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Cognitive Dissonance – Why Comments Sections Are Bad For You

I'm a content writer, journalist, editor and blogger. When I'm not doing those things I'm at least mildly active on Netflix, I listen to a lot of music online and I play games online. Basically, I live on the internet, I'm on that side of my generational spectrum. I still go outside, all the time, but I can't play down just how much of my livelihood is navigated through the internet and social media, to a lesser extent.

There have been numerous, comprehensive studies into what kind of psychological bearing internet and social media use has on a person's mental state, depending on frequency. I have depression, it's peaked and troughed at various intervals since my early teens but online activity never seems to have had any kind of pronounced affect on it.

What it has affected is my day to day mood, and the certainty of my views and that's down to something called cognitive dissonance. It's a kind of mental stress that emanates from encountering views that conflict with your own and knock you off-balance. It can sometimes be healthy, when you have adopted a view or a habit that is in any way unhealthy it can be the first step towards arriving at a more mature perspective, but often, it's poison, and it can hamper your ability to process information or function socially. This becomes especially true when comments sections become involved.

For well over a decade the threaded forum format has seeped into the structure of every even remotely socially based website. Sometimes (with heavy, heavy emphasis on some) they become interesting centers for informed debate and extrapolation. Otherwise, they are a twisted hell of abuse, malformed views and needless rage, and they are provably unhealthy.

A study by the University of Wisconsin conducted in 2013 revealed that, when faced with an evenly weighted comments section for an article (between positive and negative), the negative comments had a far more adverse effect on the reader's thoughts on the article itself. In many cases the thoughts that you arrived at once you finished reading the piece will almost immediately become warped when negative comments come into play.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, sometimes it's good to get a critical, conflicting view of what you've just read to lend you some alternative perspective, but this is where cognitive dissonance comes into play. Sadly the brain cannot necessarily immediately differentiate between a valid counterpoint and an invalid one and even if it vaguely looks like there's some nugget of truth nestled in with all the horse crap, it will stick in your mind and make you anxious.

This is part of the reason why now dozens of online publications are switching off their comments sections for good. People might bluster about it infringing on freedom of speech but if someone is particularly desperate to get in touch with a blogger or whoever, email is still a thing. The problem is that most of are much more frequently exposed to an even worse (and immutable) source: social media.

I've seen some nasty, abhorrent things written online and I swear about 90% of them have been on Facebook and particularly YouTube comment sections. At some level it doesn't even matter what the original source is, the bile is inevitable. The bile isn't really the problem though, it's easy to ferret out and no amount of upper case expletives are ever going to make anyone question their own views, it's the eloquent ones that are the real tripwire.

Any argument, however invalid, can seem fleetingly convincing if it's even slightly well written. These are the ones that get past moderation and whilst I would never encourage mods to remove them, I wouldn't suggest sifting through them and responding to them is suicide. Wading into a 'debate' with someone who has no interest in listening to reason is one of the most soul-crushing modes of online communication there is. It can be tempting to try and dissect someone's argument until the prejudice hiding just beneath the surface comes bubbling forth and they are outed as the frothing, bloated troll that they are, but it won't happen; it will just spiral on as you both repeatedly try and get the last word. Again, unhealthy, and a waste of time.

The most direct, obvious solution is to stay well clear, Facebook comment sections have to be clicked in order to expand them and this dangerous addiction to self-questioning can be overcome, you just have to trust that you won't find anything interesting in there, because there almost definitely won't be. With YouTube it's even easier, just watch the video and move on, don't scroll down.The cardinal flaw of comments sections is that there aren't any measures in place to keep the discussion appropriate to the subject, some of them might be relevant but the bulk of it will be useless. Some areas of Reddit actually account for this, saying that any comments that aren't constructive or helpful will be removed, even if they don't violate the terms of service.

Of course, the root of this curious ailment is that we find it hard to accept that our views may not be the one correct answer to any given issue. We simply have to accept that, it sounds easy, but it isn't. When you go through a break-up, you can tell yourself that it's silly to dwell on things all you want, but you'll get over it when you get over it, it can't be rushed. It's the same with cognitive dissonance, you just have to take your brain through the same pathways regularly and eventually you'll shrug it off and learn to find constructive ways to test your own views, rather than damaging ones.

The main thing is not to shrink into a comfortable rut, if you're unsure about something and want further assurance, take the risk of looking at factual information, rather than just articles and posts that flat out agree with what you've decided. You might find something that makes you think twice, but it won't be at the behest of anyone's bias. When you do encounter the nastiness (and you will), it's just a case of remembering that they're not doing any real damage and it's probably better to know that the person in question is a moron, at least that way they're 'tagged', so to speak. If someone's written opinion is worth acknowledging, somebody else has probably already figured it out by now, because they're probably paid to express it.

There are places online where commenting is regimented within a safe, civil space, in such a way that any debates which do break out are conducted respectfully. For the rest of the net, just deny that damaging impulse niggling at the back of your mind and don't read them, there's maybe a 5% chance that you'll happen upon something legitimately constructive. It's not worth the trouble.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @CallumAtSMF

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Cognitive Dissonance – Why Comments Sections Are Bad For You Reviewed by Unknown on Thursday, June 11, 2015 Rating: 5

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