One of the more interesting things about inhabiting social media or comments sections is playing behavioural psychology bingo. This act in itself is a form of cognitive bias. It suggests I consider myself above the average commentator who regularly indulges in logical fallacies and cognitive biases.
The average driver considers themselves a better driver than the average driver. Wikipedia-researched logical fallacies and cognitive biases get thrown out into online discussion as tools to diminish an opposing argument. The accuser implying they would never be so stupid as to fall into that trap.
The good news is that practically everything that annoys or angers you about people on the internet is easily summed up by one of the numerous Wikipedia articles on Psychology. The bad news is that it applies to us all equally.
Sticking to our so-called “bubbles” gives the impression that opinions appear to have become more polarised and hardened. That only the side we align with shows logic and reason. That it would be a better world if the other side would just admit they are wrong.
The biggest problem comes from the fact that the “other side” usually doesn’t exist. We’ve created it and tagged it as a reductive left or alt-right. We’ve assigned characteristics from a minority to the majority.
Polarisation of opinions has been inevitable, not because people are unreasonable or irrational, but because people are people. This dive into the “post-truth” world was always going to happen ever since the first BBS [bulletin board system]. Then came the dark days when Uncle Tupelo split up and you had to choose between Farrar or Tweedy. No middle ground, choose now.
Mathew Inman did a great strip on something called the backfire effect in the latest Oatmeal, which was a distillation of the You Are Not So Smart podcast’s three episode in-depth look at this effect. The principle is that some beliefs are so key to who we are, that no matter what the evidence put in front of us, we will reject it.
Reject it and become even more hard-lined in our belief. In short, somethings we hate being wrong about and will believe all kinds of crap in order that we can convince ourselves we aren’t wrong. The current polarisation of opinions can be put down to the backfire effect.
Way back in my early days of public policy, a new early draft of legislation landed and I was charged with finding all the problems with it. For problems, read things that the people who paid our wages wouldn’t like, i.e. things that would cost them money.
There were a lot of problems with it and not just financial ones. It was a mess. The bits that weren’t poorly written were cut and paste from archaic UK regulations (UK references left in place) There was no way it could go through as it was. Except it very nearly did.
Once the errors and necessary corrections were highlighted, rather than them getting changed, the responsible Department dug their heels in and put all their effort into pushing it through with the legislation as it was.
The only amendments accepted at the initial stage were those that would make it worse (for us at least). It was 12 months of swimming upstream against the backfire effect before we got anything changed.
There is plenty of research (much of which is gone through in the podcasts) that seems to show this effect and on a range of issues and topics.
We argue away in a vain attempt to convert and change people’s minds and it turns out it is all for nothing and only works to make them more hard-line in their belief. If anything it drives them to be more extreme in their views than lessening them. That’s how we end up with r/Donald.
However, a worse trait is that when someone finally admits they were wrong against all the psychological odds, we shame them. The Twitter user @Trumpregrets has over 250,000 followers. Its soul aim is for us smarter liberals to laugh at those who now regret voting Trump. Instead of welcoming them or working to align them to a cause, we create a twitter account for all the smart liberals to laugh at the stupid blue-collar workers.
We routinely remind politicians and celebrities of when they were wrong years ago, even though they’ve admitted their error or changed their minds based on evidence.
We say they’ve flip-flopped and post a tweet from seven years ago of them stating something different. It’s acceptable when they deny ever having held such an opinion; have at them, but when they’re admitting they were wrong, that’s different.
Against all the odds and human nature, some people accept their belief was wrong. Let them have that moment without sneering or shaming.
After far too long in public policy and my eventual epiphany, it became as physically draining working against the backfire effect in the legislature as it is trying to reason with someone on an internet comment section, except with less Youtube links.
I vowed to never be that person, to weigh up the evidence and not dismiss contrary views so quickly. I would admit when I’m wrong and not be ashamed. I’m sure that when the day comes when I am wrong, that’s exactly what I’ll do.
Three years ago Listrade asked himself “are we the baddies?” after 10 years working for a lobbying group and retired to Argentina with other ex-lobbyists and baddies. Since then he has never finished the novel he’s been working on for 20 years, but has completed Undertale in peaceful and genocide several times and is two Korok seeds short of 100% completion in Zelda.