There is a video making the rounds on social media recently showing, in two separate clips, a woman and a man entering a lift, spitting on the buttons and then rubbing saliva over them. The voiceover states that the lift is in China and explains the two perpetrators are trying to spread “the virus.” At the end of the two-minute clip, a message appears reading: “Satanic agent distributing coronavirus around the world.” Interestingly, although the video was purportedly shot in China, the voiceover and message are in English.

I have no idea what the origin or authenticity of the video is. In fact, certain aspects make me doubt its legitimacy, but there is one thing I feel certain about – this video will be viewed by thousands, if not millions. And the vast majority of viewers will take its message at face value and probably forward it to their friends.

lift elevator buttons
File photo: Gideon Tsang.

In these polarised times, almost any message that offers seemingly strong evidence to support a certain viewpoint gathers traction. When that is offered in video form, so much the better because seeing is believing, as the saying goes. Videos can’t be doctored, can they?

This episode reminds me of a little ploy that I use in the first lecture of a research methods class I co-teach. On the screen, I show a list of the 12 astrological sun signs associated with birth dates and ask the students to identify their sign based on their birthday. I then show them that I have 12 stacks of paper for each sign with their horoscope written on it. Then I invite the students to come to the front of the room to pick up their horoscope.

On every paper, unknown to the students, is the same horoscope, which begins with the following description:

“At times you are extroverted, affable and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself as being an independent thinker and do not accept other’s opinions without satisfactory proof. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.”

And so on and so forth for another 100 words or so.

This rather famous “horoscope” dates back to the 1940s and is written in a way that it applies to almost everyone. But what is interesting is to see the students’ reaction. Using an online interactive poll in real-time, students use their mobile phones to choose to what extent they feel their horoscope accurately described them. Unsurprisingly, usually over 90 per cent vote that the description is either very accurate or somewhat accurate. I then ask them to look at each others’ horoscopes.

Within a few seconds, the students look up and give me a devilish grin.

I then ask them why they think they were duped. The usual response is that the horoscope was very broad and could be applied to almost everyone. And this, of course, is true.

Hong Kong mask coronavirus goggles
Photo: Kaiser/United Social Press.

However, they usually miss an even more important reason related to their own cognitive biases. As they read through the horoscope, they unconsciously collected all of the statements that could be considered applicable to them, while ignoring all of those that aren’t.

As the cherry-picking of statements aligned with their own beliefs pile up, their beliefs about themselves and sadly, about horoscopes in general, are often further confirmed. In the meantime, all of those details that weren’t applicable are ignored and forgotten.

Did I mention that this class was for a doctoral-level programme?

Confirmation bias is one of the most difficult cognitive weaknesses to overcome. Social media bombards us with messages in multiple forms. Our contacts, who almost always have similar viewpoints, forward us messages and videos that are invariably aligned with our beliefs, and we lower our critical filter – assuming there was one in the first place.

I have no idea whether the video of smearing saliva in the lift was legitimate or not. What I do know is that the first thing I do when I view such messages is to run them through my hoodwink filter. For example, the camera that took the video was moving slightly, even though lift cameras should be stationary.

In this strident era, if we are to have any chance of meeting minds, we must develop the critical capacity to question our beliefs and biases. We must avoid letting our friends and family members, along with their forwarded posts and videos, unduly influence us.

Paul Stapleton is a long-time resident of several countries in Asia, where he has been teaching and researching at various universities. He writes about environmental, social and educational issues. In his op-eds, Paul's goal is to shed some light on issues of interest as well as generate a bit of heat. Paul’s website is at Academic Proofreading Plus.