Luckily, the majority of us have free speech, but what about freedom of thought? Surely we own our thoughts? There is nothing that can influence them? I mean, we are not living in some dystopian future where we have to monitor what we think. And as far as I’m aware, no one can delve into our minds to know exactly what we are thinking. But we are being influenced. So how is this happening and what can we do about it? First of all, why is the freedom to have an uninfluenced thought process so important? Undoubtedly, the Theory of Mind (ToM) is what sets us apart from other animals. This is the ability to think and to process thoughts. It’s what makes us human. But what exactly is a thought? Thinking allows us to make sense of the world around us.
Therefore, a thought is a single product of this thinking.
The way we ponder, process emotions, plan for the future, daydream about a loved one, construct a mental shopping list, or go over an argument in our minds.
These are all examples of different thoughts. Lots of things influence our thoughts. Our senses, past experiences, our environment, what we read, see and hear our family and friends, basically everything around us. Thoughts are important because they lead to decisions and actions.
They affect us in our daily lives. We make choices based on our thoughts. Anything from what kind of sandwich to eat at lunch to who we’ll vote for at an election.
Therefore, freedom of thought is essential. We don’t want anyone or anything influencing our way of thinking. But research shows this is exactly what is happening. We have made great strides in psychology over the past few decades. In the 19-century, a person with a mental illness would be labelled ‘feebleminded’. Fast forward to the 21-century and we now have 265 actual mental disorder diagnoses in the most recent DSM-5. We should know how freedom of thought can be compromised. Instead, the very advances in understanding the human mind are being used to restrict it. Likewise, the way technology works now compared to even a decade ago is far-reaching. Was the term ‘fake news’ even a thing 10 years ago? Who had heard of Russian troll farms or bots a few years ago? However, these technological innovations are manipulating our thoughts, even though we still believe we have the freedom to think the way we do. Understanding the way we think is crucial if you want to manipulate it. Now experts in psychology know all about mental biases, how we make decisions and what influences our behaviour. So, how does this work in the real world? Say you were a small company selling your products. You wanted to increase sales. You would use every psychological trick in the book to get your customers to buy, not only in the first place but repeatedly. This is a basic example of how thought and the freedom to think clearly are compromised. Anyone with this knowledge can use it to their advantage. For example, politicians, social media sites, large brands. Politician play on their voter’s natural stereotypes or biases. Big brands exploit customer’s mental affiliation with their logos and symbols. Social media sites have a huge pool of data, ready to be captured, analysed and put to use. Talking of social media, the founder of Facebook got into a lot of trouble in 2014. He admitted to a ‘mood experiment’ carried out on its users. In a vast experiment, the social media site found that by posting certain information on people’s pages it could make them feel more positive or negative. Now, obviously this has far-reaching ramifications. We assume Facebook is not purposely manipulating the way we feel. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Facebook has recently acquired a ‘mind-reading’ company.
The company makes a wristband that decodes electronic signals from the brain.
The purpose? To control your computer with your mind. As one Facebook member said: “Oh. Look at that. Facebook’s newest venture: harvesting thoughts,” Facebook member But Facebook isn’t the only one who is using mindreading tech. Other major computer tech firms, such as Microsoft, are also in the game of gathering up our thoughts and restricting our freedom in the process. We are certainly influenced by social media. Many of us, in fact, get our news from online sources, and not the paper versions. This is highly susceptible to manipulation. In fact, only yesterday, one political party was severely warned by Twitter for changing their Twitter name to FactCheckUK, during a contentious leader’s debate in the UK. We often react instinctively and quickly. This reflex action comes from the old reptilian part of our brain. This old ancient brain makes quick mental shortcuts. It has to, in order for us to survive. It helped our ancestors quickly make decisions that were life-saving. But, in today’s world, we don’t need this rapid reflex-thinking so much.
The problem with thinking instinctively and quickly is that we rely on past stereotypes. And this is where biases can occur. We can stop these biases by taking a reasonable amount of time to think and then make our decision. In this way, we weigh up all the evidence, not just what is being presented to us, but what we research ourselves.
Then we can make an informed choice. Furthermore, if we have a clearer understanding of how our minds work, we can spot the manipulators a mile off. Don’t con a con I always say! It’s hard not to feel instantly gratified when someone agrees with you. Or when you get your bias confirmed. It is much harder to step back and analyse your own way of thinking. Are you really expressing your own thoughts? Or has your freedom been compromised? Ensuring that we have the freedom to think an authentic thought is essential. Otherwise, how will we ever know if the choices and decisions we make are from our true self? R.
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