Today, a friend shared a very useful article on SlateStarCodex with me. I recommend that anyone who is anywhere on the political spectrum read it. The author articulates the myriad ways in which our behavior is shaped by in-group bias very effectively. And as someone who has written about that bias before, I have a certain interest in the topic.
I really enjoyed his use of evidence and reasoning to explain the nature of our in-group bias as it relates to our political tribalism and how that political tribalism is a far stronger force in our lives than even powerful racial biases in shaping our social decisions.
In the end, he calls for genuine tolerance, a tolerance that comes only from robust disagreement which nonetheless rejects the strategy of ostracizing of the other person because of the disagreement. Sadly, the author does not provide a path forward for those who truly want to practice this tolerance. So perhaps it’s up to me to Shape the Path.
I’m increasingly aware that I’m in a strange position with regard to tribalism in general and political tribalism in particular. I’m painfully aware that like any normal human being, I think about social realities and make decisions based on what groups I’m a part of. We tend to effortlessly process information in a very tribal fashion, and I’m not an exception to that; I’m not some sort of ubermensch completely untethered from any group identification.
But I do have an uncommon personality pathology; I’m extremely independent. On the Meyers-Briggs scale, I’m closest to an INTP, a rare personality type which tends toward extreme independence. And on top of that, my parents raised me to be very independent. I was given an extra large dose of independence, you might say.
And it shows in my behavior, often in unhealthy ways. I often fail to reach out for help when I should, for example. But it also shows in my decreased tribalistic tendencies. I don’t have a strong attachment to sports teams. I don’t have a strong attachment to the schools I’ve attended or the class I graduated with. I am generally comfortable with friends moving in and out of my life rather than worrying about whether or not I’m keeping in touch enough.
Even with my family, I’m not as tribal as most people; I don’t get defensive if anyone insults a family member. I might disagree, but I’m not upset about it. I don’t have a political tribe at all. I have a highly unusual political philosophy that I wrote after 10 years of exploring various political philosophies on the common parts and utter fringe ends of various spectrums, but no party affiliation. I will only vote for 3rd parties, but I don’t agree anywhere near completely with any of them, and I don’t go to their events or get involved in their candidate’s campaign.
All of this is to say that tribal thinking is inevitable, but that we can at least significantly mitigate it, and this has the delightful effect of increasing a genuine tolerance for other points of view. If we aren’t strongly attached to a particular political tribe, then we are much more likely to be able to engage fairly with the views of many political tribes. But for people who don’t have rare personality types or upbringings specifically calculated to produce independent thinkers, how can that kind of genuine tolerance be developed?
I suggest that we use another normal human cognitive function to offset our normal in-group bias: the familiarity principle (aka the mere-exposure effect). The evidence of human exposure shows that as we are exposed to new experiences, and we subsequently continue exposing ourselves to those experiences, then we become more well-disposed to those experiences. What if we were to become well-disposed to the experience of seeking out and understanding the arguments for other political views?
In my own quest to mitigate the effects of in-group bias, I continue to seek out and listen to many different kinds of political views, both in person and via the Internet. And as I expose myself to those myriad views, I become more well-disposed to the people who held them, but not in the sense of agreeing with their views. I just gradually empathize with them more effectively. This empathy for the people who hold the other views, which I developed by way of exposing myself to them and their views, helps offset my natural in-group bias.
This helps us prevent the development of what the author of the SlateStarCodex article described as a sort of social bubble in which he is almost never exposed to people with other political views except as caricatures which can be easily dismissed. In his particular case, he’s a self-described liberal who has basically no exposure to conservative views despite never having intended to create an echo chamber.
There are of course plenty of conservatives who are in echo chambers as well, but because a majority of higher education providers and mainstream media content providers have been operating under liberal philosophical assumptions, the conservatives are generally by necessity much more intentional in seeking out a conservative enclave in talk radio, FOX News, Young Republicans groups, or websites like YoungCons.
Both are contributing to the increasing number of outrage mills, by which I mean media outlets that sensationalize their content in such a way that it will outrage one political tribe against the other and make them feel quite justified in viewing the other political tribe’s membership not merely as mistaken in good faith, but evil in intent and hateful toward groups toward which they are well-disposed.
