Is It The Internet That’s Making Us This Way?

June 2016

Arguing female male

 

“Are you coming to bed?”

“I can’t. This is important.”

“What?”

“Someone is wrong on the Internet.” ~ xkcd comic

 

A Facebook friend recently posted a link to an op-ed piece by Frank Bruni titled, “How Facebook Warps Our Worlds.” If you’re a Facebook user, you may have noticed that many of the things you see in your newsfeed are links to articles that have the same basic slant as those to which you post links. I don’t see much from the conservative side of the ideological divide in my newsfeed. I do see lots of liberal stuff. And I’ve noticed recently that Facebook actually “helps” me find even more things it thinks I might like – that would be more liberal stuff. (Although, to be fair, Facebook does periodically provide irritating things from the other side, just to annoy me. :))

Bruni writes about “how we use social media in particular and the Internet in general — and how we let them use us.” And he astutely notes that “they’re not so much agents as accomplices, new tools for ancient impulses.” It’s not about us being manipulated by some super algorithm; rather, “it’s about a tribalism that has existed for as long as humankind has …”

Yes, whereas humans used to be members of hunter-gatherer tribes, most of us are now members of political, ideological, or religious “tribes,” and social media can exacerbate the tribalism by showing us disproportionately what we want to see. But mainly it just makes it much, much easier to access like-minded people. Instead of having to rely on real face-to-face or phone contact with people we actually know in order to have the pleasure of preaching to each other’s choirs, we can now do it virtually, online. Not only is that much easier and quicker, but the Internet gives us access to a much larger community of like-minded people. Our preaching to each other’s choirs can become positively symphonic. I have quite a number of Facebook friends I’ve never met, but I know they’re in my tribe, and I can rely on them to indicate as much by “liking” my posts or my comments.

But, although Facebook might try to “shield” people from those in “the other tribe,” it doesn’t always succeed. Honestly, I think I would welcome comments on my posts from the other political or ideological tribe if they were seriously thoughtful and well intentioned. But responses from opposing tribes are often not of the friendly “let’s discuss this further” variety; they are more typically of the snarky “you’re a total jerk” variety.

Now, I cannot claim that I never use snark on the Internet, but I try to direct it only at those with power or influence (e.g., politicians or celebrities) who I think are abusing their power or using their influence carelessly and dangerously.[1] When it comes to everyone else, I always try hard to be civil and non-obnoxious – to do unto others on the Internet as I would have them do unto me on the Internet.

I once posted a response to someone supporting Sarah Palin. I made sure to make my response non-snarky and neutral-sounding – not a put down (but just explaining why I didn’t support Palin). To my surprise, the original commenter said my comment was making him rethink things – a rare and wonderful response!

But why is such a response so rare? There could be truly thoughtful conversations among people from different political or ideological tribes on social media, since these platforms are “virtual megaphones” that make it easy to converse with many more people than one’s immediate circle of friends. There could be, but generally there aren’t. Rather than a tone of “tell me more; you might have a point,” users of social media are much more likely to try to slap down comments from the opposing tribe. Why is that?

In her TEDx talk, “Why ‘scout mindset’ is crucial to good judgment,” Julia Galef asks her audience to imagine themselves in each of two roles: the soldier and the scout. [Full disclosure: Julia is my daughter.]

“I’d like you to imagine for a moment that you’re a soldier in the heat of battle. … Your adrenalin is elevated and your actions are stemming from these deeply ingrained reflexes, reflexes rooted in a need to protect yourself and your side, and to defeat the enemy.

 So now I’d like you to imagine playing a very different role: that of the scout. So the scout’s job is not to attack or defend; the scout’s job is to understand … the scout wants to know what’s really there, as accurately as possible. And in a real actual army, both the soldier and the scout are essential.

 But you can also think of each of these roles as a mindset, a metaphor for how all of us process information and ideas in our daily lives. … having good judgment, making accurate predictions, making good decisions is mostly about which mindset you’re in.”

