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1.06: In which it's time for another round of everyone's favourite dysfunctional Vulcan family saga. Luckily for me, since I eat this stuff up with a spoon.
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Brianna Smith, a political science doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, responded that “Probably both factors are at work.” She explained to me that people like simple solutions and rally behind them. Simple messages resonate with voters. They don’t want to hear that problems are complicated and solutions are messy. But she’s less supportive of attaching the word “demagogue” to some political leaders over others. “Trying to get people scared and angry and ready to get involved, these are tactics used by everyone.”
Philip Fernbach is a cognitive scientist at the University of Colorado. He and Steven Sloman recently published The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. I asked Fernbach specifically about the problem of political polarization. He explained that polarization may stem from overconfidence in our grasp of the issues. His research shows that people are constrained by the limited amount of information they can store in their brains. But this limitation doesn’t lead to humility; in fact, it’s the opposite. As Fernbach and Sloman write, “We are overconfident, sure we are right about the things we know little about.” This can make us ripe for manipulation.
Surely there’s a fix here. We aren’t destined to be ruled by our sometimes obstinate, prejudiced, and simplistic natures, easily manipulated by appeals to our emotions, and unwilling to hear others. Right?
Fernbach was not as optimistic as I would have liked (because I, like everyone else, like simple answers). He told me that “We cannot just educate ourselves out of this problem.”
But he did offer some ideas. Along with a call for humility, he suggests we try to explain our positions instead of advocating for them. Advocacy allows us to speak with a very shallow understanding of the issues, but when we try to explain our position we realize how little we really know.
Next, he suggests we focus on consequences and not values. We tend to demonize others when we focus solely on values. For example, if you believe that healthcare is a basic right, and I disagree, it’s not because I want people to die in the street. Instead, focus on the things that most of us can agree on: affordable, effective healthcare.
Finally, he advises us to approach people with curiosity. Ask them why they believe what they do. Don’t try to convince anyone they’re wrong, just listen. Remember that in most cases you are not an expert. Roberts-Miller would likely agree with this. She writes: “. . . we try to solve the problem of demagoguery in ways that worsen it: We call for purifying our public sphere of their demagogues, often in very demagogic ways.”
Brianna Smith told me that it’s possible to train ourselves out of the in-group/out-group mindset, but it has to start from birth. She told me that infants start to show a preference for one race over another at three months. However, children raised in racially diverse environments show much less preference for their own race.
Some of us are better at raising our dogs to be social than our children. She explained:
“If you have an aggressive dog, you socialize it. You don’t raise a dog around women only, for instance – it will be aggressive toward men. If you raise a kid around white people, they probably won’t grow up to be violent, but they’ll have a moment of uncertainty around people they see as different.”
Here’s a summary of what I heard, along with a few of my own suggestions for preventing yourself from being manipulated by populists or creating an atmosphere of intolerance that allows empowers them:
1. Embrace the boring and complicated, and be skeptical of the bold and simple.
2. Reject appeals to fear.
3. Reject appeals to utopia. Keep in mind the adage “If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is.”
4. Listen and ask questions; i.e., stop talking so much.
5. Seek out people you disagree with.
This week, I....
called my one senator
called my other senator
called my representative
called my governor
called my state reps
sent a postcard/email/letter/fax
attended a town hall
donated money to a cause
attended an in-person activist group
participated in phone/online training
went to a protest
signed up for alerts
took care of myself
not a US citizen but worked in solidarity in my own community
did something else
committed to action in the coming week