The Power of Thinking For Yourself

On the 23rd of March, 2016, Microsoft released a new chatbot named “Tay” on Twitter. Described by Microsoft as an experiment in “conversational understanding,” Tay was built to have conversations with people through tweets and DMs with the slang of the internet. 

In the words of its creators, Tay was meant to be, and I quote, “Microsoft’s AI fam from the internet that’s got zero chill.”

Tay was designed to learn more about human language as she interacted with people through their tweets. She was to learn the patterns of our communication and then emulate it when trying to create her own speech. 

Tay’s first few tweets were fun and harmless. However, in just a few hours, everyone was in horror as Tay started tweeting the most offensive things imaginable. Things along the lines of, and again, I quote, “Bush did 9/11 and Hitler would have done a better job.”

In just 16 hours, Tay tweeted 95,000 times, with a majority of her tweets being extremely abusive and offensive. In less than a day, Microsoft had to suspend the account and the entire experiment. 

A complete social failure if you ask me, but it did do its job the way it was programmed to do.

Tay was not designed to think for herself. She was built to learn from the language that was spoken to her. And so when people recognized that she was nothing more than a parrot-bot, they intentionally started tweeting the most insensitive and offensive things at her, tweets she echoed right back into the world. 

Sadly, many people today are like Tay. We constantly feed ourselves with the same type of information, and without pausing for a minute to verify what is “fact” and form an unbiased opinion. Many of us simply echo everything we think we know right back into the world.

Although we like to think that every opinion we have and every decision we make is down to our best judgment and independent assessment, that’s simply not true. More often than not, our opinions, beliefs, views, and thoughts about the world are influenced by a larger group of people. Research has shown that when presented with multiple options, we often mimic the choice of the people around us. Rather than spending time researching, asking questions, or learning about the different options to find out the best one for us, we often defer to the “social norm.” 

This is how humans have always been. We are social animals, after all. 

However, now more than ever, it’s becoming more and more important to think for yourself. 

A few decades ago, we only had a handful of different thoughts that we were exposed to. So, it was easy to filter all of them and figure out what was right for us. But thanks to the internet and social media, there are billions of people with completely different worldviews, ideologies, and beliefs, and the societal norm is changing so rapidly that there’s no time to pause and think - wait, is this really right for me?

If you’re not subscribed to my channel, there’s a high chance that the YouTube algorithm brought you here, and if that’s the case, hi. You see, algorithms are great. They bring everything we want right to our doorsteps, but there’s one big problem. Slowly, they’re beginning to dictate our lives.

They’re starting to think for us. 

First, it’s content-based platforms like YouTube and Netflix suggesting things for you to watch. Soon, you’re watching everything not because you searched for it, but because the algorithm suggested it. And to a large extent, this looks harmless. It exposes you to content you otherwise might not have seen, and gives smaller creators the chance to blow up without having an established pedigree. It’s literally the reason Aperture has grown to the size it’s at today.

But then you have Amazon’s algorithm that tells you all the products you should add to your cart alongside the one purchase you made. Then Gmail Smart Reply telling you how to reply to emails, and Tinder telling you who to spend the rest of your life with.

Before you know it, we give the algorithm the driver’s seat and we become passengers in our own lives, merely coasting through the roads we are suggested.

This in and of itself is a problem. But the fact that the algorithm is not perfect makes it an even bigger problem. For one, the algorithms that are now thinking for us don’t actually think. They simply find patterns and parrot them. Once they realize we like or agree with a certain thing, we are constantly fed with that one thing. And in a short while, we find ourselves in an echo chamber, where everything we see and hear are only things we’ve agreed with in the past.

It doesn’t give much room for change, for growth, for the opportunity to listen to opposing arguments and learn. Think about it, how many times have you randomly found a video on YouTube that you completely disagreed with? Compare that to how many times you’ve found a video that you enjoyed and you completely agreed with.

The difference is probably incredible.

And the better the algorithms become, the better they would be at serving you information that you already agree with. This leads to confirmation bias. The tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports your prior beliefs or values. Because these algorithms constantly surround us with ideas that we already agree with, we quickly block our minds to every shred of evidence that contradicts this bias.

There’s a subtle difference between the desire to have been right and the desire to be right. The desire to have been right prevents us from seeing the real truth, causing us to hold on to ideas that might be logically and factually flawed. We fail to see how we’re wrong, and so we fail to learn and to grow. We hold on to beliefs that we have been surrounded by, so much so, that we start to seek out evidence to back up our bias and not to find out the truth.

The truth is that humans find it very difficult to process information in an unbiased and rational manner once they’ve developed strong feelings or sentiments about the issue. So people interpret everything they see in a way that already agrees with everything they know and believe about the world.

