The predominance of online and digital messaging has been a positive technological development over the years. However, the prevalence of social media has also had a substantive negative influence. While social media, online news and digital apps have certainly contributed to a wider diversity of communicators and the proliferation of messaging 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 two-part blog series discusses the psychology of messaging, as well as dangerous communication patterns. Beginning with the psychology of messaging, Part One presents a psychological framework on how we read, digest, select, and process the digital content we consume. The concepts of 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 digital messaging, we have to start with how we read, filter, assess and put into context 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 and 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 these 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 and how we are comfortable, and when we feel threatened. For example, everyone probably remembers some of their first experiences in someone else’s home, whether it be a play-date with friends or visiting grandma. We notice different smells, different styles in décor and 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 – and we notice that these other homes and the people in them may live and behave slightly differently than we do in our own homes.

As we gain more and more of these experiences through the lenses of our SCOR, we interpret these experiences in relation to one another. Being in a new friend’s home when we were children could have been confusing, raising thoughts such as: “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. But, we figure it out by deciphering the world around us, interpreting competing realities, thinking creatively to put multi-faceted concepts together in a 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’.

(Twitter @AydanGulerce)

Cognitive Complexity

Generally speaking, cognitive complexity describes our cognitive abilities along a continuum of “simple” to “complex”. For example, a child at the dinner table may proclaim “I hate lima beans!” and when asked why, will reply that “They are yucky!” – which is a cognitively simple response. When the child gets older, their 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, with the chef understanding the mineral composition of the bean, the mouthfeel of the bean, as well as cooking techniques.

We have all experienced the high of our own cognitive complexity. It feels good when we finally figure something out that has been plaguing our thoughts: the tenacity and racking of our brains to finally crack a really difficult problem – success! This “figuring it out” process—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. We feel good when we exercise our brains in this manner due to the body’s release of beneficial hormones and chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. The release of these positive chemicals can make us not only feel emotionally good, but can literally help and sustain our physical health.

So, we have discussed our baseline interpretation of our world and ourselves (SCOR) and the healthy pursuit of cognitive complexity. With this in mind, how are we psychologically impacted by digital communication and social media messaging? There is a long laundry list of popular social media platforms, apps and news outlets that aim to grab attention with punchy headlines. The pattern of production and dissemination for most of the digital information received by online readers is to keep the messaging short; keep it catchy; place the desired messaging across numerous platforms; and hopefully get others to proliferate the message. 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 has only one of two possible values, for example, ‘good’ versus ‘bad’. Another binary-ism may be the notion that you are either a ‘cat person’ or a ‘dog person’. While some people are able to pick a side, there are many others who love all animals. 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 animals? They simply get left out of the binary cat-dog 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 also extremely efficient, effective and impactful. Specifically, in a busy world, people can quickly find out what is going on in the news by going to their favorite social media platforms and scanning for highlights or seeing what is trending. A great majority of this digested information is in the short form of headlines, Tweets, likes and dislikes, or concise soundbites. In order for short forms of communication to gain attention, the messaging must use all of the classic attention-grabbing techniques. Thus, we are attracted to the appealing, instantly comprehensible binary messaging. We read it, digest it, and sometimes begin to propagate it. Our messaging has turned into reading the equivalent to car bumper stickers. And unfortunately for us, there are serious negative psychological, intellectual, and human health consequences associated with the overconsumption of these bumper sticker-style communications.

Website displaying soundbite-style clickbait digital headlines (Digiday)

The constant consumption and bombardment of our browsing experiences with short 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, and 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.

We must remember that our brains are designed for problem solving, and complex problem solving at that. Prolonged attention to the binary robs us of critical thinking processes, productive discussion, and the complexities of opinion that fall in between what is merely “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 for instance, is a problem of science and virology – not an easy subject for scientists themselves to research as knowledge of this new virus changes and evolves over time, or try to discuss with lay people who are not virologists, epidemiologists, microbiologists or other professional specialists.

Race relations, inequality, economics and politics are all also highly complex topics and cannot be boiled down to binary soundbites – all of these subjects 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 fights the binary-ism because we as humans 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 consume binary messages, paging through countless online posts and headlines attempting to get a quick fix of information, we tend to engage our natural cognitive biases. Cognitive bias is your personal viewpoint derived from your SCOR. Every person has certain biases based on how they view the world, their personal experiences, and their emotions. These biases prevent us from seeing reality or truth in its purest form. An example of a cognitive bias could explain the disposition of some people to the cat-dog preference question. For instance, people who were frightened or chased by dogs when they were children may hold biases against dogs as dangerous or wild pets, after those negative early experiences impacted their perception of dogs into adulthood.

A specific type of bias is called confirmation bias which posits that we gravitate towards those ideas, people and messages that reinforce our personal viewpoint. Confirmation bias is a normal human reaction, as we all like to be validated and 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 online, message boards with 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 its binary construct. Our confirmation biases are sometimes challenged or at least discussed when we engage in face-to-face debate, or if we dig down and do research that involves actually reading lengthy articles and considering 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 and 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 Two 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.

Dr. Terry Guaditis, Blackbird.AI Advisory Board Member

Dr. Guaditis is the Director of the Intelligence Analysis Program in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University. She is a former CIA Operations Officer and Behavioral Profiler, and has served on the U.S. Secret Service Advisory Board. In 2013 she founded Mindstar Security & Profiling, previous to which she served as the Vice President and Cyber Intelligence Director at Cyveillance. Dr. Guidaitis has been a member of Blackbird.AI’s advisory board since 2017.

BLACKBIRD.AI protects organizations from narrative attacks created by misinformation and disinformation that cause financial and reputational harm. Powered by our AI-driven proprietary technology, including the Constellation narrative intelligence platform, RAV3N Risk LMM, Narrative Feed, and our RAV3N Narrative Intelligence and Research Team, Blackbird.AI provides a disruptive shift in how organizations can protect themselves from what the World Economic Forum called the #1 global risk in 2024.