Convictions

December 06, 2016

Abstract

2016 was a very dramatic year in politics: Brexit, Trump or even PSD winning elections for the mayor’s office in Bucharest. And my whole world was full of people expressing their surprise or even disgust regarding the ones on the other side. Why is this happening?

The Why

  1. Our beliefs exist in a continuum. Do you remember the last time you estimated how satisfied you were with a restaurant/hotel/movie on a scale 1-to-10? It took you a while, right? Maybe you even changed the feedback a couple of times.

  2. Most often than not, the choices that reflect our beliefs exist in a discrete universe: you can not split your vote and offer 60% to Hilary and the rest of 40% to Trump, nor can you be both an atheist and a Christian.

  3. Your brain doesn’t like being close to the boundaries. It pulls you closer to the center of your camp, instead of pulling you closer to other ideas you don’t necessarily identify with.

  4. The more inquisitive you are, chances are you are just going to enforce this drift towards the center of the bubble, instead of exploring other, maybe opposing, views.

Your brain doesn’t like being close to the boundaries

Being close to the borders brings a lot of second guessing and incertitude, this is an uncomfortable place to sit. The fix we ofter resort to is confirmation bias, in short we: try to stay away from those areas.

But what do I mean by those areas? Well, pretty much every place where ideas are formed and propagated, for example:

  1. Our communities: we prefer the company of those similar to us, those we feel comfortable with. A direct result of this is a phenomenon of amplification of those concepts that form the identity of a community (be it politics, religion, or even fashion). This appears to be called communal reinforcement. To me this is just another component of that pulling force that keeps us close to our identity.

  2. Media: we prefer those pieces of information that share our opinions and this is exploited by the media companies (echo chambers). In social media (Facebook, Google Search, Youtube etc.) this phenomenon is known as filter bubble, a state in which algorithms present you those pieces of information they consider you would relate to without challenging your beliefs. This is an nice little piece of further reading on this subject.

What to do about it?

This behavior is hardwired inside our brain by millions of years of evolution and avoiding the pitfall of taking a dive too close to your core beliefs, preventing you to see the other worlds surrounding you, will be no easy feat. After all, the whole problem is really vague, what is this sweet spot in which you can empathize with those opposing you, but, in the same time, you don’t feel you have no personality because you identify yourself with everything, in general, but nothing, in particular. Nonetheless I shall try to state a couple of ideas I consider useful in this respect: