Do You Want to Believe?

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My latest blog post for The Jewish Journal:

After a bitterly divisive election season, there’s one question on everyone’s mind:

“How can people possibly believe that?”

What “that” is depends on who’s doing the talking. It means one thing to Trump supporters, something else to Clinton supporters, and who knows what to third-party supporters.

We all have friends who believe things that seem crazy, but we don’t think our friends are crazy. So we’re completely baffled. Are the people who disagree with us ignorant? Stupid? Hyper-emotional? Or – this seems to be the favorite – are they just plain evil?

It’s usually none of those things. The true answer is simpler and more innocent.

People adopt beliefs based on several factors. If those factors are different, then the people tend to adopt different beliefs.

In 2016 America, those factors differ a lot – by region, economic class, ethnicity, social circles, information sources, and life experiences. Differences in those factors lead people to different beliefs.

Even biology gets into the act, since we now know that different political attitudes often go with minor differences in the structure and function of our brains. The differences show up mainly in emotion and intuition, which influence our political and moral judgments.

America’s dominant political and moral culture is WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic). WEIRD people’s moral reasoning tends to be abstract, utilitarian, and universalist. As a result, writes psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “the WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.”

However, millions of people – perhaps half of Americans, to judge by the election – are less WEIRD. They accept utilitarian and universalist ideas, but also value loyalty, respect for authority, respect for the sacred, individual liberty, and support for the common good. Sometimes, for example, they might feel that loyalty is more important than preventing harm, or that the common good is more important than preventing unfairness. To WEIRD people, such feelings are often incomprehensible.

All of those factors – background, beliefs, social circles, biology, and basic moral intuitions – exert a powerful subconscious influence on what feels right or plausible to us. If a factual or moral claim feels right to us, fits our current beliefs and previous experiences, then we want to believe it. According to Haidt, that biases us more than we realize:

“When we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, ‘Can I believe it?’ Then we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks. In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, ‘Must I believe it?’ Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it.”

Thus, equally intelligent, educated, well-meaning people can have diametrically opposed beliefs. Some of us are careful about our biases, sometimes, but at other times we all slip.

Knowing that fact doesn’t make our social problems go away. Our disagreements still exist. There are still some real and legitimate conflicts of interest between different groups in society. Unfortunately, there are also a few genuine crazies and haters: in a population of over 300 million, that’s inevitable.

However, if we can just calm down and accept that most other people are trying as honestly as we are, it’s at least a start toward solving our problems. Nobody can or should compromise with “Hitler,” and if we think that’s who we’re dealing with, then we can’t do anything else but fight. However, it’s not necessary. Or true.

Don’t let a tiny minority of crazies and haters blind you to the fact that most people want to be good and to do the right thing – even if their idea of “the right thing” sometimes clashes with ours.

Screaming at people, calling them names, and dismissing their concerns as unworthy of consideration leads to on-going conflict and social disintegration. People want us to agree with them – just as we want them to agree with us — but they’ll often accept something less: knowing that we listened to them, tried to see their point of view, and did our best to accommodate them even if we still disagree.

That’s what a civilized democratic society is all about. Maybe it’s WEIRD, but it’s our best hope.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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