The predominance of online and digital messaging has been a very positive technological development over the years. However, this prevalence of social media has also had a substantive negative influence. While social media, online news, and communication via apps have certainly contributed to a wider diversity of communicators, and these platforms can proliferate messages in near real time, there are fundamental psychological drawbacks to our fast-paced communication environment.

In order to better understand what is occurring on these messaging platforms, this 2-part blog series discusses the psychology of messaging as well as dangerous communication patterns. Beginning with the psychology of messaging, Part 1 presents a psychological framework on how we read, digest, select, and process the digital content we consume. The first concepts (social construction of reality and cognitive complexity) are important to understand as a foundation as they present the psychological (and neurological) baselines to appreciate the impact of digital messaging in today’s environment.

Social Construction of Reality

In order to understand how we process all of this digital messaging, we have to start with how we read, filter, assess, and put into context all of this information. We do this through our social construction of our reality (SCOR). In plain terms, the SCOR is our understanding of the world around us and how our self-concept fits into that world. Our SCOR is formed early in our childhood development and evolves as we age. We are first exposed to those people who raise us — their communication style, their messaging, their ethics/morals, and their patterned behaviors. We are exposed to the physical world — our homes, our schools, other people, and the environment in general. All of those exposure points frame our core SCOR.

Through the interpretation of the world around us, we figure out where we fit — who we are, who we want to be, where/how we are comfortable, and when we feel threatened. So for example, everyone probably remembers some of their first experiences in someone else’s home. It could have been a “play-date” with a friend, going to your aunt’s house, or visiting grandma. We notice different smells, different styles in décor/furniture, and maybe even different rules or roles within the household. Some households are loud, some are more reserved, some are strict, some are bilingual — but we notice that these other homes and the people in them may live and behave slightly differently than we do in our own homes.

Through the interpretation of the world around us, we figure out where we fit — who we are, who we want to be, where/how we are comfortable, and when we feel threatened.

As we gain more and more of these experiences through the lenses of our SCOR, we interpret these experiences. Being in a new friend’s home when we were children could have be confusing, “my mom never lets us do that” or “why do we have to take our shoes off in your home?” We may feel comfortable in those homes that are more similar to ours…and initially uncomfortable in homes where the rules, roles and norms are unfamiliar to us. But we figure it out by deciphering the world around us, interpreting competing realities, thinking creatively to put multi-faceted concepts together in way that makes sense, and asking questions when confused. We constantly assess our environment (the external) and ourselves (the internal) and integrate those external and internal perceptions. This cognitive processing is what our brains are designed to do. How well we cognitively process the data around us and about us is sometimes called our cognitive complexity.

Cognitive Complexity

Generally speaking, cognitive complexity describes our cognitive abilities along a continuum of “simple” to “complex.” For example, we have all heard a child at the dinner table who proclaims “I hate lima beans!” When asked why, the child may say, “they are yucky” which is a cognitively simple response. When the child gets older, the answer may be, “I don’t like their color and I don’t like how they feel in my mouth” — which is a more cognitively complex answer.

A chef who likewise may not care for lima beans, may have a very complex answer, “while the beans are an excellent source of molybdenum and a very good source of dietary fiber, copper and manganese, I do not like their grainy texture even after they are simmered with other vegetables.” Knowledge, experience and the ability to bring multiple concepts together can be described as cognitive complexity as the chef understood the mineral composition of the bean, the mouthfeel of the bean, as well as a cooking technique.

We have all experienced the high of our own cognitive complexity. We all know how good it feels when we finally figure something out that has been plaguing our brains! The thought, the tenacity, the racking of our brains — to finally figure out a really difficult problem — Yeah! The “figuring it out”, the involvedness of our thinking or the intellectual processing can also be defined as our cognitive complexity.

The more we can inter-relate data, correlate mis-matched information, or solve seemingly impossible problems, the more we can claim a certain level of cognitive complexity. Psychologically speaking, the quest for cognitive complexity or “self-actualization” is emotionally (and physically) healthy. Again, we feel good because when we exercise our brains in this manner, we release all kinds of good hormones along with serotonin and some other beneficial chemicals including dopamine. Literally — the release of these good chemicals can make us not only feel emotionally good, but can help and sustain our physical health.

Okay…so now we have discussed our baseline interpretation of our world and ourselves (SCOR) and the healthy pursuit of cognitive complexity. How are we psychologically impacted by digital communication and social media messaging? There is a long laundry list of popular social media platforms (e.g., Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest), apps (e.g., WhatsApp, Snapchat, TikTok), and news outlets that grab attention with headlines. The pattern of most of the digital information received by readers is: 1) keep the messaging short; 2) keep the messaging “catchy”; 3) place the desired messaging across numerous platforms; and, 4) hopefully get others to proliferate the message(s). One of the best ways to achieve these goals is through binary messaging.

