“All effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans.” ~ Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1926 Among psychology’s most reliable phenomena is the power of mere repetition. It comes in two forms, each replicated by psychological research many times in many ways. Repetition Fosters Fondness We humans are naturally disposed to prefer what’s familiar (and usually safe) and to be wary of what’s unfamiliar (and possibly dangerous). Social psychologists led by the late Robert Zajonc exposed the power and range of this mere exposure effect. In study after study, the more frequently they showed people unfamiliar nonsense syllables, Chinese characters, geometric figures, musical selections, artwork, or faces, the better they liked them. Repetition breeds liking. Mere exposure also warms our relationships. As strangers interact, they tend to increasingly like each other and to stop noticing initially perceived imperfections or differences. Those who come to know LGBTQ folks almost inevitably come to accept and like them. By three months, infants in same-race families come to prefer photos of people of their own (familiar) race. We even prefer our own familiar face—our mirror-image face we see while brushing our teeth, over our actual face we see in photos. Advertisers understand repetition’s power. With repetitions of an ad, shoppers begin to prefer the familiar product even if not remembering the ad. Indeed, the familiarity-feeds-fondness effect can occur without our awareness. In one clever experiment, research participants focused on repeated words piped into one earpiece while an experimenter simultaneously fed a novel tune into the other ear. Later, they could not recognize the unattended-to tune—yet preferred it over other unpresented tunes. Even amnesia patients, who cannot recall which faces they have been shown, will prefer faces they’ve repeatedly observed. Repetition Breeds Belief As mere exposure boosts liking, so mere repetition moves minds. In experiments, repetition makes statements such as “Othello was the last opera of Verdi” seem truer. After hearing something over and over, even a made-up smear of a political opponent becomes more believable. Adolf Hitler understood this illusory truth effect. So did author George Orwell. In his world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the population was controlled by the mere repetition of slogans: “Freedom is slavery.” “Ignorance is strength.” “War is peace.” And so does Vladimir Putin, whose controlled, continuous, and repetitive propaganda has been persuasive to so many Russians. Barack Obama understood the power of repetition: “If they just repeat attacks enough and outright lies over and over again . . . people start believing it.” So did Donald Trump: “If you say it enough and keep saying it, they’ll start to believe you.” And he did so with just the intended effect. What explains repetition’s persuasive power? Familiar sayings (whether true or false) become easier to process and to remember. This processing fluency and memory availability can make assertions feel true. The result: Repeated untruths such as “taking vitamin C prevents colds” or “childhood vaccines cause autism” may become hard-to-erase mental bugs. But can mere repetition lead people to believe bizarre claims—that a presidential election was stolen, that climate change is a hoax, that the Sandy Hook school massacre was a scam to promote gun control? Alas, yes. Experiments have shown that repetition breeds belief even when people should know better. After repetition, “The Atlantic Ocean is the largest ocean on Earth” just feels somewhat truer. Even crazy claims can seem truer when repeated. That’s the conclusion of a new truth-by-repetition experiment. At Belgium’s Catholic University of Louvain, Doris Lacassagne and her colleagues found that, with enough repetition, highly implausible statements such as “Elephants run faster than cheetahs” seem somewhat less likely to be false. Less extreme but still implausible statements, such as “A monsoon is caused by an earthquake” were especially vulnerable to the truth-by-repetition effect. For those concerned about the spread of oft-repeated conspiracy theories, the study also offered some better news. Lacassagne found that barely more than half of her 232 U.S.-based participants shifted toward believing the repeated untruths. The rest knew better, or even shifted to greater incredulity. At the end of his life, Republican Senator John McCain lamented “the growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies.” For psychology educators like me and some of you, the greatest mission is teaching critical thinking that helps students winnow the wheat of truth from the chaff of misinformation. Evidence matters. So we teach our students, “Don’t believe everything you hear.” And, after hearing it, “Don’t believe everything you think!” (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)
