The challenge of making rational decisions in an emotional world.
“In the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.”
– Nelson Mandela
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
– Winston S. Churchill
There’s a challenge we’re all facing in the political arena these days. Browse through the social media landscape on any political topic, and you’ll find most people—no matter their perspective—screaming at the top of their lungs that the other side doesn’t understand the facts, that they’re missing the real point, and that they’re leading us towards collective disaster. The Trump/Russia debate is a great example. In one echo chamber, it’s obvious that Trump is in collusion with a hostile foreign government, that the collusion is manifestly illegal, and that he should be immediately investigated and impeached for the sake of national security. In another echo chamber, the liberals are clearly overreacting to a lot of hyped-up media coverage of allegations with absolutely no hard evidence. It’s nothing more than coordinated misdirection intended to drag focus away from issues that matter and to increase profits for the media industry.
Environmental policy is another example. In one echo chamber, the libs have conned themselves into believing bad science that supports a narrative intended to harm business and bring about a socialist world order, and they must be stopped for the good of all freedom-loving Americans. In the opposing echo chamber, the right-wing nut jobs are remaining willfully blind to indisputable facts. They have all been conned by corporate wolves in populist sheep’s clothing, and they’re heading us towards the extinction of life on earth.
In each of these examples, the respective sides are so consumed by their own narrative, and have so vilified the other view, that even if a centrist approach is more rational, no meeting of the minds is possible. And for instinctively good reason: After all, why would anyone engage with an insane person? The rational option, instead, is to wall that person off. Our instinct is to eliminate those with whom we cannot rationally negotiate, and our current rhetoric causes us to believe this is the case for our political opponents.
What we’re forgetting in all this fog of argument is that political decisions aren’t about logic, they’re about tribe. Applying a logical argument to sway someone in making a tribal decision is a losing strategy.
Political opinions function in the social realm as strong signals, communicating to others that we have good character, that we fit in with the tribe, that we’re safe. Any of the respective arguments we make may have factual merit, but the facts don’t matter in this context; it’s about belonging.
When someone makes an offhand comment like, “Sure is a cold winter, so much for global warming,” they’re not making a science-based argument that global warming is a hoax (though they may believe that). Rather, they’re signaling to those around them to which tribe they belong. When someone at a party declares loudly, “Trump sure is a nut job,” they’re not making a thorough psychological assessment of the president (though one may be warranted). Rather, they’re indicating the social group to which they belong. At root, our choice of community may be based on reason, but once the choice is made, much of what comes after is a public declaration of that alignment, because there is safety in membership. From that point on, logic comes second.
To the human animal, tribe is critical to survival. Humans don’t thrive because we’re physically strong or even because of our large individual brains. We thrive because we cooperate. Our cooperation is our single most important survival strategy. It allowed us to dominate animals many times our size and speed, grow our own food, conquer (for the most part) the fatal extremes of nature, and eventually fly through the air and even into space. We reign supreme on this planet because of our innate biological drive to form societies.
We see this fact play out in all our behavior, from our most inspiring creations to our most destructive disorders. In fact, the very words “inspiring” and “disorder” connote social interaction. To inspire is to fill someone else with the urge to do something. Disorder is the disruption of systematic functioning. Language itself is a means of social interaction. Who we are is cooperation. We cannot know ourselves, nor understand the nature of our experience, in the absence of society. Our identities are formed by our interactions with others.
So it’s no wonder that we make our individual decisions with reference to our communities. The way our spouses, friends, and co-workers behave seems to most of us not just “how it should be,” but in fact “how it is.” And anyone who does it differently seems not only odd, but wrong. As far as our basic social conditioning is concerned, others are wrong, and we are right.
In the field of psychology, this is referred to as naive realism: the human tendency to believe that we see the world around us objectively, and that people who disagree with us must be uninformed or irrational. Naive realism is a classic psychological bias, and as such it stands in the way of sound decision making.