Julia goes on to explain how “soldier mindset” puts us in what scientists call “motivated reasoning”:

” … in which our unconscious motivations, our desires and fears, shape the way we interpret information. So some information, some ideas, feel like our allies, and we want them to win, we want to defend them.”

This contrasts with “scout mindset,” which she describes as

“ … the drive not to make one idea win and another lose, but just to see what’s really there as honestly and accurately as you can, even if it’s not pretty or convenient or pleasant.”

So why is it that, while we could be having fruitful cross-tribe conservations on social media, we generally aren’t having such conversations? I think the Internet just illuminates the fact that for most people, “soldier mindset” is the default. The Internet gives us easy access to allies defending our ideas or ideology or tribe.

And it feels good to have people affirm that they are with you, that you are right. I can personally attest to this. In contrast, it feels bad to find out that someone on the Internet thinks you’re wrong. I can personally attest to this too. Interestingly, it’s much easier for me to let the nasty, snarky comments roll off my back than it is the more thoughtful comments from the opposing side.[2] The more thoughtful the comment, the more I pay attention, and the more likely I am to think, “Perhaps I’m wrong about this. Maybe there are things I haven’t fully considered.”

Which makes me think that all the snark and nastiness on social media is not really intended to persuade anyone of anything, but rather just to vent. It’s “soldiers throwing hand grenades” at their opponents. But in the modern world of the Internet, we shouldn’t be trying to kill or maim each other (either metaphorically or literally, hopefully). It makes much more sense to try to persuade each other.

But persuading people to change their minds is hard – much harder than venting and hurling verbal hand grenades. It’s particularly hard to change people’s minds about ideas that define, or have become badges of affiliation with, a political, ideological, or religious tribe.

Conservatives and liberals – the two main ideological tribes in the United States – have been “conversing” about the proper role and size of government and why some people are “winners” in society and other people are “losers” for decades, and neither side has convinced the other of very much, as far as I can tell.

One likely reason for this is that it’s not just a disagreement about facts. There are also differences in values – different ideas, for example, about what is “moral.”[3] This is not to say that values are immutable. But I suspect it is harder to change people’s values – their ideas about what is important in a person or a society – than to change their beliefs about what is factually true.

But even changing people’s beliefs about what is true is no small job. A more naïve earlier version of me believed that, if you simply present people with the relevant facts, and if those facts contradict what they believe, they will change their beliefs. But a fair amount of recent research suggests that isn’t true. Presenting people with facts that contradict their beliefs doesn’t necessarily cause them to change their beliefs; in fact, it often makes them dig in deeper.[4]

And especially in the social sciences, facts are not so easy to come by. Data must be carefully collected to avoid bias. And as any social scientist can tell you, this can be hard to do. Moreover, understanding a society or an economy or a political system requires not just a set of facts, but an interpretation of those facts to form a cohesive “story” that approximates “the truth” as well as possible.

But maybe it’s just that it’s hard to come by enough hard incontrovertible facts about the issues over which liberals and conservatives disagree. It is often hard to produce actual reliable statistics and analysis (as opposed to anecdotes or “spin”) when it comes to social, political, and economic phenomena.

Even when hard incontrovertible facts are not hard to come by, however – even when there are mountains of hard incontrovertible facts – people who do not want to believe them will not believe them.

Climate change denial is, at this point, the “poster child” for this phenomenon. With climate change we’re in the realm of the hard sciences. There are measurements galore; there are reams of data; there is an almost universal consensus among scientists that climate change is real and human-caused (and very, very dangerous if left unaddressed). And still a non-trivial percentage of Americans absolutely refuse to believe any of the data or any of those scientists.[5] The presumptive Republican nominee for president is among them (as were his major Republican opponents).

But climate change is a problem that really requires a big government solution, and that doesn’t fit with the conservative belief that we need to keep the government small. I suspect this conflict – between what the enormous problem of climate change clearly demands and what conservative ideology clearly prohibits – is one of the roots of the distrust of climate science among conservatives.

