Why We Should Practice "Critical Ignoring" in the Digital Age
Critical ignoring is a complementary skill to critical thinking.
Posted February 24, 2023 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Critical ignoring is an important skill for avoiding information overload in today's digital age.
- Removing low-quality, yet hard-to-resist information from one's digital environment is more effective than relying on willpower not to click.
- Verifying the credibility of article sources and not engaging with malicious actors helps reduce false information in one's digital environment.
Here are some headlines from my newsfeed this morning:
- Is a civil war brewing in America?
- Are you having a “normal” amount of sex?
- T-shirts that went totally wrong
- What to do if a worst-case nuclear scenario actually happened
- 5 sure-fire ways to ruin your relationship
These are just things that pop up when I open my web browser. I don’t go looking for this sort of “news” item, but there it is every time I check my email.
I’ve got a lot of work to do, and I really shouldn’t be looking at any of these. But the headlines and pictures are such attention-grabbers. Clicking on just one wouldn’t hurt…
In the days before the internet, critical thinking was the most important skill that informed citizens could have. To think critically, you need to read carefully, consider the credibility of sources, and reason out conclusions on your own.
But in the digital age, according to Anastasia Kozyreva, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute of Human Development (Berlin, Germany), and her colleagues, an even more important skill is "critical ignoring." With such an overabundance of information, they claim, we need to first sort the wheat from the chaff, deciding what’s worth our attention and time, and what’s not.
Protecting Ourselves in the “Attention Economy”
Kozyreva and colleagues claim that we now live in an “attention economy” in which corporations vie for our attention, emotion, and time. They lure us in with sensational stories that trigger our emotions while providing little in the way of useful information, all so they can expose us to revenue-generating advertisements.
In the digital age, these researchers point out, people are no longer consumers. Rather, they’re the products whose attention is being sold on the advertising marketplace. That means each link you click on is a sale of your time and attention, often with little or no benefit to yourself.
The content producers of the internet have hacked into our naturally evolved information-processing systems. For most of our history, we humans lived in small groups, in which emotionally charged information typically signaled threats or opportunities. In such a world, letting our emotions guide our attention was generally a successful strategy. But in the modern world, if we click on every sensational item on the screen, we not only waste a lot of valuable time but also run the risk of being deluded by false information.
To protect ourselves from attentional manipulation online, we need to develop new ways of interacting with information. Kozyreva and colleagues advocate for learning the skill of critical ignoring, in which readers intentionally control their information environment to reduce their exposure to false and low-quality information. In this way, critical ignoring is a complementary skill to critical thinking.
Self-Nudging: Avoiding Low-Quality Information
According to Kozyreva and colleagues, critical ignoring consists of three strategies.
The first strategy is self-nudging. This involves avoiding low-quality information so that we have more quality time for ourselves. It also entails the removal of distracting and hard-to-resist stimuli from the environment around you.
Successful dieters know that they need to keep unhealthy food out of their homes. Likewise, you need to set up your digital environment in such a way that attention-grabbing items are kept out of sight. As with dieting, if you try to rely on willpower to ignore eye-catching “news,” you’ll surely fail. So, it’s better to just keep them out of sight to begin with.
Of course, we need to stay informed of world events and in touch with others, so we can’t just ignore the internet altogether. When you do go into social media, Kozyreva and colleagues recommend setting time limits. Fifteen minutes of Facebook may be all you need to keep up. Limiting yourself in this way prevents you from losing track of time as you click on one attractive link after another. It’s also a good idea not to use internet time as a reward so that you'll lessen its appeal.
Lateral Reading: Checking the Credibility of the Source
The next strategy is lateral reading. Its purpose is to improve judgments about the credibility of information, and its purpose is to protect you from false and misleading information. The strategy involves opening a new tab to find out more about the source of the information. The mainstream news agencies have their reputations for reliability at stake, but lesser-known sites often have particular political agendas and are more interested in influencing than in informing.
Likewise, it’s also good to check the source of the information in an internet post. Headlines are often deceiving. They’re designed to attract attention, not provide information. The gist of the article may be completely contrary to the implication in the headline. A sensational claim may provide a link with a headline that seems to support it, but a careful reading of the original source shows it doesn’t.
Do Not Feed the Trolls
The last strategy goes by the catchphrase “do not feed the trolls.” There are malicious actors on the internet whose goal is to cause harm. They intentionally spread false information and hurtful rumors.
It may be tempting to respond to trolls in an effort to set the facts straight. But trolls don’t care about facts. They just care about provoking other people’s emotions. So, it’s best to not reward their bad behavior with your attention. Instead, block them and report them to the platform moderators.
We live in a digital age in which we’re overwhelmed with information, much of it of poor quality, while powerful but anonymous actors vie for our attention. By honing our critical ignoring skills, we can reap the benefits of the internet while we avoid falling victim to those who try to control our attention, our time, and our minds.
Kozyreva, A., Wineburg, S., Lewandowsky, S., & Hertwig, R. (2022) Critical ignoring as a core competence for digital citizens. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/09637214221121570