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Freedom of Thought is Under Attack: Here’s How to Save Your Mind

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Freedom of thought stands at a critical crossroads. Technological and psychological advances could be used to promote free thought. They could shield our inner worlds, reduce our mental biases, and create new spaces for thought. Yet states and corporations are forging these advances into weapons that restrict what we think.

To lose freedom of thought would be to lose something uniquely human. We share our basic emotions with animals. But only we can step back and ask “do I want to be angry?”, “do I want to be that person?”, “couldn’t I be better?”.

We can reflect whether the thoughts, feelings and desires that bubble up within us are consistent with our own goals, values and ideals. If we agree they are, then this makes them more truly our own. We can then act authentically.

But we may also conclude that some thoughts that pop into our heads are a force other than our own. You sit down to do your work and “Check Facebook!” flashes through your mind. Did that thought come from you or from Mark Zuckerberg?

Freedom of thought demands dignity, enables democracy, and is part of what makes us a person. To safeguard it, we must first recognise its enemies.

Three threats to freedom of thought

The first threat comes from advances in psychology. Research has created new understandings of what influences our thoughts, behaviours, and decision making.

States and corporations use this knowledge to make us think and act in a way that serves their goals. These may differ to ours. They use this knowledge to make us gamble more, buy more, and spend more time on social media. It may even be used to swing elections.

The second threat comes from the application of machine learning algorithms to “big data”. When we provide data to companies we allow them to see deep inside us. This makes us more vulnerable to manipulation, and when we realise our privacy is being compromised, this chills our ability to think freely.

The third threat comes from a growing ability to decode our thoughts from our brain activity. Facebook, Microsoft, and Neuralink are developing brain-computer interfaces. This could create machines that will read our thoughts. But creating unprecedented access to our thoughts creates unprecedented threats to our freedom.

These advances in technology and psychology are opening the doors for states and corporations to violate, manipulate, and punish our thoughts. So, what can we do about it?

The law can save us

International human rights law gives the right to freedom of thought. Yet, this right has been almost completely neglected. It is hardly ever invoked in the courtroom. We need to work out what we want this right to mean so we can use it to protect ourselves.

We should use it to defend mental privacy. Otherwise conformity pressures will impede our free play of ideas and search for truth. We should use it to prevent our thoughts being manipulated, either through psychological tricks or through threatened punishment.

And we should use it to protect thought in all of its forms. Thought isn’t just what happens in our heads. Sometimes we think by writing or by doing a Google search. If we recognise these activities as “thought” then they should qualify for absolute privacy under the right to freedom of thought.

Finally, we should use this right to demand that governments create societies that allow us to think freely. This is where psychology can help.

Preventing manipulation

Better understanding our minds can help protect us from manipulation by others. For example, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between what we could call “rule-of-thumb” and “rule-of-reason” thinking.

Rule-of-thumb thinking involves effortless and ancient mental processes that allow us to make quick decisions. The price of this speed can be mistakes. In contrast, rule-of-reason thinking is a slow, consciously controlled process, often based in language. It takes longer, but can be more accurate.

This suggests that creating speed bumps in our thinking could help improve decision making. Clicking unthinkingly on content or adverts from corporations doesn’t allow us to exercise freedom of thought. We do not have time to work out if our desires are our own or those of a puppet master.

We must also change our environment into one that supports autonomy. Such an environment would allow us to create our own reasons for our actions, minimise external controls like rewards and punishments, and encourage choice, participation and shared decision making.

Technology can help create such an environment. But whose responsibility is it to implement this?

Taking action

Governments must help citizens learn from a young age about how the mind works. They must structure society to facilitate free thought. And they have a duty to stop those, including corporations, who would violate the right to freedom of thought.

Corporations must play their part. They should state freedom of thought as a policy commitment. They should perform due diligence on how their activities may harm freedom of thought. They could be required to declare the psychological tricks they are using to try and shape our behaviour.

And we the people must educate ourselves. We must promote and support free-thought values. We must condemn those turning one of our species’ greatest strengths, our sociality, into one of our greatest weaknesses by using it as a means of data extraction. We must vote with our feet and wallets against those who violate our freedom of thought.

All this assumes that we want freedom of thought. But do we? Many of us would literally rather electrocute ourselves than sit quietly with our thoughts.

Would many of us also prefer governments and corporations do our thinking for us, serving up predictions and nudges for us to simply follow? Would many of us be happy for freedom of thought to be limited if it led to increased security? How much do we want freedom of thought and what are we prepared to sacrifice for it?

Simply put, do we still want to be human? Or has the pain, effort and responsibility of one of our signature abilities, free thought, become too much for us to bear? If it has, it is neither clear what will become of us nor clear what we will become.

This essay first appeared in The Conversation.

More articles by:

Simon McCarthy-Jones is an Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology and Neuropsychology, Trinity College Dublin.

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