Impact of Binary Messaging

Binary messaging can be defined as a communication that can only have one of two possible values, for example, good versus bad. Another binary-ism may be, are you a “cat person” or a “dog person?” While some people are able to pick a side, there are many people who love all animals and those who have both cats and dogs and love both species. What about the person who says, “I generally like dogs, but if all cats were like my first cat Fluffy, then I would be a cat person.” And what about those other pet owners who have birds, hamsters, turtles, fish and other critters? They simply get left out of the cat-dog binary debate and do not get a say.

On social media binary messaging is prolific. While it is a very simplistic, sophomoric way to communicate it is extremely efficient, effective and impactful. Specifically in a busy world, many people can listen or read the “news”, go to their favorite SM platforms and scan the highlights or see what is trending. A great majority of this digested information is in the form of headlines, Tweets, Likes/Dislikes, or short soundbites. In order for the short forms of communication to gain attention, the messaging must use all of the classic attention getting techniques. Thus, we are attracted to the appealing messaging. We read it, digest it, and sometimes begin to propagate it. Our messaging has turned into reading the equivalent to bumper stickers. But there are negative psychological, intellectual, and human health consequences for the proliferation of these soundbites or bumper stickers.

The constant reading and bombardment of soundbites does not correspond to cognitive complexity. In fact, Tweets and the like are counter to complexity and fall into the category of “simple” and binary. Think about the most recent social media messaging you have read — most of it is binary — acceptable versus unacceptable, “fact-checked” versus “fake news”, truth versus lies, and so on. The “dumbing down” of messaging is intellectually and psychologically damaging.

Remember our brains are designed for problem solving, in fact complex problem solving. Ongoing attention to the binary robs us of critical thinking, productive discussion, and the complexities of opinion that fall in between what is “good versus bad.” Think about the issues that are foremost positioned today — COVID-19, race relations, economics, and politics. These topics are by no means simple. COVID-19 is a problem of science and virology — not an easy topic, not even easy for a plethora of scientists to research or try to discuss with us “lay people” who are not virologists, epidemiologists, microbiologists or a myriad of other medical and psychological specialists who understand COVIS-19 from their time-limited areas of expertise as the knowledge of this new virus changes and evolves as the scientific community learns over time.

Race relations/inequality is also a highly complex topic and cannot be boiled down to binary soundbites. Economics and politics cannot be stripped down to its binary components — all of these topics deserve our cognitive complexity. When these topics are distilled down to cognitive simplicity, we can feel off balance or uncomfortable because we are forced to pick “side A” or “side B.” Our brains, our psychology, our SCOR and our desire for information typically fight the binary-ism because we are more complicated beings.

However, because we live in a fast-paced world where we lack time, patience, desire to dig deep, or to do our own research to actually understand a topic in more depth, we fall into accepting binary-ism for modern expediency. This convenience of reading headlines, Tweets or soundbites results in yet another underlying issue — our cognitive bias.

Cognitive Bias and Confirmation Bias

When we engage in the reading of binary messages, page through the countless postings and headlines attempting to get a quick fix of information, we tend to have a natural cognitive bias. Cognitive bias is your personal viewpoint derived from your SCOR. You have a certain biases based on how you view the world, your personal experiences, and your emotions. These biases prevent us from seeing reality or truth in its purest form, but everyone has their biases. An example of a cognitive bias could explain some cat people — or anti-doggers. There are instances of people who were frightened or chased by dogs when they were children. That experience impacted their perception of dogs, thus they have a bias against dogs.

You have a certain biases based on how you view the world, your personal experiences, and your emotions. These biases prevent us from seeing reality or truth in its purest form, but everyone has their biases.

A specific type of bias is called confirmation bias which basically says that we gravitate towards those things, those people and those messages that reinforce our personal viewpoint. Confirmation bias is normal as we all like to be validated and we like to validate ourselves — “I am smart, I am right, and look these people believe what I do!” So all of those “cat people” out there are naturally attracted to the myriad of cute kitten videos, people who post tips on getting rid of hairballs, and other things that are of interest to cat people. Not too many dog people are looking for hairball remedies online.

While the conscious or unconscious predisposition towards confirmation bias is a behavior we all engage in, it is exacerbated by digital messaging because of their binary construct. Our confirmation biases are sometimes challenged or at least discussed when we engage face-to-face (or if we dig down and do research, actually read lengthy articles and read multiple sides of an issue). Actual conversation and interaction can also push us past a confirmation bias in order to understand a different perspective — it can push our cognitive complexity — it can push our ability to solve complex problems.

Sometimes confirmation bias is driven by the need to belong and not solely by the desire to validate ourselves with confirming messages. In Part 2 of this blog, we will address that need we all have to belong to a group. We will also address some of the psychological risks to communicating in the world of online messaging.

About the Author

This is Part 1 of a two part series by Dr. Terry Guaditis.

Dr. Guaditis was formerly an operations officer and behavioral profiler at the CIA and the VP/Cyber Intelligence Director at Cyveillance. She has served on the U.S. Secret Service Advisory Board and is currently Director of the Intelligence Analysis Program in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University.

Dr. Guidaitis has been a member of Blackbird’s advisory board since 2017.