of what your ‘fast’ thinking brain tells you to do. Instead of going in verbal-fists-first, offer the online equivalent of a handshake and a smile.
There’s more to this than good manners, altruism, whatever you want to call it. As well as being tetchy, anxious beings, prone to exaggerate the worst, human beings are also hard wired for kindness. Social generosity triggers a similar chemical response as the one described at the start of this article.
In addition, building a positive relationship with someone that you don’t necessarily like at first pass, or disagree with, requires time and effort. What Dan Ariely calls the Ikea effect.
Borrowing books – and other ways to make friends and influence people
Benjamin Franklin, who knew a thing or two about friendship, understood this approach. To win over a political adversary, he asked the man if he could borrow a book.
The result? The two became life-long friends because his former enemy had to go out of his way to oblige Franklin. In other words, making an investment in someone increases the value you place on that relationship.
You should try it. Next time you meet people for the first time at a conference, business meeting or even an extended family reunion, seek out the person who made the worst impression up front.
Maybe you didn’t like with their keynote or they disagreed with you openly in the meeting room. Grab them over coffee and find out more.
Get a sense of what makes them tick. If they have a different world outlook, what can you learn? If they don’t have a private library (and who does these days), get them to share something: a link, a contact address, anything that requires them to invest time in you.
Context: the heart of the matter
Take the same approach on social. You’ll quickly discover that the effort is worth it. Learning about people who share diametrically opposed views and the context that shaped them will nourish your own outlook.
By the way, it doesn’t have to be an in-depth political debate about Trump or Brexit. Some of the best Twitter conversations I’ve had are with Spurs supporters (full disclosure, I’m a West Ham fan), Android users (Apple iPhone 6) and Australian wine connoisseurs (its French or nothing).
Finally, I agree that there is plenty to generate genuine outrage on social media. There are still too many trolls and bots, but the block button is the safest way to deal with these exceptions. You can also use the drop-down menu to the right of most social posts to report offensive content.
But until such time as Twitter, Facebook and others come up with artificial intelligence that can moderate posts in real time, you’re going to have to rely on your own social skills. After all, they’re the best advantage you have over the machines – at least for now.