The New Era Of Personalization & Confirmation Bias


“If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” —Andrew Lewis


The word “media” has a very interesting meaning in Latin. It means “middle layer.” As in, something that sits between us and the world. Or, something that connects us to what’s happening but at the price of direct experience.

In December 2009, the era of personalization began. Google now presents each of us personalized results. In other words, there is no “standard” Google anymore.

What does this mean? It means that only news that fits us is now “printed”. In other words, the internet is now shaped by algorithms whose purpose is to narrow what we see —which increases the predictability of our responses. As Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, said, “The technology will be so good, it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.”

Acxiom, a big data company, has accumulated an average of 1,500 pieces of data on 96% of Americans. The data includes everything from people’s credit scores to whether they’ve bought medication.

This personalization strategy is the core of top websites such as Yahoo, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Bing and many more.

An Example

To prove what I’m saying, I asked two friends of mine who aren’t really into politics or religion to google “politics”, “trump” and “religion” for me. And, I did the same. Below are pictures of the search results.

Eric is a degree-holding 26-year-old blogger. He’s also a white male who lives in New Brunswick. Bruce holds a degree from the Naval Academy. He’s currently deputy director of Southwest U.S airspace. He’s 40 years old and lives in Texas. I’m a non-degree holding, 24-year-old, brown male who lives in Ontario.

Here are the results:


As you can see the results are very different. Bruce saw an article titled, “What is an Anabaptist?” and I saw “Silicon’s Valley’s new religion.” On the other hand, Eric saw “Politics briefing: The frustration of talking to government departments” and I saw “How China & Russia are reshaping international politics.”

Even the number of results were different. Eric saw 871 million. And I saw 952 million.

If the results were that different for three North American men imagine how different they would be for everyone else. Yet in 2012, 66% of search engine users said search engines are fair and unbiased. This is down from 68% in 2004.1

So, What’s The Problem?

With personalization, a query for “stem cells” or “climate change” can produce very different results for someone who’s pro-stem cells and pro climate change vs. someone who’s opposed to them. As Mark Zuckerberg said, “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

This personalization leads us down a road of confirmation bias where what we’ve clicked in the past determines what we see next. In fact, it’s a web history we’re doomed to repeat and where most of us will get stuck. It’s a static and ever-narrowing version of ourselves. In other words, we end up in an endless me-loop —a kind of invisible auto-propaganda.

So, How Does It Work?

We click on a link through a search engine like Google. This signals to Google an interest in something which means we’re more likely to read these type of articles later on. So, Google shows us more of these articles in the future, which in turn primes us to search up more on that topic. And eventually, we become trapped. As Martha Farah once said, “I’m a little concerned that we could be raising a generation of very focused accountants.”

Facebook’s algorithm is called EdgeRank. It creates the “Top News Feed” by ranking all our interactions on the site. It ranks with three main factors:

Affinity: The friendlier we are with someone —determined by the amount of time we spend interacting and checking out people’s profile—the more likely Facebook will show us that person’s updates.
The weight of content type. Relationship statuses are weighted very highly —everybody likes to know who’s dating whom.
Time: Recently posted items are weighted over older ones.

Google News also has a personalized algorithm which it rolled out in 2010. The cool thing about Google News is that Google made sure to place “Top Stories” that are of broad and general interest at the very top. And below that we see the personal and local stories that are personalized to us.

How Does This Affect Society?

A world constructed in this way is a world where there’s nothing new to learn. It’s a world where there’s less room for chance encounters that brings insight and learning. In other words, when personalization is too accurate, it can prevent us from coming into contact with new, mind-blowing, preconception-shattering, epiphany forging ideas that change how we think about the world and ourselves. As Eli Pariser said, “The filter bubble doesn’t just affect how we process news. It can also affect how we think.” And as Marshall McLuhan, author of The Medium is the Message, said, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Personalization builds an environment that consists entirely of the known. It’s filled with information that doesn’t shake our model of the world but it feels like new information. This environment is very good at answering questions we have but not at suggesting new questions or new problems that are out of our sight. Picasso said it best, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”

Let’s Look At Some Examples

Our Facebook friends are much more like us than the general public. So, when we and our friends are more interested in Apple’s new phone instead of the Syrian war, that means we’ll see more stories on Apple’s new phone. On the other hand, if we like yoga then we get more information on yoga and less on bird-watching or baseball.

Taking this a step further, important public problems disappears. Few people seek out information about homelessness or genocide in Rwanda. When 36% of Americans under 30 get their news via social media, this is a serious problem.2

For most people, news that’s topical, scandalous and viral (like sex, power, gossip, violence, celebrity or humor) more easily makes it into our bubble. Meaning, more people will read those first than Israel breaching international law. In a personalized world, important but complex or unpleasant issues —like the war in Syria or the prison recidivism rates— are less likely to come to most people’s attention.

On top of that, it’s easier to “Like” and therefore increase the visibility of a friend’s post about finishing a marathon or about a recipe on how to make onion soup than it is to “Like” an article titled, “Darfur Sees Bloodiest Month In Two Years.”

Personalization doesn’t have a zoom out function. Again, it confines us to our own information neighborhood, unable to see or explore the rest of the world. In other words, it’s easy to lose our bearings and believe that the world is a narrow island instead of the immense and varied universe that it is.

As news consumers, it’s hard to argue with blocking out the irrelevant or unlikable. In fact, personalization exists because it brings us value. And, it’s the reason why Google is the #1 search engine. However, what’s good for consumers isn’t necessarily good for citizens. In other words, what we seem to “Like” may not be what we actually want, let alone what we need to know to be an informed citizen of our dear republic.

