Why Can’t we Stick to the Center

Remaining moderate on any standpoint seems to be a growing impossibility.

Creator: tiero | Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I remember my dismay at hearing one of my university professors smugly proclaiming that the second law of thermodynamics, that entropy always increases over time, was the ultimate knock-out blow to the wave of relativism sweeping through the public consciousness. While I wish that my unease at this statement was brought on by its logical flaws, that sadly wasn’t the true cause. The ideal version of myself would have noted that the the thermodynamic arrow of time moves in its direction because of the cosmological arrow and thus informed the direction of the psychological arrow. Entropy always moves forward because we live in an expanding universe and more critically because our brains can only interpret a timeline in which entropy increases, not because entropy is some magically immutable law. What actually went through my mind was more along the lines of “OK well fuck you”.

Why would a seemingly inane scientific statement, whether logical or not, cause such an inflammatory response in a rather lazy and disinterested student? Well, I believe that General Relativity is the greatest work of art ever produced. A portrait of reality so elegant and beautiful that it must, almost certainly, have come from the mind of God. Never mind that Einstein never proclaimed that everything in the universe is relative, I was going to protect his honor from this wild nutter. The concept of relativity has always been one of the cornerstones of my world view and the hell if I was going to listen to this blasphemy.

On the other hand, why would a seasoned academic professional be so adamant on a standpoint which was somewhat irrelevant and logically flawed. Perhaps she had become disenchanted with a world which constantly challenged and revised her knowledge and beliefs. Perhaps she had moral objections to the concept of universal relativism. Most importantly, relativism was not a part of her world view.

In this instance, our irrational standpoints were rather irrelevant. The universe has no sense of obligation to the existence of our beliefs. Unfortunately, however, this type of thought process is innate human nature and pops up in all aspects of life. Sometimes it is inert, but often it can be rather explosive.

The world of politics is arguably the greatest exhibition of the dangers of the irrationally exuberant human tendency of side-picking. Theoretically, the majority of people should tend towards the political center. In reality, being only a tiny bit off center in either direction can set in motion of series of mental processes which drive us far closer to the extremes.

When the American democratic party found a young, hip and politically correct president in Barrack Obama, it sent shock waves through the American conservative population. These shock waves reverberated and built power, to the extent that they drove the American people to the point of electing a brash, rude and politically unpalatable Donald Trump, largely in response.

The republican empire striking back with its very own orange Darth Vader caused the American liberal population to develop its own feverishly irrational response. The relative good of words and actions has taken a back seat to absolute values. The idea of liberality is that each person may hold their own values and follow their own path, so long as that path doesn’t negatively and unduly impact on the lives of others. Liberals have begun acting less liberal though, and more like conservatives who have replaced religious moral imperatives with those of political correctness. Liberal Twitterati and Facebook moral elite routinely burn those seen as moral witches on the digital streets of public opinion, with every ounce the religious zeal of Christian fanatics burning witches in the middle ages.

What causes all of this seemingly systematic extremism? The human mind contains an unimaginable level of complexity, and the results of this complexity being fed into a chaotic system means that we may never truly know all of its inner workings. Human behavior does show some distinct common patterns, though, and these do not always work in our favor.

Each person builds a unique personal world view. This is necessary due to the fact that we have an array of disparate senses and inputs, each incomplete in its rendering, getting input from a world that is by its nature uncertain. This problem is further compounded by the fact that our brains are still evolved to survive a world that was far less certain than our current one. If we were to rely on only these momentary fragments of input or seek full absolute certainty before making decisions, we would stagnate and die.

We therefore develop imaginary concepts which tie together all of our inputs and smooth all of their sharp edges. There is a significant body of scientific evidence that shows just how detached our experience of the world is to the objective reality, and ones acceptance of this evidence may vary. One may be interested when discovering studies showing that we only have high visual acuity and color vision in the very center of our visual field and the majority of the rest of it is a mental fabrication. One may however be horrified and defensive when finding that split brain studies have proven that our minds can completely make up even our own motivation for simple actions in a most fundamental sense.

To whatever level we choose to accept it, nearly all of us understand that our subjective understanding shapes our perception of reality in some way. The problem is that our subjective understanding follows some pretty wild paths to get to decisions.

Having developed in a uncertain world, our brains have developed heuristics to aid in quick decision making and these have led to what are more popularly known as cognitive biases. There are a plethora of cognitive biases, from the bandwagon effect to the availability heuristic to the anchoring bias, which have a role to play in the type of irrational decision making discussed above, but a select few shoulder the majority of the blame.

Confirmation Bias

The confirmation bias has recently become prevalent in public discourse, largely surrounding peoples beliefs regarding the current pandemic. While people often miss-attribute other biases to the confirmation bias, it is arguably the most potent force in driving us to extreme beliefs. Simply put, it is our incredible capacity to discredit or discard any information which doesn’t confirm our existing standpoint.

Millions of people have, for some reason, decided that the only two options for approaching the current pandemic are to save lives or to save the economy. If I am in the “saving lives camp”, then anyone arguing that significant damage to the economy can cause loss of life as well is just a corporate pig scared of losing their millions. If I’m in the “save the economy” camp then the idea of lock-down lessening the infection rate is just a nanny state gone mad.

