Instinctual Politics


Human inclinations

Humans are evolutionarily hard-wired to stick to our guns. Back when we lived in small tribes, it was important for everyone in the tribe to believe the same things. When everyone in the group had the same beliefs and belief systems, the tribe was more united and better able to survive the next marauding tribe/famine/rabid mammoth attack. As a result, we tend to accept things on faith that we hear from people who we view as part of our tribe. Once we decide that we believe something, that belief quickly becomes part of our identity, making us feel that an attack on that idea is an attack on ourselves.

This strategy of belief acquisition worked great back when we actually were fending off marauders on a weekly basis. But now things are different. There isn’t nearly as much marauding going on (at least not the traditional kind) and we’re constantly encountering new controversies that make us feel as if we have to quickly pick a side…and so we end up making snap decisions on complicated issues that we don’t really understand, and then passionately defending our newly chosen side.

The modern world

By choosing a side without really understanding the evidence, we lead ourselves into a common pitfall: the “there’s nothing you can do to change my mind” trap. That’s probably a sentiment you’ve heard or thought (or maybe said) before…I know I certainly have. But let’s take a moment to think about what “there’s nothing you can do to change my mind” means. Really? There’s nothing? No amount of evidence to the contrary would affect what I think?

Written like that, it sounds ridiculous. Of course I should change my mind if there’s enough evidence! But in the heat of the moment it’s easy to end up talking at someone instead of talking with someone, and that’s how we end up in arguments that never reach a conclusion. Those arguments are bad for a few reasons:

  1. They tend to involve a whole lot of talking and very little listening.
  2. Almost by definition, they’re really time-consuming.
  3. They don’t change anything!

Even if it feels unnatural, being willing to change your mind is one of the most important skills to cultivate. If no one ever changed their mind on important issues, the world would stagnate, and I think we’re seeing that start to happen as politics become ever more divided.

For an example of tribalism in action, look at American politics. Take our good friend liberal X: when someone opposes a stance that X’s political tribe supports, X stands by the party line without much thought of how the opposing side might be right, or how X’s side might be wrong. Conservative Y does a mirror image impression of the same thing. There’s very little compromise, and both sides demonize the other. Everyone loses here, because each side has ideas that would benefit everyone. Even laws that both sides agree on sometimes don’t get passed because no one wants to look like they’re defecting to a rival tribe.

This problem certainly isn’t limited to politics. Next time someone talks about how their diet/workout/car brand is the one and only correct choice, notice your instinctual reaction: do you try to understand their perspective, or do you automatically just point out what’s wrong with what they’re saying (and in the process, reassure yourself that your side is correct)?

What to do about it

This is a solvable problem. We can all take steps to reduce our reactivity.

Before taking a stance on an issue:

  • Make sure you’ve done your research. Just because everyone around you believes something doesn’t mean it’s right. That said, it’s obviously not possible to do thorough research on everything, so it’s worth looking for people who are knowledgeable in broad areas and figuring out who you find credible. You can then (cautiously) assume that their beliefs in their area of expertise are similar to what your beliefs would be if you did your research.
  • When you have an instinctual response to which side you think is correct, start by researching evidence for the other side. Create a steel man argument for the other side that weighs their most compelling evidence.

When you’re arguing with someone:

  • Check in with yourself. Are you actually knowledgeable about the position you’re defending? If not, say so and recognize (out loud!) that they might be right.
  • If you have the thought “there’s nothing they could say to change my mind,” that’s a red flag. Notice that thought and start actively considering how your “opponent” might be right.
  • Preface your opinion with an acknowledgement of what’s accurate/compelling about the other side. Say you’re arguing for UBI: bring up the challenges related to funding it, recognize that those challenges are real, and (optionally) provide a potential solution.

I put out a lot of different ideas here, but here’s the most important one: the next time you have an argument, take a moment to check if you really know you’re right.

(If you have another strategy for avoiding instinctual disagreements, I’d love to hear about it! Also, big thanks to Stew Fortier, Chris Sheffield, and Jonah Levine for their feedback on earlier versions of this.)