Discernment, the innate human capacity to distinguish between good and bad, true and false, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, is in decline. We have become increasingly reliant on data to form our opinions and even our tastes. Whether in the area of fashion where we rely on brands for quality and style rather than on our own taste, in health and wellbeing where our watches tell us how tired or energized we are, or in the area of news, information and medicine our intuitive muscles of discernment have been left to atrophy.
Some of us were fortunate to have been raised by parents who taught us the difference between right and wrong, and who bequeathed us a taste for the good and the beautiful. A teacher or grandparents whose we admired might have inspired some of us to be morally and intellectually discerning. But not everyone has had the good fortune of such an upbringing, and many are reliant on extraneous sources of information, mostly the internet, to guide their knowledge of good and bad. Complexity has become binary, and questions of morality are reduced to digital algorithms.
The Impact of Digital Influence
One of the casualties of this reliance on digital data is the erosion of our very ability to distinguish between the authentic and the fabricated. Our understanding of reality is now almost entirely in the hands of the internet and generative artificial intelligence. The internet has become a breeding ground for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and echo chambers that reinforce many of our pre-existing beliefs.
On November 10th, Christopher Mims wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journalabout how social media and AI distort our view of the world. The result is a diminishment of trust in almost anything we read or are told. Furthermore “people are now using the existence of hard-to-spot fake content, as a pretext to dismiss accurate information.” I have recently experienced this firsthand: I have had the heart-wrenching experience of speaking to many survivors of the Supernova Reim Festival in Israel where, on October 7th, Hamas terrorists killed and abducted over 400 of their friends. The terrorists wore bodycams and broadcast the horror of their murderous rampage on social media. Like many of us, I saw those clips. Still, some media outlets have suggested that the images were created by the Israelis using AI, and that in fact it was the Israelis who killed their own citizens. As preposterous as is the claim, there are students on university campuses who are uneducated enough to buy into it.
Social media ensnares us in a web of selective information that further distorts our intuitive compass and blurs the line between reality and fiction.
Bias is reinforced by social media algorithms that curate content based on our preferences. As a result, we become ensnared in a web of selective information that further distorts our intuitive compass and blurs the line between reality and fiction. These perpetuate and amplify our prejudices and undermine our ability to make ethical judgments based on a genuine understanding of right and wrong. Trust in the media, governments, and even experts, has been undermined to the point where it is now an all-time low according to recent Pew Research Center studies.
Digital algorithms and artificial intelligence have similarly hijacked our sense of beauty and style. The curated perfection we see on social media platforms can distort our own perception of reality and create unrealistic standards for what we consider beautiful. This destroys a realistic appreciation of natural beauty with all the flaws that make it real.
Navigating the Digital Landscape with Critical Thinking
So, without an innate power of discernment, how are we to distinguish between the true and the fake? Mims suggests that “we are now forced to question everything that we are exposed to in any medium, from our immediate communities to the geopolitical.” This is requires higher standards of critical thinking than students are being taught in even some of the best of America’s educational institutions.
This is where business and leadership development enter the picture: if schools and universities are not providing students with the tools for critical thinking, it is vital that business does. This is especially true for future leaders. Make sure that your leadership development programs include substantial sections focused on building the skills needed for critical thinking including the following five:
Listen to what you read or hear from a perspective of humble curiosity, which means coming at it from a position of assumed ignorance. Be willing to absorb what you hear no matter how uncomfortable it is to your existing paradigms. There will be time to question it afterwards and to reject it if necessary, but don’t allow your doubts and cynicism to filter what you expose yourself to.
Practice asking questions that provoke thought. Avoid accepting information at face value rather inquiring about the underlying assumptions, evidence, and potential biases of the source of your information. Identify the core issue, and penetrate to first principles before formulating your own perspective.
Expand your knowledge base by seeking information from a variety of sources including those with perspectives very different from your own. Pay for curated sources of information rather than relying on what social media feeds you freely. Question the authority and credibility of the sources to which you allocate your time.
Check differing opinions and sources of information against one another and against your own values and intuitive understanding of what the truth might be. When your intuition and the data you are receiving are misaligned, don’t assume that either one is wrong. Rather take this misalignment as a signal that deeper and wider thought is needed before formulating your opinion.
Not all sources of information have the same authority, however very few curators of information hierarchize their information for you. Instead, they provide all sources on a single level as if a global expert and a high school student have equal authority. Develop your own hierarchy of authority when it comes to sources of information: which are the sources you trust most, and which are those you trust less? Which are the experts you trust more and which are those you trust less.
Developing critical thinking is an ongoing process that requires skills acquisition, training, practice, and reflection. Incorporating these strategies into your company’s leadership development programs and encouraging a culture of critical thinking, can help rebuild your leadership discernment capacities so crucial to navigating the confusing times in which we lead and live.