The prevalence of outrage mills further drives both of the large tribes into their own enclaves because they are even more wary of interacting with people they are coming to see as evil and hateful rather than merely mistaken. Overcoming the self-perpetuating polarization process is not easy, but it is a lot easier if we have a specific plan and a sincere desire to become more tolerant.
How do I become more tolerant?
Using the evidence-based tactics for enacting effective personal change elucidated in Switch, I’ll make some specific recommendations for those who want to be more tolerant. If you want to know more about the book, I have written a six-part series on it that you can peruse at your leisure. It’s long, but it’s at least shorter than reading the book while still delivering the insights from it.
Assuming that you are passionate about becoming more tolerant of the political tribes which are not your own, here are some concrete actions you can take to begin building that tolerance.
- Seek out the work of the best and brightest members of the other political tribes.
- Consider the evidence for the views of the other political tribes.
- Outline the reasoning process of the other political tribes.
In order to shape the path to reaching the destination of #1, the first step will be to automate your exposure to members of the other tribes. Social media makes this much easier than it used to be; just click the Like button on a well-written publication from another political tribe on Facebook, and then you will see that work on a regular basis. If, like our SlateStarCodex author, you tend toward the modern liberal or progressive political views, then Like the Facebook pages for The Federalist or National Review. If you tend toward the classical liberal or conservative political views, then Like the Facebook pages of The Nation or Salon. Both tribes would be well-served to Like the Facebook page of Reason, where the libertarians often get their news. And the libertarians (an incredibly diverse and free-wheeling group) would be well-served to Like the previously mentioned pages.
You’re not going to like or agree with all of the articles that you read from these publications, of course. But the whole point of the exercise is to expose yourself to different views and become more tolerant, so you will be irritated and uncomfortable at times in this growth process. And the more irritated and uncomfortable you are when being exposed to different views, the more likely it is that you really need it. If you were already perfectly tolerant, then you wouldn’t get uncomfortable or irritated when encountering other views.
So set aside 30 minutes once a week to read a few articles from another political tribe, and learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
#2 is of course related to #1, and so here I recommend exposing yourself to the evidence used by other political tribes to support their positions. Social media tools can make this easy as well. For the modern liberal or progressive, it would be useful to Like The Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute. For the classical liberal or conservative, The Brookings Institution would be useful to Like. And don’t stop there. If you find other think tanks and policy institutes of other political tribes that show good evidence, read their content regularly as well.
Doing this at least once a week at a specific time will help erode any attitudes you might have about the rank ignorance of those who disagree with you, showing you that when looking at the same evidence, different people can easily come to different conclusions based on that same evidence. It will also show you that there are highly intelligent and evidence-based thinkers in the other tribes.
#3 is something we really, really don’t like to do. But it is probably the most powerful exercise we can do to bridge our empathy gap when it comes to those with opposing views on topics we are so passionate about, like the meaning of justice and the value of liberty relative to the value of responsibility.
In order to outline the reasoning process used by other political tribes, we have to already have solid exposure to their best arguments, but the value of writing them out for ourselves is that we take on those views, stepping inside them and wearing them around, which helps us to develop a genuine empathy for them because we have at least taken a few steps in their metaphorical shoes.
So set a time aside once a week to write down their evidence cited as the premises, write down their policy prescriptions as the conclusions, and try to find the most elegant argument to get from the premises to the conclusions. You may just find that there are good arguments for other political views.
If you can manage to do those three things for a year and not become more tolerant of other political views, then I would love to interview you as a unique case study in why I am completely wrong and in-group bias cannot be reduced, at least not in all cases.
If you manage to do those three things for a year and become more tolerant of other political views, then I would love to hear from you as well about what was most useful for you and how your life change after developing these habits.
In the end, tolerance isn’t a feeling; like any other character trait that requires us to love those who are not like us, tolerance is the product of habits that foster it. So make the switch necessary to become more tolerant and see what happens. It’s made my life better, and I hope it does for you as well.