Why People Say So Many Stupid Things on Twitter

Why People Say So Many Stupid Things on Twitter
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Social media is full of word vomit, boneheaded comments, and sheer stupidity. Reasoned discourse regularly goes by the wayside.

There's a simple explanation for this sorry cesspool. Social media puts humanity's most primitive thinking on display for all to see.

That's not meant to be an insult, it's simply a matter of psychology. In his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman makes the case that humans utilize two modes of thinking: system 1 and system 2. System 1 is the more primitive of the two, operating "automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control." On the other hand, system 2 is slow, deliberative, and controlled, used, for example, to fill out a tax form or to check the validity of a complex argument.

It's apparent which system is most prominently used on social media. Take Twitter, for example, where lots of information arrives lightning fast in brief, 140-character tidbits, and one's similarly short response is just a few types and a click away. The platform basically goads users into sharing their quickest and most mindless reactions and opinions.

All too often, those responses reflect disgust or take the form of attacks and rebuttals to perceived hostility. That's not surprising, as Kahneman notes that showing disgust and detecting hostility are two key roles of system 1.

Before social media, public opinions were often prepared and measured. We read and discussed them in fully-formed and edited opinion pieces in reputable newspapers. We watched practiced and polished pundits debate meaningful ideas on cable TV. No more. Now, anyone can broadcast their most thoughtless thoughts and responses to a wide audience.

Even experienced and educated pundits aren't immune from broadcasting system 1 thinking on social media. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol recently accused Fox News host Tucker Carlson of "rationalizing slavery." The comment came mere minutes after watching a segment on Carlson's show.

"That is not even close to what we were saying by any interpretation. What an outrageous thing to say," Carlson replied, before making a very insightful observation:

"Twenty years ago when Bill Kristol had something to say, he had a magazine to say it in. He talked through ideas with his friends, then he spent hours writing a piece that expressed its ideas precisely. There was thinking involved in the process."

Chances are that Bill Kristol would not have made those comments if he took more time to consider them. He is not alone. Public figures from all across the ideological spectrum have fallen victim to error-prone system 1 thinking on social media as well, even (quite frequently) our president.

In a way, social media is the savannah of the modern age. Except instead of dangerous predators lurking in the tall grass, there are "dangerous" ideas and content. And as our instinctive and reflexive system 1 helped keep our ancestors physically safe thousands of years ago, so too does it keep us mentally "safe" today, protected from notions that challenge cherished beliefs and identities. When we spot such offenses, we publicly react, often carelessly and automatically. It's time to cognitively take a step back and bring system 2 to the forefront. Or just take a break from Twitter.

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