Some people believe in something called extrasensory perception. So for example, they remember all the times when they were thinking about their mom and picked up their phone, only to see she was calling. It seems like “fate” in a way, but yet they forget all the times when mom called when they weren’t thinking about her, and the other times when they were thinking about mom but she never called.

Because they believe so strongly in extrasensory perception, they are far more likely to remember instances that back up their claims, even when the instances that don’t agree with those claims occur far more frequently.

To make our confirmation bias even worse, social media has created the influencer culture. People like me, apparently. Now, not only do we look to each other for guidance, we look to influencers, gurus, and thought leaders. Because we consider these people part of our packs, more so than traditional celebrities, we often place them on incredibly high pedestals, giving them the opportunity to, well, influence us.

People buy a product because an influencer said so, even when the product might not be the best option for them. They employ unsafe dieting practices and workout routines, just because an influencer said it’ll work without doing the research for what works for their own body. 

People listen to fake gurus and influencers, and without taking the time out to think for themselves, they do exactly what these people tell them to do, even if it’s unhealthy and potentially dangerous.

One of the biggest reasons people no longer seem to think for themselves is because they are scared of the repercussions. How can you think for yourself when sharing ideas that are not in accordance with the societal norm gets you exiled from society? When you could lose your job, your education, everything you’ve ever worked for, simply for thinking differently and expressing those different opinions.

Yes, I’m talking about Cancel Culture. The real victims of Cancel Culture are the ideas that will be left unsaid. The thoughts left in the mind for fear of extreme backlash. It’s the beliefs that are only expressed in the dark, where the big bright eyes of Big Brother cannot see.

To prevent the rats from coming out, Big Brother urges you to doublethink. To prevent yourself from getting “canceled,” a relatively new phenomenon, society urges you to groupthink.

Coined by Irving Janis in 1972, “groupthink” simply means avoiding conflict by swiftly reaching an agreement without evaluating other options or alternative ideas. It means to bend your back to the social norm without giving other ideas a second thought.

The danger of this is that our individuality and uniqueness dies and the world moves to a point where we all collectively agree on the same ideas. No difference in thought, no individual ideas, just... groupthink.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. To think for yourself is a skill that you must learn, else you become a puppet of someone else’s programming. 

To think for yourself is to challenge your existing ideas, beliefs, and decisions. Ask yourself, are my thoughts mine? Or are they simply influenced by everyone around me? My friends, my parents, society, influencers, and so on?

To think for yourself is to look at the evidence, to investigate and to use thoughtful analysis. Understand that all of us battle with confirmation bias, we all want to seem to “fit in,” and so remember to not shy away from ideas that might negate your existing bias.

To think for yourself is to battle with your mind. Go out there and find the root of the ideas you support, and then find opposing arguments. Look at your new found beliefs as diamonds encased in a rock. Before you get to the fine jewel, you must break through the rock with a lot of force, but carefully and diligently. Before you fully accept a new way of thinking, make sure that you’ve broken through the rock by wrestling with these new ideas in a way that might take you out of your comfort zone. 

To think for yourself is to go out there in search of information. Don’t wait for the algorithm to keep echoing the things you already know. Acquire new knowledge. Feed your mind continuously by reading, listening, and discussing these big new ideas with a view from both sides. Break your pattern of thought and view everything the world has to say through your own lenses.

To think for yourself is to be humble in your knowledge. One of the reasons people fall into the trap of confirmation bias is that they don’t want to be wrong. We’ve built this idea for some reason that we have to protect ourselves from being wrong. People seem to pride themselves as intellectuals and knowledgeable, and disconfirming evidence goes against that notion. So they shy away from it, keeping themselves in the dark about the truth, simply because they want to keep up the façade of being right. Don’t be scared of being wrong, there’s literally nothing wrong with it. Remember, we used to think the Earth was the center of the universe and that everything revolved around us. We’re egocentric. We enjoy feeling important, and being right gives us that sense of superiority. But, in my mind, I feel as if you should be more concerned about finding out what’s right and not craving the state of “being right.”

To think for yourself is to be courageous. To not buckle under fear, pressure, or guilt. To stand up for what you believe in, as long as you have come to see it as the truth for yourself. To think for yourself is standing out and not going along with the crowd simply for the sake of keeping the so-called “peace” and avoiding confrontation.

Because the truth is, we would have no new scientific discovery if the old ideas were never challenged. Everything we believe about the world today is a product of someone thinking out of the box, challenging the status quo. We must do the same.

Being a free-thinker opens the avenues to ideas that some of us may never truly experience, and new ideas are something we can all benefit from as individuals.

There is no progress without change, and there is no change without admitting there’s a problem in the first place.

- EE, MM