George Carlin famously joked that people called drivers going faster than them maniacs, and those driving slower were idiots. Incredibly funny, and accurate, but why does this phenomenon occur? Because we are the hero of our own story; our thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs are how we frame ‘normal’. It never, ever occurs to us that we are all some other driver’s ‘maniac’ or ‘idiot’.
Remember the last time a friend posted something on social media that completely contradicted your beliefs?
Was your first reaction to ask how anyone could possibly believe such nonsense?
Did that immediately throw them into your ‘maniac’ or ‘idiot’ category? It may have, depending how close you are to them, and if your ‘normal’ in this area is deeply rooted.
What on earth does all this have to do with changing the world?
Glad you asked….follow me.
A couple of things I want you to understand before we get started
Everyone is the hero of their own narrative.
You are comprised of a series of complex systems; most of which are grounded in maintaining stasis (your ‘normal’).
When these systems sense a threat to stasis, specific functions are executed to protect ‘normal’.
Largely because of items 1-3, people are more rationalizing than rational.
Just like the body is in constant flux to maintain itself within an established range, our sense of self tends toward keeping things ‘normal’. When presented with new information that challenges ‘normal’, we experience discomfort and the mind works to shut that down. Since our brains are optimized to conserve energy, a first step is to refute the conflicting information and move on with life. Normal is sustained and the brain can go about its business again.
Confirmation bias describes the human tendency to add credibility to information that aligns with what a person believes, and diminishes that which contradicts it. Essentially, we tend to exert large amounts of mental energy attempting to discredit findings from that peer-reviewed, double-blind study if it doesn’t jibe with what grandma always said about waiting 30 minutes before swimming. Double down on this if you’ve spent your entire life waiting 30 minutes and are a better person because of it. That kind of internal conflict does not usually go gently into the dark night; it continues to cycle through an array of intellectual gymnastics until something sticks (see point 4).
People do the same thing through social media; cultivating a network that validates what is already believed, while discrediting or blocking any new information. We surround ourselves with like-minded people, plug into information sources that affirm existing beliefs, and blast any contradictions in the comments section. Normal is sustained.
Now the question becomes how do we use facts to counteract cognitive bias? We don’t. Seriously, that’s ridiculous to assume we could overcome millennia of human hard-wiring with facts. People don’t connect with facts, people connect with people. We drive social justice and change the world through real exchanges with other actual humans. In social media, people generalize through meme generators and snippets of thought…one dimensional representations of the human cost behind them. Real change begins with real humans who can’t deflect from the anonymity of a comments section.
Let’s go back to what grandma said about swimming. This is an example of an early message about safety that helped you organize the world in which you live. As children, we receive early messages about everything and develop an interpretation of reality based on these plus our own experiences. Once internalized, these messages can be very difficult to separate from later in life.
Think about the first reports of same-sex marriage in California. People living in more conservative ecosystems were confronted, maybe for the first time, with images of gay and lesbian couples. And guess what, they didn’t really look all that different or threatening than the people living down the street. Because they are the people living down the street.
The same holds true for people of different ethnicities, economic status, faiths, nationalities, etc. Your unconscious bias immediately filters everything through those early messages and personal experiences. This is the point at which it’s critical to take a step back and differentiate opinions from observable facts.
So, how do we change the world?
First, don’t try to influence people by pointing out the flaws in their belief systems. If you are undermining the basic principles that someone has constructed an entire life around, it’s likely they will slam the door or punch you right in the facts. Talk. Find common ground. Try to appreciate the issue through their worldview. Remember point 1, they are the hero of their story and you are only an ancillary character at best.
Second, don’t fight fire with fire - cut off the fuel source instead. When you see misinterpreted or misrepresented information, look for an opening to clarify. Find and reference the source document when you can. This also gives you an opportunity to review and check if your own bias is influencing here. I think the kids refer to this as ‘check yourself before you wreck yourself’, but I could be mistaken.
Next, pick your battles. Some discussions will not end well for either party. Know when to take a step back for your own safety and emotional or mental well-being.
Last, keep yourself open to these conversations. You may find yourself chatting up a stranger in line at the store, or sitting next to someone in a coffee shop.
Be kind. Be visible. In order for us to reach them, they have to see us; we need to see them in return.