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Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday, the only weekly newsletter that will always listen to your complaining, even though it doesn’t care. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to help you be a slightly less awful human being.
This week, we’re talking about: 1) our inability to be objective about, well, anything, 2) the death of expertise, and 3) opinions are overrated.
Let’s get into it.
1. What you see is who you’re with – A few years ago, I wrote an article about the ways our minds fail at interpreting what is objectively true about the world around us. I discussed cognitive biases, heuristics, false memories, and the ways that our neurological machinery is terribly limited.
But I might have missed another factor: group identities.
Psychologists have long known that 1) our minds warp our perceptions to fit our prior beliefs and self-interests and that 2) our deep need to feel like we belong to a larger group drives a lot of our behavior and reasoning.
Well, these two concepts collided in an interesting new paper by researchers in Denmark and the US. The paper suggests that similar to the way we distort our perceptions to fit our own interests, we might do the same to satisfy the interests of the groups we identify with. Money quote:
“In sum, there are several reasons to believe that the human mind prioritizes false over true information in the context of group-conflict. This prioritization is not because the human mind is actively considering and evaluating the veracity of the information and choosing false over true. Rather, it is because that veracity is not the relevant dimension of evaluation; instead, the relevant dimension is mobilization-potential. And here false and extreme information is often more useful.”
In the age of online outrage, I’ve long wondered how it was possible that people of completely opposite belief systems and ideologies could see the same video or image and both come to conclusions that support their prior beliefs. I used to think that people had to be willfully lying about what they saw, or at the very least, so clueless that they couldn’t interpret the information correctly.
But this research suggests that no, it’s not ignorance or willful lying. In the same way some people see this dress as black and blue and other people see it as white and gold, something similar may be occurring when people of two different group identities hear the same speech or see the same news event or read the same article. They see the truth that confirms their group affiliations, but only because their minds unconsciously screen out information and interpretations that might conflict with them.
The paradox of the internet has always been that the thing that’s connecting all of us also seems to be driving us apart. This cognitive blip in our evolutionary machinery could explain why hundreds of millions of people can be given the same information and instead of uniting us under exposure to universal knowledge, it only gives us more opportunities to perceive divisions.
2. The death of expertise – But there’s something else that bothers me about all of the kibitzing that happens online these days, and the events of 2020 have definitely shone a light on it.
I’m coming to believe that there’s something about the ability to post something online that gives people a false sense of importance. Maybe there’s an unconscious assumption that just because many people can see what I’m posting, I erroneously believe whatever I post must be important. Call it the, “Sniffing Your Own Farts Theorem” of social media usage… where the more people post stuff, the more likely they are to feel like what they say is terribly important.
In the spring, everyone and their dog became an epidemiological expert overnight. Who knew that Carl the electrician knew so much about contagious viruses! It got so bad that I eventually wrote a long piece in April imploring people to shut the fuck up so scientists could do their work.
I see similar trends today, where people I went to grade school with have suddenly become legal experts and are now conducting forensic analyses of cell phone videos. Or where random family members apparently find themselves privy to the back-dealings of the world economy.
A couple of years ago, a book came out called The Death of Expertise. It looked at the many ways that, more and more, experts in their fields are either ignored or simply go unheard for various political, social, or economic reasons. In the book, the author points out that the internet gives people the illusion of expertise by flooding them with useless facts and irrelevant information. He argues that true expertise is not in knowing lots of stuff, it’s in the ability to sort the useful from the useless.
But I think there’s something else at work, too—something more subtle and pernicious. The internet is so big and noisy, it is biased towards surprising and unexpected information.
As a result, we tend to only hear about laypeople when they say or do something particularly extraordinary—something we would expect from someone much more prominent or famous.
Similarly, we tend to only hear about experts when they make a terrible mistake. You don’t hear about the millions of scientists quietly doing good science each week. You hear about the doctor who fucked up and who killed a bunch of kids.
Similarly, you don’t hear about the hundreds of millions of Average Joes and Janes going about their lives doing dumb shit. No, you hear about the one extraordinary exception who stood up to tyranny or oppression or the system and turned out to be right.
Play this pattern out enough times and you start to generate a culture that distrusts experts, authority, and traditional systems as people are overexposed to their inevitable flaws. Similarly, you start to see an exaltation of random Joes and Janes who, whether by audacity or plain luck, happened to command a lot of attention for a brief period of time.
The result: welcome to 2020.
3. You don’t have to have an opinion – There’s an alternative that’s worth considering here. It’s an alternative rarely discussed. It’s not a popular option. It won’t win you any awards or attention or admiration from anyone.
But that’s to simply not have an opinion.
It’s easy to forget: you don’t have to have an opinion about everything. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t have many strong opinions about many things for the simple reason that it’s so difficult to be led astray these days.
One thing I’ve been trying to do this year is create an imaginary threshold for myself — to not really have a strong opinion about something until a) I’ve been exposed to at least two different perspectives on it, and b) enough time has passed that people who have actual expertise have analyzed what’s going on to some extent.
But then I also remind myself that events that seem cataclysmic at the moment often end up being hugely positive decades later. That small things that go unnoticed can have big effects and huge events that are impossible to ignore can sometimes be nothing more than a pitiful distraction.
I try to remind myself that in the full scope of human history, most of the trends are (still) headed in the right direction, even if I’m not terribly happy with how fast they’re moving at the moment. Because progress often takes detours, hits speed bumps, and sometimes engages in the old loop-de-loop before resuming its course.
That maybe I just don’t know what the fuck is going on. And to a certain extent, that can be all right.
Until next week,