Why We Can’t Agree About Anything

Cognitive biases are like factory settings on your smartphone: default behaviors that we don’t fiddle with unless we notice the need for a change. That is one reason why the word ‘bias’ is unfair. What are usually deemed malfunctions are actually handy thumb rules that we use to go about in the world. That is why they were built into us by evolution. But just like how most people leave bad reviews but never good ones, these heuristics get a bad rap because of the times they go awry.

Having said that, if left unchecked these biases can actually cause a lot of damage. Nowhere is this more apparent than in politics, or more specifically, discussions about politics. The fact that normal people like us can’t seem to agree on anything anymore, means there are fundamental factors apart from just different views at play. Something within us is making our convictions unshakeable and amplifying our differences with other people.

This ghost in our machine is, I believe, the combined effect of three specific cognitive biases: confirmation bias, halo effect, and the correspondence bias. Individually, these phenomena make us falter occasionally, but together they create a toxic brew that short circuits our good judgment, and has us flying at each other’s throats with our keyboards. Understanding this holy trinity of error is, therefore, the first step towards creating saner, and more civil discourse.

Confirmation bias: In the court of fallacies, confirmation bias is the undisputed king. Ask anyone to give an example of a bias and it’s likely they’ll cite this one over others. Simply stated, this bias makes us seek only that evidence which confirms our existing position. Anything that can prove us wrong is either ignored or discredited, sometimes subconsciously. Simply put, it makes us want to seek rightness instead of the truth. Get enough people suffering from confirmation bias together, and you have yourself an echo chamber where everyone props everyone else, safely insulated from opposing views.

Halo effect: Whenever you start believing that someone you know ‘can do no wrong’, you might be falling prey to the halo effect. As its name itself suggests, this bias leads us to view certain people favorably in all respects, based on very limited evidence. We might, for instance, conflate someone’s likeable personality or skill in one area, with their ability or conduct in other areas as well. This is why the support of loyal fans doesn’t waver even when their heroes are caught doing less than savoury things.

The opposite side of this phenomenon is when you convince yourself that the ‘enemy tribe’ is bad in every aspect. As far as you’re concerned, their words and actions are neither truthful, nor sincere. This is why based on just someone’s political affiliations, we are willing to form impressions about their intellect, morals and even upbringing.

Fundamental attribution error: Lesser known than the previous two, the fundamental attribution error is what makes human beings such hypocrites. When you attribute your own actions to your context, but those of others to their ignorance, idiocy or evilness, you are in the throes of this error. This guy said it best:

When it comes to our political beliefs, we are convinced that we have arrived at them solely on the basis of facts. Others, however, believe what they do because they are ignorant, bigoted, or a combination of the two. If only they would stop being stubborn and agree with us!

Operating in tandem, these quirks of the mind turn even the most reasonable of us into self-satisfied orcs. Blinded by our own exaggerated sense of virtue and rightness, we see no redeeming qualities in those who disagree with us. Seen this way, it might seem there is no way out from this impasse we have reached as a society.

Well, as it turns out, one man might have given us the solution more than 80 years ago.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is known as one of America’s greatest authors, and his novel The Great Gatsby has a permanent place in best-of-fiction lists. The book is also indirectly responsible for one the all time great memes of modern times: the Di Caprio glass raise.

In a short story published in Esquire magazine in 1936, Fitzgerald wrote the following:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

This idea is now more commonly known through the (needlessly complicated) term cognitive dissonance. Simply put, this is when you experience the psychological stress of holding two inconsistent ideas in your head. For instance, when a political party you oppose does something constructive for a cause you care about, how do you react? Your stand against an opposing political party is based on them being wrong/incompetent/evil at all levels, so how do you process a good deed that that they’ve done?

If you’re like most people, you will explain it away to reduce the hurt in your head. You might tell yourself that there is an ulterior motive behind the action, or you might simply nitpick to discredit the whole move. Furthermore, the fact that people around you think the same bolsters your own beliefs.

This line of thought demonstrates the inability to appreciate two powerful truths. One, that we don’t hold beliefs, we become them. Beliefs are not like clothing that can be discarded at will, but like skin. Trying to get rid of them will cause considerable agony. Second, our beliefs are strongly influenced by the communities we are part of. Most often, we believe in things simply because our community believes in them. Good luck, however, on finding someone who will admit to this.

The only way out of this quagmire is to take Fitzgerald’s advice and start admitting contrary opinions into our minds. But how do you do that without your head exploding? The answer comes from an essay titled Keep Your Identity Small, written by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham:

The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

In effect, the more you confuse your identity with the beliefs you hold, the more close-minded you are. That’s why rather than define ourselves completely through our beliefs, we should probably consider ourselves simply the medium through which they are expressed. Maybe then we would become less militant in our approach and start having what many have called strong opinions, loosely held.

I read like a man possessed | I write to understand the world | Twitter: @DhawalHelix