Health

How to Strengthen Your Mind’s Immunity to Bad Ideas

Like the body, the mind is susceptible to infectious agents: bad ideas. Likewise, evolution has endowed the mind with its own immune system. The emerging science of cognitive immunology helps us to recognize and strengthen our mental immune systems. Philosopher Andy Norman explains.
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infectious coronavirus

Futuristic immune system protection from infectious coronavirus covid-19 disease with glowing low polygonal shield and virus cells on dark blue background. Modern wire frame mesh design vector image © Inkoly / shutterstock.com

November 29, 2023 02:04 EDT
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Question: The problem of misinformation and disinformation is huge, and it’s growing with the arrival of AI like ChatGPT. With a dearth of solutions out there, the idea of cognitive immunity is alluring. Does it offer real solutions?

Andy Norman: People are right to be concerned. AI promises to be hugely disruptive. Here’s one reason why: AI-governed algorithms amplify information with “viral” properties. Nearly everyone now is plugged into the web, where infectious nonsense can spread like wildfire. Propagandists can now reach millions of vulnerable minds in a matter of minutes. We don’t like to admit it, but our connectedness makes us more vulnerable to sketchy information. Toxic polarization and conspiracy theories are symptoms of a deep imbalance: Our ability to spot nonsense has not kept pace with our ability to spread it.  

An exciting new science, though, is teaching us how to fight back. Each of us possesses a highly evolved capacity to filter out false and malicious information. The suite of mechanisms that does this work deserves a name; we call it the mind’s “immune system.” Scientists from around the world have joined our call to understand it so we can better cultivate mental immunity. Here’s what we’ve learned: these systems can go haywire, but they can also perform at a very high level. The key is to learn habits of mind that keep your mind’s immune system grounded. The Mental Immunity Project is all about freeing ourselves from false and manipulative information.

Q: How real is the mind’s immune system?

Norman: Philosophers are going to be arguing this one for a long time! Here’s what we know: the mind does something deeply analogous to bodily immune function: It actively monitors for false, harmful, and infectious stuff — “viral” information, basically — and does its best to shed it. The body’s immune system manufactures antibodies to fight off pathogens, and the mind manufactures doubts to fight off problematic ideas.

Both systems function best in a “Goldilocks zone” that lies between extreme trust and extreme suspicion. Both tend to go haywire when they stray out of this zone.

Fortunately, our minds are inoculable, just like our bodies. And bodies are inoculable because they have immune systems. So what does that tell you? Both systems evolved by natural selection to solve similar problems. Each functions to protect an evolved thing from infectious and parasitic stuff. The similarities are really quite striking.

To sum up: Yes, I think that mental immune systems are very real. I have smart colleagues who disagree, though, and that’s fine. We differ on a subtle philosophical question, but agree on the important thing: We need to understand and care for the mind’s capacity to spot and filter misinformation.

Q: In your book, Mental Immunity, and with the Mental Immunity Project, you aim to advance the science of cognitive immunology. You also aim to share actionable ideas that people can employ in their day-to-day lives. What are some of the most exciting recent findings? 

Norman: There’s so much neat work going on, it’s hard to know where to begin. Here are a few findings that I think have the power to change lives. First, the science should change the way we feel about doubt. Most people dislike doubt; it makes them uncomfortable. They prefer certainty. But ultimately, doubts are our friends. They’re quite literally the antibodies of the mind. The mind sends them to try and alert us to the problematic features of bad ideas. If you pay attention to them, appreciate them, and update your beliefs regularly — sometimes by letting go of them — you will grow wiser over time.

My second favorite finding has to do with other people’s doubts. Each of us harbors beliefs. We grow attached to them, and are usually blind to their defects. (Like love, belief can be blind.) This means that we need the help of others to spot our mind-infections. We need to listen to other people’s objections, fight down the urge to get defensive and learn to appreciate them for what they are: opportunities to “unlearn.” Simply put: Treat challenges to your worldview as opportunities, not threats. The mind’s immune system can freak out and attack the bearers of conflicting information; it’s up to us to calm it down so we can learn from that information.

Q: What are some practical things people can do to start strengthening their mental immune systems? How can people help their kids and their families from falling for bad information?

Norman: We’ve developed a Guide to Mental Immune Health designed to help everyone build their immunity. In it, we identify ten key habits of mind. We call them principles of mental immune system care, and each one is pretty simple. For example, we should monitor our motives for believing. A lot of times, we believe things because we want them to be true, not because they really are true. This is problematic, though, because it can make us prone to wishful thinking. The antidote is to notice why you believe what you believe. Believing something because it’s useful to believe it is one thing, and believing it because it’s probably true is something else. Responsible thinkers keep track of which is which.

Another principle of mental immune system care: Embrace shades of gray thinking. Life is full of uncertainties, so complete certainty is almost always a mistake. Make your peace with intermediate confidence levels. If you’re only about 85% certain that something is true, own that. Say, “I think it’s true,” rather than, “I know it’s true.” The world’s best thinkers are continually adjusting their confidence levels as new evidence comes in. If a new consideration weighs against a belief, but only a little, it’s usually best to reduce your confidence a bit.

A third example: Play for team truth. It’s easy to get caught up in a culture war and feel outraged by the things “they” are saying and doing. When this happens, resist the urge to indulge in righteous indignation. Why? Because continually reacting to the latest outrage from the other side can damage your mind’s immune system. It tends to compromise your ability to think objectively. When you encounter an objectionable half-truth, appreciate the truthful part of it before you criticize the not-so-true part. Give the other side’s reasonable points their due. Don’t react, reflect. Be fair-minded. Seek truth and common ground, not victory.