Accepting a fact that contradicts one’s belief system is like watching a chink form in the vast edifice of one’s model of the world. And what if there are more such facts? What if too many “chinks” start to cause large fissures to form? What if the whole edifice starts crumbling before your eyes?

And suppose you admit the existence of a “chink” in your edifice. Beliefs can become badges of tribal affiliation. And to question all or part of your tribe’s preferred model of the world is to put into question that affiliation. A Republican who admits he believes that climate change is real and human-caused risks being shunned by the others in his tribe. A Democrat who admits to having reservations about affirmative action risks being shunned by his tribe.

And what is true for the more prominent political figures in these tribes is probably also true for ordinary Americans who have similar “tribal affiliations.” It’s uncomfortable to publicly question or outright reject “tribal beliefs” and risk being shunned by one’s friends and/or family. It can even be uncomfortable to question such beliefs in the privacy of one’s own mind. Ask anyone who has lost religious faith.

In a fascinating episode of the Rationally Speaking Podcast, Julia Galef interviews David McRaney, who studies “biases, fallacies, and the psychology behind them.” The topic of the podcast is, “Why It’s So Hard to Change Someone’s Mind.” [Full Disclosure: Julia is still my daughter.] At one point in the podcast, McRaney talks about people who’ve been in “extreme belief groups” (e.g., cults or conspiracy theory groups) and who changed their minds completely:

“I’ve interviewed some people who are former members of the Westboro Baptist Church. I’ve interviewed former cult members. I’ve interviewed a variety of people who have experienced that 100%, press the reset button, delete everything and start over and it was completely catastrophic. Their lives were ruined, and they’re still scratching on the edges of a well, trying to get back to the surface … Whether it’s intuitive or it’s even biologically baked in, if there’s any resistance to that it is justified because people that I’ve met who’ve done that have suffered tremendously for abandoning their belief structure wholesale. They all have extreme trust issues. How do you even begin to rebuild the nodes that create the network that help you make sense of the world if you’ve completely abandoned all nodes. It’s very difficult to start back over again.”

And it’s not just that it’s hard to trust anything after a radical change of beliefs. You can become a pariah in your former community. McRaney talks about one man, Charlie, who had been a “rising star” in the world of conspiracy believers (who believe, for example, that 9-11 was “an inside job”), but who changed his mind – and announced the change publicly – when he was swayed by the evidence:

“ … he went on YouTube … and said, “You know what? I think I’ve changed my mind.” The response was people all throughout the Internet are still trying to ruin his life. … . It’s so bad that at this point, to be able to have a job, he’s had to change his name. He’s gone dark on the Internet for more than a year now and he’s had to just completely change his entire life because he changed his mind about this one concept.”

It is no wonder that many people’s reaction is to guard against that first contradictory fact, that first challenge to their model of the world, lest opening themselves to the possibility that one part of their model being wrong may lead ultimately to the crumbling of the entire edifice.

So changing people’s minds is hard because people’s default position is that they don’t want to change their minds. There is too much at stake; seriously considering the possibility that the other side might be right about something opens the door to the possibility that they might be right about more things – and ultimately that your model of the world may be seriously flawed. You may feel that you have to choose between a new model of the world and all your previous friends and comrades … and, perhaps, family as well. This is perhaps a more detailed way of saying that there are understandable emotional reasons for soldier mindset being the default mindset for most people.

There have been a few brave souls in the public sphere who have come to believe that their model of the world was wrong and have publicly admitted it. To his great credit, Bruce Bartlett, a Republican who worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, wrote an article admitting that he had come to see that his nemesis, Paul Krugman, was actually right all along. He writes:

“I had previously viewed Krugman as an intellectual enemy and attacked him rather colorfully in an old column that he still remembers. For the record, no one has been more correct in his analysis and prescriptions for the economy’s problems than Paul Krugman. The blind hatred for him on the right simply pushed me further away from my old allies and comrades.”[6]

Not surprisingly, Bartlett’s acknowledgment did not cause his colleagues on the right to rethink their own ideas. No, instead he was basically shunned.