In plain English, personalization is driving us toward an Adderall society where serendipity, discovery and creativity are replaced by hyper focus. Stripped of the surprise of unexpected events and associations, a perfectly filtered world leads us to less learning. This creases open-mindedness which makes us less creative.

Any Studies?

In one study, political scientist Shanto Iyengar asked subjects to rank how important issues like pollution, inflation, and defense were to them. Lyengar found that, “Participants exposed to a steady stream of news about defense or about pollution came to believe that defense or pollution were more consequential problems.” For example, those who saw clips on pollution changed their ranking from five out of six to second.

In another study done in 1977 by Hasher and Goldstein, participants were asked to read sixty statements and mark whether they were true or false. All of the statements were plausible, but some of them —such as “French horn players get cash bonuses to stay in the Army”— were true, while others —“Divorce is only found in technically advanced societies”— weren’t.

Two weeks later, the participants returned and rated a second batch of statements in which some of the items from the first list had been repeated. By the third batch, another two weeks later, the subjects were far more likely to believe the repeated statements. Meaning, with information, as with food, we are what we consume.

In another study conducted in 1954 by Albert Hastorf, a psychologist at Dartmouth, and Hadley Cantril from Princeton, screened footage of a game of American football between the two college teams. It had been a rough game. One quarterback had suffered a broken leg. Hastorf and Cantril asked their students to tot up the fouls and assess their severity. The Dartmouth students tended to overlook Dartmouth fouls but were quick to pick up on the sins of the Princeton players. The Princeton students had the opposite inclination. They concluded that, despite being shown the same footage, the Dartmouth and Princeton students didn’t really see the same events. Each student had their own perception, closely shaped by their tribal loyalties. The title of the research paper was “They Saw a Game”.

Does This Only Affect The General Public Or Does This Affect Scientists & Intellectuals Too?

Philip Tetlock, a political scientist, invited a variety of academics and pundits into his office and asked them to make predictions about the future in their areas of expertise. Would the Soviet Union fall in the next ten years? In what year would the U.S. economy start growing again? For ten years, Tetlock kept asking these questions. He asked not only experts but also people brought in from the street—plumbers and school teachers with no special expertise in politics or history.

When he finally compiled the results, he was surprised. It wasn’t just that the normal folks’ predictions beat the experts’. The experts’ predictions weren’t even close. What does this mean? Experts are especially vulnerable to confirmation bias.

The Solution?

We need our online urban planners to strike a balance between relevance and serendipity, between the comfort of seeing friends and the exhilaration of meeting strangers. It’s still possible to build algorithms that introduces us to new ideas that push us in new ways, to create media that show us what we don’t know rather than reflecting on what we do know and to erect systems that don’t trap us in an endless me-loop of self-flattery or that shields us from fields of inquiry that aren’t our own. However, we can’t depend on them.

Corn syrup vendors won’t change their practices until customers demonstrate that they’re looking for something new. In other words, Google and Facebook won’t change their personalization and ranking algorithms until customers change their habits. Just by stretching our interests in new directions, we give the personalizing code more breadth to work with.

For example, someone who shows interest in opera, comic books, South African politics and Tom Cruise is harder to pigeonhole than someone who just shows interest in opera. Plus, by constantly moving your attention to the edge of your understanding, you enlarge your sense of the world. So, you benefit!

If me-loops aren’t counteracted through randomness and serendipity, we could end up stuck and trapped in our point of view of the world.

Here’s another technique: be around people and ideas unlike oneself. As it turns out, this is one of the best ways to cultivate a sense of open-mindedness and wide categories. Psychologists Charlan Nemeth and Julianne Kwan discovered that bilinguals are more creative than monolinguals —perhaps because they have to get used to the proposition that things can be viewed in several different ways.

In fact, even 45 minutes of exposure to a different culture can boost creativity. When a group of American students was shown a slideshow about China as opposed to one about the United States, their scores on several creativity tests went up! As the political philosopher John Stuart Mill said, “It is hardly possible to overrate the value…of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar…Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.” In other words, the experiences we have when we come across new ideas, people, and cultures are powerful. They make us feel human. In fact, serendipity is a shortcut to joy.

Here are two more tactical techniques:

  1. Erase web history and cookies regularly.
  2. Use services like Twitter instead of Facebook —which uses a lot of personalization

Let’s Define Creativity, Ingenuity, Curiosity, Innovation, Learning & Discovery

Creativity is sparked by the collision of ideas from different disciplines and cultures. Creativity “uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, and synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, and skills,” as Arthus Koestler said. On the other hand, ingenuity comes from the juxtaposition of ideas that are far apart. And curiosity is aroused when we’re presented with an information gap. In fact, it’s the sensation of deprivation. What about innovation? Well innovation requires serendipity. And learning? Learning is the encounter with what we don’t know, what we haven’t thought of, what we couldn’t conceive and what we never understood or entertained as possible.

And, discovery, as Koestler said, “means…the uncovering of something which has always been there but was hidden from the eye by the blinkers of habit.” In fact, blind discovery is a necessary condition for scientific revolution. The Einsteins and Copernicuses and Pasteurs of the world often have no idea what they’re looking for. As in, big breakthroughs are sometimes the ones that we least expect.

In Conclusion

I know consuming information that challenges us to think in new ways or question our assumptions is downright frustrating and difficult. But it’s one of the greatest traits you could ever forge. I’ll leave you with this quote:

“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” -William Gibson

To your success,
Nikhil Mahadea

P.S Download a compilation of your data from Google (here) to see what data Google has on you!