Q: Can you offer some examples where techniques like pre-bunking have effectively neutralized bad information, or at least made it less damaging?

Norman: Sure. Here are two important ones. In the run-up to Russia’s Ukraine war, US intelligence learned that Vladimir Putin was planning an invasion. They learned that Putin was going to use Russia’s powerful propaganda machine to sell a false narrative of Ukrainian aggression. The Biden administration took this information and began warning allies. His ambassadors alerted other nations of a coming disinformation campaign. Representatives of his administration warned news outlets. When the invasion and the influence campaign arrived, dozens of governments and media outlets were prepared not to drink Putin’s Kool-Aid. Biden had successfully “prebunked” Putin’s false narrative, so it fell flat. This is a big reason why Putin’s power grab failed.

“Prebunking,” by the way, is another name for mind-inoculation.

Second example: In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump made it clear that he was planning to claim that the election was rigged. He concocted a false narrative and began selling it months in advance. He knew instinctively that simple and emotionally charged messages can hijack minds, and he repeated his claims again and again. He was actually hacking his supporter’s minds. Fortunately, the Department of Homeland Security saw that this could result in electoral chaos. They worked closely with one of our colleagues — Sander van der Linden, a Cambridge University psychologist — and they warned election officials all over the country. They used prebunking to prevent these election officials from falling for the big election lie. When the time came to count the votes, these officials were effectively inoculated. They did their jobs and American democracy survived. Prebunking prevented a constitutional crisis.

Q: Are certain people more prone to believing misinformation than others?

Norman: Absolutely. Just as people vary in their susceptibility to the flu, people vary in their susceptibility to misinformation. Those who know how to spot and disregard sketchy information (those with well-functioning mental immune systems) can shrug off the very same information that seriously addles others (those with poorly functioning systems).

There are three major reasons why we fall for misinformation. First, we tend to trust information that confirms our biases. If information “fits” with our worldview, we’re less likely to be skeptical and more likely to accept it as true. Fail to understand this, and your worldview can become rigid and self-validating. Second, we’re more likely to fall for misinformation that triggers strong emotions. Anger, outrage and fear are especially potent: They reduce our ability to think well. Third, we’re more likely to fall for misinformation when it’s repeated. This bias is known as the illusory truth effect, and it’s especially powerful in “echo chambers” where false information is repeated uncritically.

Learn a bit about your mind’s misleading tendencies, though, and you can begin to mitigate them. For example, make a habit of asking yourself: “Am I accepting this at face value because it’s genuinely reliable, or am I accepting it because I find it validating?” If there’s some mix of the latter, you probably ought to give the information a second, more critical look.

Q: What is it about conspiracy theories that allow them to infect minds so successfully?

Norman: Conspiracy theories are like traps. Buy into one and it provides ready-made excuses for doubling down on the narrative. Why is there no evidence for the conspiracy? Because the conspirators covered it up! Why is there evidence against the conspiracy? Because the conspirators planted it!

Those prone to conspiratorial thinking share similar traits. They tend to be low in intellectual humility. They rely more on intuition and less on analytical thinking. They have a need for certainty and prefer simple answers for complex events. They see patterns where none exist, connecting unrelated events into a larger plot. They view themselves as heroic victims and blame others when things go wrong. Conspiracy beliefs give you a sense of control; they boost your self-esteem and make you feel part of a special group that’s “in the know.”

Often, conspiracy theorists are hyper-critical thinkers. Their suspicions are overblown. They’re unable to trust where trust is warranted. And, ironically, conspiratorial thinking won’t help uncover real conspiracies (which do exist!). For that, we need measured skepticism and genuine critical thinking.

Q: How did the Mental Immunity Project come together? 

Norman: In my book about mental immunity, I proposed a new approach to our world’s misinformation problem: one centered on the idea that minds have “immune systems” that can do a lot of the work for us — provided we care for them properly. I founded the Cognitive Immunology Research Collaborative (CIRCE), an institute dedicated to understanding the mind’s defenses and cultivating mental immune health.

In 2022, we convened a blue ribbon panel composed of the world’s leading experts on misinformation and cognitive immunology. The panel drafted a bold declaration highlighting the science, which has now been signed by over 100 scholars and domain experts.

The panel also concluded that we could use the science to begin cultivating mental resilience at scale. So, in 2023, CIRCE teamed with Thinking Is Power to launch the Mental Immunity Project, which translates the science into tools anyone can use. We developed the first-of-its-kind guide to mental immune system care and put it online. Anyone can go there and learn how to spot the worst kinds of misinformation — extremism, hate, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, propaganda, etc. We’re developing tools to protect loved ones, kids, and organizations too.

Q: What do you think the future of cognitive immunology holds?

Norman: The science of immunology turned the tables on infectious microbes. It gave us the upper hand in the battle against disease. This fundamentally changed the human condition. Now, the science of cognitive immunology promises to turn the tables on infectious misinformation. We think it will give us the upper hand in the battle against viral nonsense — a battle we think is every bit as consequential. To get there, though, we need partners. We need foundations that can invest in the science. We need school districts committed to equipping their students. We need citizens who can spot propaganda and call it out. We need everyone to acknowledge their susceptibility to manipulative information, and take steps to mitigate it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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