Original version published on whoknowsoneblog.wordpress.com.
With our country divided, and the finger pointing showing no sign of decreasing, we need to step back and wonder, what led to this national split? The answer goes beyond this election and ultimately lies deeply rooted in social psychology.It is antithetical to any sort of intellectual or constructive conversation to begin with the premise that you are completely correct and your reasoning is infallible. The other side of the coin is that it is also antithetical to start off with the premise that anyone who disagrees with you is somehow less intelligent or moral than you. This may seem like a fairly intuitive point, but it is a constant and very detrimental mistake made in a plethora of different domains – a mistake so dangerous that it may be responsible for the deep political divide that is currently splitting our country.
It is a basic rule of social psychology that humans are predisposed to be afraid of “the other.” When humans come across other groups with different dress, language, or ideas, they immediately see this group as a threat to themselves and their communities. The way that we often see the world is that we have our “in-group,” which at times can be our religion, political party, friend group, and sports team – while everything else is a part of an all encompassing other known as an “out-group.” Every time a division is made between people, no matter how insignificant, we immediately form these notions of in-groups and out-groups.
Once these groups are set in place, we are immediately vulnerable to a plethora of different psychological “blind spots,” where we are able to rationalize that “We” are always correct or morally justified while “They” are always wrong, immoral, or stupid.
A few examples should suffice:You get a horrible grade on an important test or have a disastrous job interview, and upon driving home, you cut someone off. You can easily rationalize that you are acting “out of character” and that you are still generally a good person. However, let us imagine that you are having a good day and suddenly someone cuts you off on the freeway, causing you to brake hard to avoid a crash. All of the sudden, the person in front of you is an idiot, bad driver, or horrible person. You are able to maintain your perfect conception of yourself by blaming your negative traits on external factors, while you do not allow that same cushion for others. This is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error among psychologists.
Another more important example is that you are a religious Jew who witnesses another Jew commit a horrible act in the name of Judaism. (Any religion would suffice here.) Being the very learned Jew that you are, you quickly begin a lengthy sermon demonstrating why what that person did was antithetical to Judaism. A few weeks go by, and you witness a Muslim commit a similar act and immediately denounce this act as another example of the horrors of Islam, not thinking for a moment that this act could be just as antithetical to Islam as it is to Judaism.
In another case, a Palestinian child witnesses a simple act of kindness by an Israeli. Maybe an Israeli soldier gives him a bottle of water on a hot day or an Israeli paramedic helps in a time of distress. If this child was raised in a small village where he was taught that Israelis are evil, he assumes that what he has just witnessed was an extraordinary event or even a wild fluke of some sort. (The same case can be true if the roles were flipped.) The Palestinian child would probably continue to believe that all Israelis are evil and brush off this event as a stroke of luck. These last two cases are examples of what psychologists call the Ultimate Attribution Error, a concept that suggests we are more likely to attribute both negative actions done by our own in-group, along with positive actions committed by out-groups, as abnormal. And vice versa – we attribute normalcy to positive actions by our own group and negative actions done by the “other” group.In our final case, a hardcore conservative meets a young liberal student and realizes that he or she is not stupid and immature like right-wing news sources make students out to be. The conservative sees that this young liberal has deeply considered the security, economic, or foreign policy impact behind their proposed changes. On the other side, this young liberal meets a middle-aged Republican and can see that he or she is ultimately just concerned with supporting his or her family and gives off no hint of racism or sexism. Both of these cases can easily be written off as unrepresentative of the “other” political camp since it does not correlate with the prior information heard regarding this “other” group. Psychologists call this Confirmation Bias, and it allows one to hold on to a faulty belief, even when it flies in the face of evidence since it causes you to weigh conflicting evidence less heavily.
So, how do we fix this?
We must acknowledge, at a certain level, that the end goal of discourse and conversation is not to convince the other side that you are right. The aforementioned effects of social psychology hit the hardest when we know the least about the “other.” If we do not know anything about their culture, beliefs, or rationale, then they can and will remain an “other” forever. However, by engaging in conversation – not for the sake of proving yourself right but rather to truly understand your opponent – the other side becomes less of an “other” and re-enters the realm of humanity. The people that make up opposing groups are no longer all clumped together under deceptively simple epithets. Rather, they become individuals, each with their own needs, desires, and personalities.
No one is denying the existence of horrible people in this world. However, when people start considering more than 20 percent of the global population to be a part of a violent and abhorrent religion or half of this country to be a part of a sexist and racist agenda, there is no way to progress as a society. I’m not saying that people need to, or even should want to, fully agree with one another – but when we do not understand simple things about “other” groups, we fill our reasoning with massive intellectual blind spots that harm progress. The way to help inter-religious relations is to learn as much as we can about other faiths. Maybe read the New Testament or the Quran – or attend another religion’s prayer service. The way to alleviate the polarization in our country is to have a coffee date with someone with different political opinions and truly try to understand his or her fears and hopes for the country.
It is only through better understanding that we can truly progress as a nation and as a world. In the words of President Obama, at the end of the day, “We have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage.” It is only when we recognize that most people on this Earth are not evil and stupid for thinking differently – but, like you, trying to make this world a better place – can we realize that we really are all on the same team.
Daniel Levine is currently a graduate student studying religion at UCLA. Last spring he graduated UCLA with a dual degree in Cognitive Science and Jewish History. Alongside his undergraduate studies, he also studied for, and will soon receive, Rabbinical Ordination from YPS. His interests include religious history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology.