The human algorithm

It’s common knowledge that, when it comes to social media and what you see, you magically see more of.

I don’t really understand how it works. I just know that I click on something that appeals to me, and the next time I am online, all I see is more of that! During the US elections, I tested the algorithm. Sick to death of hearing the then President wax lyrical about stolen elections and fake news, I mindfully stopped clicking on certain channels. It took about a week, but at the end of that week, miraculously, no news article about him were hitting my feed.

Netflix is the same. I get push notifications about ‘things you might like to watch’ based on previous viewing. On Audible, I get book recommendations, based on previous listens. On Instagram I see adverts for things I have googled and on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, if I read something about LBGTQ+, anti-racism, Covid etc, more of it comes my way.

I recently read a book called Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult.  It’s a work of fiction, based in the US and centred around the experience of a black nurse, removed from caring for an infant by a white man, ensconced in the white power movement. It was a tough read, and at the end, there is a note from the author talking about how she came to write the book, the research she did and the people she spoke to. 

She interviewed and chatted with people who were once key players in the white power movement in the US and who had left that world behind. I share this not to attract a ton of attention to the book, or to racism (though I would recommend the book and to research more about the origins of the movement), but to share my learning and understanding around how algorithms, typically associated with technology, show up in the human space, and what we can do to hack them!

Working on the principle that ’what we put our attention on, we see more of’, it stands to reason that when something attracts our attention, we zoom in, and innocently start to look for evidence to confirm our belief about that specific thing. If it’s a negative belief, it is fuelled by the information we have been exposed to over our time on the planet. Within a couple of days, just like it is on social media channels, our internal news feed is full of evidence to support our negative belief.

This is told beautifully in the book. A lonely, abused and abandoned young man meets a similar young man, who just happens to be involved with a group of people who have bought into a rhetoric about a superior race. He is accepted, liked, supported, and feels a sense of belonging he has never felt before. Before he knows it, he is on rallies, attending meetings and riding along when groups of young men are on the rampage, looking for anyone they can terrorise, beat, or take out their anger and frustration on … anyone that is different. He proactively starts to look for others like him, online, in communities and soon sets up his own website, joining forums of like-minded people who are all reinforcing his belief and providing ‘evidence’ of their superiority.  He doesn’t stop to question, to be curious, to communicate or to educate himself. He now has, as far as he is concerned, a firmly ‘locked-in’ belief. 

The algorithm is reinforced by the people he hangs out with, the communities he associates with, the news channels he watches and the family he marries in to. What he put his attention on, in the beginning, he now only sees.

Humans do this all the time.

Somebody, somewhere, says a size 0 is the perfect size to be; cue a multitude of women starving themselves, over-exercising and looking for all the evidence to support their behaviour as being a healthy choice.  Someone else shares their view on a vaccine for C19 and suddenly it’s a fact and millions of people decide they are, under no circumstances, having that vaccine. The scientists argue the fact with science, and some people shift their perspective. Someone writes a bad review for a restaurant on Trip Advisor and suddenly the restaurant is out of business because people cancelled their bookings and assumed that the experience of one person was a truthful experience.

What’s my point? 

My point is that there will be a million (and one) bits of information that come our way as we grow from babyhood, to being toddlers, to being young people, to being young adults and beyond. Bits of information that it is our job to explore, to challenge, to not accept as truth and excitedly take ownership of as a fixed belief. Along with the power of thought, we are gifted with the power of wisdom, of intuition, of fight, flight and freeze. It’s in our gut. It’s the feeling we get when something feels off. When we see or experience something that doesn’t feel good. When we take a path shown to us as being the right path, then halfway down it, that creeping sensation that we’re on the wrong path. We have forgotten how to tune into that. 

When a teenager says they feel anxious, we point them to something outside of themselves to fix it.  We don’t sit quietly with that teenager and ask them to describe the feeling and what it’s telling them. To deepen their understanding of what feels instinctively right or wrong to them. We recommend medication, talking therapy, distraction… that algorithm kicks in and we go to the internal database to look for evidence that says they’re broken and need fixing.

An 18-year-old doesn’t get the grades they needed to do a specific university course and we access that algorithm to find solutions and fix the problem.

An 14-year-old is so disconnected from his intuition that when a ‘friend’ invites him along to a party and they’re smoking weed and drinking, he doesn’t feel he can say no, so joins in.

We have become much more aware of how to hack the algorithms when it comes to social media and digital resources. How do we hack the human algorithm?

  • We use that gift of thought, and wisdom for a start.
  • Acknowledging and understanding that we are always one thought away from a different feeling or experience.
  • Listen to what our intuition tells us.
  • If we need evidence, look for it in a positive space.
  • Ask yourself every day – does everyone have the same thought in relation to this experience?  If not, it’s likely that what you’re seeing or feeling isn’t ‘true’ – and if you just breathe for a minute, the thought will have passed.
  • Always be curious – don’t take my word for it… read for yourself the multitude of evidence (if you need it).
  • Know that your body is always giving you signals about what feels right for you – listen to it.
  • If what you put your attention on, you see more of…. Put your attention on the things that make you feel good.
  • Get to know yourself on a deep level. What’s important to you, what do you value, what are you passionate about, what are you strengthened by and what relationships do you want to have in your life?

Life is a contact sport and we are designed to experience a range of emotions. Let them be. We don’t have to go through life in a perfectly even and balanced state of mind and being to have a great life, but life will be amazing if we hack the algorithm and look for the joy to be had. None of us is broken or needs fixing, but we might need to un-learn some things to really create the life we want to live. It is in our gift to see what we want to see, be who we want to be, and love the life we live.

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By Vicky Gerrish, Ivy House London
20th August 2021

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