Advice you didn't ask for
February 08, 2023
If the last 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that people do not think rationally. We don’t. I don’t. You don’t. Especially not when it comes to politics and other things like it.
We like to think we do, of course. We imagine that we look at all the information, weigh it carefully, and then make logical, rational decisions about what it means and what to do about it. Other people who come to different conclusions are uninformed, confused, deluded, or stupid. But not us.
Sadly, that’s just not the case. When a particular issue becomes connected to your identity as a member of a group, your brain cooks the books behind the scenes to make sure you reach the conclusions you need to remain in good standing. You won’t even notice it’s happening. And that’s true for the rest of us, as well.
You might think that more education and knowledge would protect you from this phenomenon, but in fact research shows that when it comes to politics and similar things, your expertise just makes you better at justifying your viewpoint.
In other words, if your tribe (the group to which you belong and whose opinion of you matters most to you) is organized around a particular belief, you are going to have a hard time weighing the evidence fairly.
None of that is to say that this is a lost cause. It’s certainly better to try to keep yourself on the road toward objectivity than to not bother and get stuck in the intellectual equivalent of a drainage ditch.
So here's my advice for doing that:
Accept that you are prone to tribal thinking and make it your goal to counter it. They say that acceptance is half the battle. It's not, really, but it’s a start.
Identify your affiliations, loyalties, positions, and intellectual commitments. Hold them lightly. Be ready to let them go if the situation changes. Have a sense of what it would take to change your mind, or to shift your loyalty. If the answer is “nothing,” then you are in the land of make believe and you need to find the road out.
Put yourself in the mindset of those who have different opinions than yours. Work on it until their position makes sense and you can empathize with them. I once heard a saying that everyone’s behavior makes sense once you have all the information. You don’t have to agree with it, but you should be able to see how you might think the same if you were in their shoes.
Try to get your information from sources that enjoy a reputation for being honest, fair, and relatively neutral. Yes, there are no sources that are free of bias and that don’t make mistakes. At least choose sources that are trying, and avoid those that aren’t. Since all sources have bias, get your information from multiple sources whose biases balance each other.
Don’t spend too much time listening to pundits and politicians. They are there to get you fired up. They are not trying to help you think carefully.
Know the kinds of cognitive errors and be able to identify times in your life when you have been guilty of them.
Understand the basics of probability and use your understanding to identify positions that are inherently unlikely. For example, large-scale, widespread, secret conspiracies are rather unlikely, as anyone who has ever tried to plan a surprise party knows.