I’m biased and so are you

Here’s an epiphany: You are wrong about some of your deepest beliefs. And so am I.

I’ve been on a reading kick in the past year, driven by COVID-19 quasi-isolation, and while Moby Dick was amazing I found three books that transformed my conceptions about religion, politics, and the raging cultural war in the United States. In Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason, Justin E.H. Smith recounts that human fantastical beliefs have always been with us; In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman suggests our irrationality is driven by how our brains are wired to fire emotional “System 1” heuristic shortcuts when our logic-based “System 2” mental scrutinies become overloaded.

Fair points, that humans are irrational and we make emotional decisions. But why? My exploration culminated in “The Constitution of Knowledge,” where Jonathan Rauch explains persuasively that all human biases lean in one direction: toward social acceptance. This is blindingly obvious, in retrospect — when your crazy Uncle Igor argues over the Thanksgiving dinner that aliens are among us, or that chemtrails are a conspiracy by thousands of pilots to seed chemicals to keep us down, you may groan but also recognize that Igor learned this from his friends, from his preferred media channels, and that when he hangs out on his deck on weekends he is likely drinking beers with a social group who believes exactly the same thing.

Birds of a feather missthink together.

Rauch writes that humans evolved not to find the truth, but instead to gather threads of information to validate stories that our local groups believe in. This was required to fit in and survive. Consider: A few thousand years ago, the worst thing that could happen to you would be to become ostracized from your clan in the wilderness — exile then meant death. To implant yourself in your micro-society, strength is one path, but fighting your competitors means someone someday will likely fight you too. So a better approach was persuasion, telling compelling stories that others found appealing, and so quasi-truthful myths and belief systems became the basis for how we “belong.”

And because “making stuff up” doesn’t pass our strong BS detectors, the real path to persuasion is to believe something yourself even if it is not true. If you believe what the group believes, a reinforcing cycle emerges. Leaders succeed who tell the most compelling variation on the group’s prior emotional plot, and voila!, the story gets stronger.

Are you religious? Good for you, spiritual exploration is a human need and positive for mental health and heart rates. But consider there are at least 300 religions in the world, and adherents to each one believe only they are right. That’s a 99.7% fail rate in belief systems. A lot of people somewhere are messing up in their minds, surrounded by communities that tell them they hold the truth.

Humans warp data to validate beliefs. In one study, researchers gave groups of subjects a data set with the puzzle: did series A of events affect series B? In the first test, subjects were told A was applying skin cream and B was a rash; they evaluated the data and most concluded correctly that A led to a reduction in B. But in the second test, a separate group of subjects was told A was concealed weapons and B was crime rates. Here, the group split apart in their conclusions — liberals and conservatives found different outcomes, aligned with the cliches of their cultural belief systems. What was most fascinating was subjects pre-screened as higher in IQ were more likely to skew the data toward their liberal or conservative group bias when evaluating the data set.

What does this mean? Being wrong doesn’t mean you’re stupid; in fact, the more clever you are, the more likely you are twisting information to support the story of your clan.

It’s hard to believe we all can be wrong, but that’s how groupthink works. To test this, let’s play a mental game beyond our current picayune politics. Imagine it is 300 years in the future, and our great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren are now looking back. Society in the year 2321 has evolved, cleaning up the planet and expanding our circles of empathy: people no longer eat meat, which requires killing other creatures; they no longer emit carbon gases, which destroys the environment; with the rise of robotics to raise crops and provide services, most people no longer work, so governments now provide universal basic income.

Our ancestors look back on us and shake their heads. Can you believe he used to kill animals and eat them? Did she really drive a car that shat poison into the atmosphere? Did everyone really ignore their loved ones to spend time “working” with strangers for most of the day?

It is logical, if we pause, that killing any creature is wrong, that turning the planet’s air toxic is bad, that we should live our lives among those for whom we care. But most people today don’t think of such things, because our group beliefs turn our heads elsewhere.

The future will expose our current minds as misguided.

We swim like fish in today’s cultural delusions.

I’m certain I’m right.

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