While some people may think the problem our nation faces right now is the government shutdown, or President Donald J. Trump, or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or the Republicans and/or Democrats or all politicians or rich people — all of these groups and their actions are just symptoms to a larger and much more difficult problem to address.
Our strife rests not in one group or one person, rather our strife rests in human nature, and it is as old as the human race.
Numerous philosophers, psychologists, social and political scientists past and present share similar explanations and suggestions solutions for the fundamental arguments people make about how we should live and what we should regulate.
The problem is complicated and according to Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist and psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who points out in his forthcoming book The Most Natural Thing: How Evolution Explains Human Societies according to Julie Beck in her article in the Atlantic in 2017: “The natural environment of human beings, like the sea for dolphins or the ice for polar bears, is information provided by others, without which they could not forage, hunt, choose mates, or build tools. Without communication, no survival for humans.”
What this means is that we as a human race rely heavily on communication, and while as a species we have been practicing communication for a long time, we use it in ways that are not always effective.
For example, we may hear a growl in the woods. Instinctively, we might run away from the sound as it could be a dangerous animal. If we are depending on that sound for food, we might be prepared to face that animal and make the kill.
Our prior knowledge about the sounds will determine our actions and reactions. Sometimes that prior knowledge comes from personal experience, other times it is learned from other people. We humans tend to share our knowledge and understandings with others because it — at its most basic level — ensures survival of the species.
In a world flooded with information, we no longer have to rely on the people in our immediate communities. We can seek information elsewhere if we choose, but to do so takes time and effort.
Those who put forth the time and effort to learn about something and become an expert at it, tend to be the people we rely on for that information. We go to the local mechanic for help with our cars and the local English teacher to edit our college or job application essays and letters.
But in our world, we have a tendency, regardless of party lines, beliefs or cultural practices, to accept information from people who we like, think we can trust, or who have information that confirms what we think we already know.
In Beck’s article, she cites Lee McIntyre “in his 2015 book Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age: ‘The real enemy of truth is not ignorance, doubt, or even disbelief,’ he writes. “It is false knowledge.’”
When we accept only information that confirms what we think we know, we never challenge ourselves or our knowledge to grow or improve. We shape a world view that may very well be made of glass, but even if shattered, we insist that it is still standing, strong as ever.
This tendency is called “motivated reasoning” and in psychology literature is when people “convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs,” Beck writes.
When people hold two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or when they dislike something but do it anyway, this is called cognitive dissonance. To ease the pain and discomfort of cognitive dissonance and to prevent the need to change one’s beliefs or actions — which could take a great deal of mental and emotional effort, and perhaps even action — a person will resort to motivated reasoning.
It is easier to stick to one’s initial beliefs than to change. Change requires energy and effort, possibly forging new ways of thinking and seeing the world, which can be scary and disorienting.
So, people lock themselves into a mind-set that is comfortable and that makes sense, and they will fight tooth and nail to sustain that mind-set, much like a person who is protecting his or her children from an outside threat.
Our survival instincts then, may be the cause of the dissonance we are experiencing as a nation, and the fact that people cannot agree on what information can be accepted as facts and what information is ill-founded, shows that a solution to our problem may be a long-time coming.
We, as a newspaper, believe that all people need to be as critical of their own acceptance and rejection of information as they are of others who present opposing views.
We need to listen to each other, and establish high standards that distinguish fact from fiction, and make sure we are careful not to accept only that information which supports our already held, strong beliefs, which may or may not need to be reconsidered.
However difficult that process may be, it is an important process through which we all must travel if we want to reduce the divide we currently find ourselves in — which is higher than it has been since 1879 according to political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal.
Some people, Beck acknowledge, will not change their minds, and suggests that perhaps we focus on teaching critical thinking skills in schools to address the problem — or you can begin to address it in your own homes, and take the time to listen to and consider the other perspectives. Research them, respond to questions challenging your own perspectives, and make more informed comments and decisions — always with the thought in mind that you may end up changing your mind mid-way through — and there is nothing wrong with that.