Our Divided world of Beliefs
Why do so many places in the world currently seem so divided about so many basic ideas or beliefs. Intriguingly, it is the biases that dictate our thinking that are at the centre of the problem.
In many ways little has changed: whenever people gathered in pubs, clubs, or other social groupings ideas were frequently exchanged; and differences of opinion did bubble over into raised voices, feeling were hurt, and occasionally a hand was lifted or threatened. But these events typically occurred after there were exchanges of information with some attempt by each of the parties to understand the other side.
If people do dare to discuss important issues today we see disputes occur, not after a dialogue but from the utterance of a single phrase, not from an esoteric difference but from an irrational desire to vanquish the other. On top of all this there seems to be an emphatic refusal to discover new ideas or points-of-view during an encounter. This represents a near perfect definition of bias.
Our current social environment, described below, provides an explanation:
A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition - familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth
Dr. D. Kahneman – Princeton University
Most (people) when they are thinking are merely rearranging their prejudices
- William James - Psychologist
We live in an environment of the broadcasting of opinions. Social media has given regular folk the means to broadcast their opinions; and the conventional media in all its forms, have shifted from providing substantive news to publicizing a collection of opinions. This differs from previous generations where our strongly held beliefs were, for the most part, shared primarily with our close friends; and the news media made some attempt at being impartial*.
The effective outcome is the rapid re-cycling and reinforcing of opinions - with the more attention-grabbing or appealing ideas spreading faster. With repetition, collective biased opinions mysteriously transform into facts.
At the individual level, irrespective of intelligence, our trusting natures and daily distractions means we end up forming our opinions without being aware of this problematic process. When ignorant of the potential of this procedure it becomes easy to trust various opinions as representing a truth and to confidently pass it on to others.
The common use of social media and the ever-present nature of media organization's output should cause everyone to seriously reflect upon this issue as it only requires a small amount of self-interest and distortion to exacerbate the problem. Paraphrasing King Solomon in the Bible (Proverbs) and US author Mark Twain: it’s better to remain silent and appear biased than offer an opinion and remove all doubt.
* If you are interested you may like: History of Media Bias.
If you disagree with someone immediately search for all the things you can agree about; and then highlight the various assumptions each of you are relying upon
Always be prepared to be skeptical - even about your own ideas and understandings
Diversity is only a positive factor for a society if it also includes a diversity of opinions