The Cognitive Biases That Feed The Social Media Machine


When were you happiest in the past month and why? If it involves doing something altruistic, then that says a lot about the type of person you are. If not, then it’s not too late but you likely need to hear what I’m about to say sooner rather than later.

If you haven’t already clicked away thinking why the heck is there an ad at the start of this article, then whether you like it or not, you’ve just had your cognitive biases tinkered with.

Getting you to think of a happy moment first was an example of framing and priming your state of mind. Congratulating your choice was a way of triggering confirmation bias and proving you’re in the right place. And reinforcing a lack of something was a slimy use of loss aversion in attempt to get you into reading more.

“Cognitive biases” are a group of recognised ways in which the human brain is deficient or limited in its ability to make rational judgements, social attributions, and calculations.

It’s believed by some psychologists they developed as a way to help us process a deluge of information quickly, for instance, when in survival situations. It would be helpful, say, to remember a cave as the one in which you got attacked by coyotes (negativity bias) rather than where you had that joyous birthday party. Or to be able to stick your head in the sand for a while (the Ostrich Effect) when a certain piece of knowledge could cause an immediate heart attack.

The problem is that today, although we’re not typically faced by life or death situations, these cognitive biases are still being constantly triggered and impacting our decisions and actions. More so than that, they’re actively being used against us everytime we use social media, skewing our judgments, distorting our perceptions, and causing us to act ever more poorly and irrationally, all in the name of increasing engagement stats and boosting profits. 

We could mention pretty much the whole list of cognitive biases when discussing how social media messes with our heads. But in order not to prompt information bias, let’s focus on the three big ones mentioned above, starting with framing and priming.

The ‘This IS important to you’ bias 

As attention spans get shorter, framing and priming, both ways of providing a familiar environment and context to essentially set the stage for a topic or discussion, are becoming used more and more often in advertising and on social media.

Framing works by, for example, ensuring you see certain stories leading up to a presidential debate in your news feed. Those stories and their prominence on your radar may then shape your perception of the debate and, ultimately, influence how you vote.

Framing is constantly at work on social media as its agenda is to increase the time spent on page, and the best way to do that is to push your buttons about extreme, controversial, and emotionally charged topics.

Priming is similar although more general as it describes the way in which the presence of one stimulus influences your response to a subsequent stimulus. For instance, the time and space devoted to gender pronouns in your news feed may make you feel like it’s an important issue. Or the excitement and media coverage leading up to a UFC fight may make you feel more involved and invested in the outcome.

Framing and priming are a powerful combo when used on social media as they get to work long before we even realise it. Everything from the whole design and layout of platforms and apps to what Tweets you see in your three-minute bathroom break is framing your reality and priming what action you may take or thought you may have next.

The ‘You’re right and they’re wrong’ bias

Social media sites filter all the information on the internet into more refined, digestible streams of content. But again, as its core purpose is to increase engagement, it tailors what you see according to your personal data and behaviour, and that of your circle of friends — not by what may not be best for you.

The result is that a white, 50-year-old labour supporter may only see stories in their news feed that reinforces what they already believe to be true, and likewise a young, black, conservative. This is what we know as the “echo chamber” effect, and it is a perfect environment for confirmation bias to thrive.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to focus on and remember information that confirms our preconceptions. It’s particularly susceptible to such echo chambers on social media as it’s triggered by emotionally charged issues and topics that support our deeply entrenched beliefs. It’s the social justice warrior whose reality is filled with stories on climate change and environmental destruction, or the Hillary Clinton voter who can only see shameful stories about Trump and evidence that he’s messing up.

Confirmation bias and social media perhaps have the tightest relationship out of all the cognitive biases because one, it appeals to our egos and narcissistic natures, and two, it is fed and accelerated quietly in the background by algorithms. This can mean certain beliefs and ideas we have can stay rooted in our unconscious and, as they are continually reflected back at us on social media, become unquestionable and infinitely defended parts of our reality.

The ‘You didn’t know it, but you need this’ bias 

Social media by design makes us focus more on what we don’t have than what we do. At the same time, due to the nature of what content drives the highest engagement, spreads fear and makes us feel insecure about what we do have.

Both of these mechanisms tap into and irritate the cognitive bias known as loss aversion. Loss aversion is the idea that we’re more sensitive to loss than we are to equivalent gains. For example, if you were to lose £100, you would experience a stronger feeling than if you were to gain it.

Whenever we use social media, then, we are highly susceptible to messages and ads that remind us we don’t have something or that we could easily lose what we already have. Marketers use language and images as well as ad targeting and social listening software to increase the effect of loss aversion, particularly with tactics like exclusive and time-limited offers that drive home the feeling of loss, losing out, and simply being a loser.

It’s rare you log off social media feeling like you’re truly better off. And yet for some reason we keep going back to it again and again and again. It’s fine if it’s a conscious choice, but if it is unconscious impulsion, then maybe it’s time to ask yourself if it’s you or the social media machine that’s really in control.

Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Connect with him on LinkedIn to find more articles on work, technology, spirituality, and everything in between.