At the same time, the confirmation bias drives us to seek out information which confirms our existing beliefs. If you’re an American conservative you watch Fox News. If you’re liberal you watch CNN. Neither of these outlets can lay claim to be anywhere near the political center, so in reality what we are doing is surrounding ourselves with only a small part of the full world.

The problem with disregarding contradictory evidence and seeking supportive evidence is that all we end up seeing is more and more evidence that we are correct. It seems insane that anyone else can have a difference standpoint unless they are insane or morally corrupt.

Cognitive Dissonance

A concept which ties in somewhat with confirmation bias is that of cognitive dissonance, and the somewhat related choice supportive bias. This is a result of a person holding and believing two contradictory thoughts or beliefs. The result of this contradiction can cause mental, or even physical, distress and our minds therefore seek ways to remedy it at all costs. This generally happens in one of three ways.

Say, hypothetically of course, you are a Christian conservative upholding the Christian value of goodwill. If, and I realize this is wildly unrealistic, you then find yourself politically supporting a candidate who, while conservative in name, flies in the face of goodwill by regularly being derisive and crude. How do you resolve this? Option 1 is to alter the new belief: “I can’t support this guy, I’m finding someone else.” Good you for. Option 2 is to bring in a third belief to balance the other 2: “Yes, this behavior is problematic, but it addressing some real concerns and sometimes you’ve got to bend rules to get a result.” Not ideal. Option 3, the most problematic in this instance, is to alter the original belief: “You know what, goodwill is over-rated. These people don’t deserve it.” Now we have real problems.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Once the previously mentioned biases have pushed us to the edge of any specific standpoint, the fundamental attribution error provides the ammunition with which we can really vilify anyone who differs from our views. This bias refers to the fundamental differences in how we attribute the role of personal character in our own actions compared to the actions of others. Our own flawed actions are caused by external circumstances whereas when others err this is a clear indication that they are evil or inept.

I just swore at the barista who got confused about my coffee order because I’ve had a bad day. That’s not the type of person I am. The celebrity who said something mildly slanderous 30 years ago in a time when things weren’t viewed the same way clearly has a serious character flaw. We should all let them know just how terrible they are.

This can get even more dangerous when we start to apply it to groups that we see as our own. When our political groups leader fails, it is because they were under pressure or because the opposition were against them. When the opposition leader fails this is just another indication of how truly terrible they are. This further extends to other types of groups such as racial and religious. Never mind the fact that minorities are economically disadvantaged, their higher crime rate must be caused by an innate genetic flaw.

So how do we address biases? We can attempt to put measures in place to address our own irrationality. Reminding oneself every time that one has a strong emotional response to contradictory evidence to be objective may assist in battling confirmation bias. Forcing oneself to consume some sources of contradictory evidence can counteract the choice support bias. Truly considering what our real values are and what is important to us can go a long way to ensuring that we make the best decisions in addressing cognitive dissonance. Focusing on putting oneself in another’s shoes when they falter and asking “What if I had done this?” might help us to appreciate the full array of factors influencing other’s actions.

All of these measures will however require us to overcome yet another irrational behavior - illusory superiority. We have an unrealistically high estimation of our own mental abilities and of the veracity of our own beliefs. Accepting and changing our other biases would be fundamentally challenging to this bias and I am therefore not sure how we would systematically go about achieving this on a large scale.

Looking for a more practical solution to inter-group conflict leads one to the Robbers Cave experiment, conducted by Muzafer Sherif in the 50’s. The purpose of the experiment was to study the type of inter-group conflicts that occur when multiple distinct groups are competing for limited resources. Politics is a clear example of such a situation since political parties vie for limited political power (taking seats in government as an useful metric). In reality, any time that two or more distinct groups form, they are bound to end up competing for some resource.

In the experiment, Sherif assigned twenty-two young boys, previously unknown to each other, into two separate groups at Robber’s Cave State Park, Oklahoma. The groups were initially allowed time to bond and form a group spirit. They dubbed their groups The Eagles and The Rattlers and emblazoned their group’s images onto shirts and flags, much the same as adults pledging allegiance to imaginary donkeys and elephants and proudly donning shirts showing their choice. The groups were then brought into competition with each other in a series of games and this created an intense rivalry, even sparking hatred and leading to attacks and acts of vandalism.

In a third phase, Sherif investigated how such conflicting groups could be brought together. In an initial attempt, the groups were allowed to spend time together in non-competitive activities, such as dining together or watching a movie. This didn’t change their behavior towards each-other. They were then forced into working together by certain orchestrated crises, such as the camps water being cut off. While working together on a single such activity didn’t seem to yield much of a difference, repeated common causes and emergencies requiring cross group collaboration eventually wore down much of the wall between the two groups.

So, can we learn to live together by finding a common cause or having one thrust upon us, such as war or plague. Well, we currently have exactly such a situation, but the results have been somewhat disastrous. In fact, the current riots in America seem as good an indication as any that the pandemic has only escalated division and derision between disparate groups. Perhaps the problem with the Robbers Cave experiments is that they were performed on children? Maybe children make more rational political decisions than adults? That is a frightening thought, but it is one that is slowly starting to creep its way into my mental world view.

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