This kind of tribal thinking, however, is embedded in all of us, and at the core it’s about survival. We may believe logic is important and even aspire to its use, but in the face of survival, logic takes a back seat.
The challenge is that we’re all subject to our respective biases all the time. For instance, you know deep down in your bones that your political opinion is correct and moral, right? Yet, with the exception of very few sociopaths, that bone-deep “knowledge” of rightness exists in your opponents as well. Pause a moment and take that in: Your political opponents are, for the most part, not sociopaths trying to manipulate anyone. They are people like you, who believe as deeply as you do, who know in their hearts, that they are right. Like you, they only want what’s best for their families and their communities. Like you, they believe they’re the good guys.
If both sides believe they’re absolutely right, how can we ever decide what to do?
First, facts do matter and are ultimately how we must make decisions if we’re to survive. But it’s important to understand that in order to sway someone making a tribal decision, you must begin by appealing to their sense of belonging; facts come later. Before anyone will listen to anything you have to say, they must know that they will not be ostracized from their tribe for engaging with you. You must make them feel safe before you can have a real dialogue. Your ideas must align with their core need to belong in their own community. No matter how good your arguments, if they result in social shaming, you’ll make no headway.
For example, if you’re trying to talk to a liberal about his views, but you start by telling him that everyone who believes in climate change is a “libtard,” you’re not going to facilitate much genuine interaction. Taking that a step further, if you’re asking that liberal to buy into views that will make his liberal friends see him as immoral—or merely uncool—you’ll never even get started. The social hit he faces is too high. You’ve got to start by declaring that you understand his perspective, and that he’s okay for having it.
One effective approach proposed by Lee Ross, author of the book The Wisest One In The Room, is to enter any conflict assuming that you’re wrong, and asking to be informed. Your views may or may not be changed in the ensuing interaction, but in this context, you’ll hear more rational discussion and less emotional rhetoric. With this approach you’re already open, so your opponent doesn’t need to sling his heavy rhetorical weaponry or try to shame you. This is an effective way to both manage your own bias and to simultaneously put your opponent at ease so you can talk. Incidentally, this works great for personal conflicts between couples as well, which, as you can imagine, is where I’ve seen it play out most often.
The method proposed by Ross is useful not only because it results in dialogue, but because it allows opponents to genuinely—if momentarily—suspend fundamental biases, and that in turns results in the discovery of common ground. In our current political environment, the constant stream of mud slinging has becoming increasingly destructive and polarizing. We’re all entrenched, and nobody is genuinely seeking to understand the other perspective or to jointly form workable solutions. This is the path to totalitarianism. This is the path to war.
By no means is Ross’s approach the only one, but at its root, this approach (along with the critical component of truth telling) is the essence of reconciliation. In every context of human interaction—familial, romantic, friendship, and politics—we face conflict with one another and we either heal from it, or we suffer and split apart. A split comes at great cost, and particularly so when it’s a community at risk of splitting. To move forward as a people, we must constantly reconcile our angers and grievances. The grievances do not go away; it’s just that our ability to manage them matures. This process never ends. We won’t ever be in total harmonious agreement and be done working through conflict. So we might as well learn how to handle it better.
We’re strongest when we cooperate. In fact, we survive only because we cooperate. In the day-to-day, that means recognizing the strength of a diverse and complex society that consists of opposing views. Nurturing such a society means constantly healing from all its inherent, inevitable conflict and growing from that struggle. That in turn often means acknowledging that our social relationships are more important than our individual egos. That’s tough medicine for the human animal, since the ego is another of the critical survival traits we’ve developed. This is not to suggest that the individual must bow to society—this is no communist manifesto. It’s an acknowledgment that ego and society are two aspects of the same entity. One cannot exist without the other, and their respective value must be kept in balance for optimal function.
Healing from conflict is difficult, and feels impossible in the heat of disagreement. But heal we must, for we cannot continue except with one another. We are human, and therefore we are a team whether we like it or not.
Erik Newton is Founder of Together.
You can listen to the audio version of this essay on our podcast here.