And the few Republican politicians who have publicly acknowledged that their tribe’s “climate-change-is-a-hoax” theory is wrong – i.e., who came out and said they believe climate change is real and human-caused – paid the political price. Neither Bob Inglis (R-SC) nor Jon Huntsman (R-UT) won re-election. Seeking the truth, whatever it may be, can be a long, lonely journey.

Which is discouraging, because when enough people hold false beliefs it can be seriously damaging to some or all of us. Think of climate change denial; or racism. And it’s discouraging also because to change things that need to be changed in this country usually requires changing hearts and minds, at least to some degree.

So what do we do? It is notoriously difficult to change people’s minds about things they really care about, especially things that identify them as members of a given tribe. And, as noted above, people often have good emotional reasons to be wary about changing their minds, even if they are factually wrong about something.

Now, imagine if everyone’s default mindset were scout mindset. This would be a whole different ballgame. People wouldn’t reflexively defend whatever beliefs they hold just because that’s what their tribe believes. They would want to find out the truth, whatever it happens to be. So one way to approach the problem is to ask, “What is the best way to nudge people out of soldier mindset and into scout mindset?”

Or, approaching it from a different angle: What are the best ways to ensure that people stay in soldier mindset? Those are things to avoid doing. So, for example, don’t be attacking. Don’t ridicule. Don’t be condescending. Don’t make people feel like you’re trying to hack away at their edifices. Think about how you would react to your own comments on social media before you write them. In general, do unto others on the Internet as you would have others do unto you on the Internet.

Of course, trying to change the minds of everyone on the Internet with whom you disagree would be overwhelming and discouraging – and not particularly productive. There are people online whose ideas I find abhorrent, but I decide to just “not go there.” Life is too short.

But is it always other people’s minds that need changing? Scout mindset isn’t a good idea just for other people. It’s good for you – and me – too. Who knows? I could be wrong about something! (Stranger things have happened.) So could you. And that’s okay. Just think how valuable the Internet could be if we were all scouts instead of soldiers. All the energy we’re currently spending defending our tribes on the Internet could instead be spent helping each other see reality as clearly as possible. Not as immediately “gratifying” as throwing verbal hand grenades, perhaps, but I hope we can all lay down our verbal weapons long enough to agree that it would be far more worthwhile.

 

[1] I’ve been pretty merciless towards Republicans who are denying climate change, for example, and more recently, Susan Sarandon, who I think has a cavalier attitude about the possibility of a Trump presidency that I regard as irresponsible and dangerous.

[2] I’ve actually gotten mercifully few comments from opposing tribes on Facebook. And I’ve never gotten some of the truly vile, misogynistic, and threatening comments I’ve read occur on Twitter (I’m not on Twitter, in part because of the kinds of things I read about it).

[3] Jonathan Haidt has done some fascinating work in this area. See, for example: https://www.edge.org/conversation/what-makes-vote-republican ; http://righteousmind.com/ https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind?language=en

[4] See, for example: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney ; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/11/11/whats-a-bigger-driver-of-science-denial-politics-or-religion/ ; http://www.alternet.org/story/154252/the_republican_brain%3A_why_even_educated_conservatives_deny_science_–_and_reality

[5] Of course, science is not infallible. I explore the question, When should we believe scientists?, in another essay by that name. See https://ellenpost.wordpress.com/2015/10/27/when-should-we-believe-scientists/. I conclude in that essay that there are strong reasons indeed to believe the scientists about human-caused climate change.

 

[6] http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/revenge-of-the-reality-based-community/

 

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2 comments on “Is It The Internet That’s Making Us This Way?

  1. Rachel Alexander says:

    Having a lot of scout/soldier moments with my father on FB and I am afraid that will only get worse as the election progresses. Thanks for this helpful reminder and metaphor. And the helpful daughter is also good. 🙂

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