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How Bias Works: Recognizing Twisted Reasoning
Here’s an extended example that demonstrates how to recognize distorted media reports that are harmful to introverts.
While looking through a self-help website for people over 50, I identified five ways in which an article on its site (and to some extent the entire site) fails to serve independence-oriented introverts.
Since I feel this website is well intentioned on the whole, I’m not identifying it. Instead, I hope my analysis helps you deploy skepticism as you read news and commentary. See also my previous post about the supposed epidemic of loneliness.
The article I’ll be critiquing reports the results of a survey of the site’s readers on loneliness. According to the survey data, loneliness is not actually a huge issue for the respondents. A clear majority of respondents, 55 percent, said they feel lonely only occasionally and that loneliness does not affect their quality of life. However, instead of highlighting the 55 percent as a positive finding, the article keeps talking about dissatisfaction and unhappiness, as if those emotions were the main findings. The overall slant of the article is negative.
Second, after reporting overall findings, the article reports what respondents said about their triggers for loneliness. This long section discusses 10 different triggers for unhappiness, from seasons or holidays to the social stigma of being older. Of course, all these factors matter to some people, but with such a long, detailed list the reader is likely to forget that these miseries do not actually bother the majority of respondents.
Third, when the article turns to factors that help the older people in the survey feel connected and positive, these are presented as activities that overpower loneliness, not as sources of satisfaction in themselves. These activities help people feel “less lonely” – as if loneliness were some inevitable baseline of the human condition, like getting chronologically older as years pass. Why not describe these as measures that bring contentment?
Fourth, the article ends with a section headlined as readers’ perspectives on loneliness and isolation. Yet of 11 quotes from survey respondents, six affirm the positive value of being alone. Some of these folks sound like introverts who can enjoy both socializing and solitude. The section of quotes could thus have served as a capstone for an uplifting spin on serenity in the golden years. Indeed, the whole piece could have been turned inside out, trumpeting the survey as good news about happiness after age 50 and clueing readers in on ways to match the satisfaction of the majority of respondents.
Why the bias on behalf of loneliness? I wonder whether the website’s editors had consciously decided to cater to an emotional profile of dissatisfaction with life. Perhaps unhappy people are most likely to seek helpful online information. Maybe what I called “independence-oriented introverts” are not the site’s primary intended readers. But if not, why not? And wouldn’t it be more enriching to assume contentment as a normal state and provide keys to regaining it for those temporarily out of sorts?
Fifth, this line of thinking prompted me to scan the site’s other articles about loneliness (a negative concept) and solitude (a positive concept). Google brought up well over 50 articles on this website with the word “loneliness” in the title and just a handful that seemed to discuss the pleasures of solitude or psychological independence as a fount of mental health.
It’s worth taking a broad view and asking whether the media emphasis on problems misrepresents the extent to which negative phenomena actually show up in our lives. Maybe we – human beings in general – are not as unhappy as we’re made out to be?