Celeste Kidd and the Role of Reasoning and Metacognition in the Internet Era

29 May, 2019

Celeste Kidd and the Role of Reasoning and Metacognition in the Internet Era

This year the Berkeley Center for New Media offered two junior faculty research grants to seed ambitious academic scholarship in new media at Cal. Celeste Kidd (Psychology) was selected for “The Role of Reasoning and Metacognition During Belief Formation in the Internet Era” Read more about the project below!

Why do people believe things that aren’t true in an era of unprecedented access to information? In a time where more people than ever are able to share their knowledge with others on the internet, why do so many inaccurate beliefs about the world persist? We draw on methods from cognitive science, anthropology, and mathematical modeling to formalize and test theories that can explain why people sometimes believe things that they shouldn’t, and how this potentially destructive tendency might be overcome with the right interventions.

An individual’s subjective sense of certainty is crucial to the mechanisms that drive knowledge acquisition. Previous theories have suggested that the motivation to update your beliefs hinges upon the recognition that your current belief is inaccurate (e.g., Loewenstein, 1994). In other words, you have to first know that you do not understand something before you are receptive to learning information to fill in that knowledge gap. However, our previous research has shown that an individual’s certainty is not always well calibrated to reality (Marti, Mollica, Piantadosi, & Kidd, 2018). Rather than being driven by true probabilities in the world, individuals’ certainty is instead driven by recent feedback. If an individual receives just a few pieces of feedback that their idea is correct (e.g., via Internet searches), they become very confident and closed to considering any subsequent disconfirming evidence.

This dynamic has the potential to explain why some non-evidence based beliefs have not only persisted, but flourished, in the internet era (e.g., flat earth theories, anti-vaccination activism, climate-change denial). For example, only 2 out of 3 adults in the U.S. believe that the earth revolves around the sun, despite a consensus among astronomers (NSF Survey on Public Attitudes Toward the Understanding of Science and Technology, 2001; NORC at University of Chicago General Social Survey, 2016). Since contemporary individuals play more active roles in searching for information than they did two decades ago, this feedback bias could result in higher rates of certainty and more close-minded attitudes toward belief revision than in the past.

The award from the Berkeley Center for New Media will enable us to to examine this theory in the important, current applied domain of flat earthers, those who doubt that the earth is a sphere. We currently do not have funding for this area, but it is central and paradigmatic of shortcomings in contemporary STEM education. It is widely considered common knowledge that individuals who hold pseudoscientific beliefs lack analytical or science-based reasoning skills; however, this hypothesis remains untested. We propose an alternative, which is that the confidence displayed by flat earthers is the result of repeated exposure to self-selected false information gathered via new media like internet searches. We know that individuals seeking information exhibit selection biases regarding the information they seek out (Karlsson, Loewenstein, & Seppi, 2009; Vicario, Scala, Caldarelli, Stanley, & Quattrociocchi, 2017), and we propose that these selection biases in combination with feedback- induced certainty interact to induce persistent overconfidence in pseudoscientific ideas and resistance to belief updating. A Faculty Seed Grant will enable us to apply an interdisciplinary approach to testing our hypothesis about the role of confirming feedback via new media in the perpetuation of false ideas.

A healthy society requires informed citizens, and confirming feedback via internet searches may be playing a role in robbing uninformed citizens of opportunities to discover truth in the world. Not only are these individuals worse off in their ability to make decisions as a result, but we are worse as a society. Our previous work examining human certainty as it relates to false belief puts us in a unique position to tackle this problem. Methodologically, the Kidd Lab is one of few in the world that combine technologically sophisticated behavioral experiments with computational models in order to broadly understand learning. These rigorous methods, in combination with the novel questions about knowledge acquisition we tackle, is why our work has been covered widely in the popular press (e.g., The Economist, The New Yorker, Scientific American).