Many people are going to remember 2020 as a year of loss, frustration, and loneliness. A highly contagious virus is spreading around the planet, the environmental impact of our behavior is becoming irreversible, and the algorithms behind social media only enforce us in disbelieving and distrusting science and facts. Meanwhile, policy makers all seem to point at the same cause for these problems: human behavior.
If we would only respect social distancing regulations, avoid crowds, travel less, wear facemasks, and wash our hands regularly, we would be able to reduce the spread of the virus. If we would just eat less meat and more plant-based products, reduce our waste, and switch to renewable energy sources, the environmental impact of our behavior would be reduced drastically.
So why is this so hard? Why are we unable to stop the spread of a virus without enforcing war-like regulations? And why don’t we take better care of the environment? The answer can be found in “behavioral contagion”, which is our tendency to copy the behavior of those in our close surroundings. While many of us are spending most of our times at home, the crowds with which we interact are mostly online. We copy the behavior of the people with whom we interact online.
This brings us back to the social media algorithms. They track what type of content we engage with, because the longer they can keep us engaged, the more advertisement space they can sell. It turns out that people engage most with content that is at the edge of their belief system. This finding has transformed social media platforms into massive group polarization machines. If you have a negative view about wearing facemasks in public spaces, you could end up being shown content that convinces you that the whole virus does not exist.
We need to break out of this bubble that we’ve created around ourselves. We need to re-learn how to see others’ perspectives. This will take some effort, because we must actively search for those who may disagree with us. We have to listen to each other, while not letting our emotions take over. We may disagree still, but at least we would understand where the opposing views come from. And if we succeed, we can look at back at 2020 as the year that united us in diversity.