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“Listen, we all hoped and prayed the vaccines would be 100 percent effective, 100 percent safe, but they’re not. We now know that fully vaccinated individuals can catch Covid, they can transmit Covid. So what’s the point?” ~U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, Fox News, December 27, 2021 “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” ~Baruch Spinoza, Political Treatise, 1677 Many are aghast at the irony: Unvaccinated, unmasked Americans remain much less afraid of the Covid virus than are their vaccinated, masked friends and family. This, despite two compelling and well-publicized facts: Covid has been massively destructive. With 5.4 million confirmed Covid deaths worldwide (and some 19 million excess Covid-era deaths), Covid is a great enemy. In the U.S., the 840,000 confirmed deaths considerably exceed those from all of its horrific 20th-century wars. The Covid vaccines are safe and dramatically effective. The experience of 4.5+ billion people worldwide who have received a Covid vaccine assures us that they entail no significant risks of sickness, infertility, or miscarriage. Moreover, as the CDC illustrates , fully vaccinated and boosted Americans this past fall had a 10 times lower risk of testing positive for Covid and a 20 times lower risk of dying from it. Given Covid’s virulence, why wouldn’t any reasonable person welcome the vaccine and other non-constraining health-protective measures? How can a U.S. senator scorn protection that is 90+ percent effective? Does he also shun less-than-100%-effective seat belts, birth control, tooth brushing, and the seasonal flu vaccine that his doctor surely recommends? To say bluntly what so many are wondering: Has Covid become a pandemic of the stupid? Lest we presume so, psychological science has repeatedly illuminated how even smart people can make not-so-smart judgments. As Daniel Kahneman and others have demonstrated, intelligent people often make dumb decisions. Researcher Keith Stanovich explains : Some biases—such as our favoring evidence that confirms our preexisting views—have “very little relation to intelligence.” So, if we’re not to regard the resilient anti-vax minority as stupid, what gives? If, with Spinoza, we wish not to ridicule but to understand, several psychological dynamics can shine light. Had we all, like Rip Van Winkle, awakened to the clear evidence of Covid’s virulence and the vaccine efficacy, surely we would have more unanimously accepted these stark realities. Alas, today’s science-scorning American subculture seeded skepticism about Covid before the horror was fully upon us. Vaccine suspicion was then sustained by several social psychological phenomena that we all experience. Once people’s initial views were formed, confirmation bias inclined them to seek and welcome belief-confirming information. Motivated reasoning bent their thinking toward justifying what they had come to believe. Aided by social and broadcast media, group polarization further amplified and fortified the shared views of the like-minded. Misinformation begat more misinformation. Moreover, a powerful fourth phenomenon was at work: belief perseverance. Researchers Craig Anderson, Mark Lepper, and Lee Ross explored how people, after forming and explaining beliefs, resist changing their minds. In two of social psychology’s great but lesser known experiments, they planted an idea in Stanford undergraduates’ minds. Then they discovered how difficult it was to discredit the idea, once rooted. Their procedure was simple. Each study first implanted a belief, either by proclaiming it to be true or by offering anecdotal support. One experiment invited students to consider whether people who take risks make good or bad firefighters. Half looked at cases about a risk-prone person who was successful at firefighting and a cautious person who was not. The other half considered cases suggesting that a risk-prone person was less successful at firefighting. Unsurprisingly, the students came to believe what their case anecdotes suggested. Then the researchers asked all the students to explain their conclusion. Those who had decided that risk-takers make better firefighters explained, for instance, that risk-takers are brave. Those who had decided the opposite explained that cautious people have fewer accidents. Lastly, Anderson and his colleagues exposed the ruse. They let students in on the truth: The cases were fake news. They were made up for the experiment, with other study participants receiving the opposite information. With the truth now known, did the students’ minds return to their pre-experiment state? Hardly. After the fake information was discredited, the participants’ self-generated explanations sustained their newly formed beliefs that risk-taking people really do make better (or worse) firefighters. So, beliefs, once having “grown legs,” will often survive discrediting. As the researchers concluded, “People often cling to their beliefs to a considerably greater extent than is logically or normatively warranted.” In another clever Stanford experiment, Charles Lord and colleagues engaged students with opposing views of capital punishment. Each side viewed two supposed research findings, one supporting and the other contesting the idea that the death penalty deters crime. So, given the same mixed information, did their views later converge? To the contrary, each side was impressed with the evidence supporting their view and disputed the challenging evidence. The net result: Their disagreement increased. Rather than using evidence to form conclusions, they used their conclusions to assess evidence. And so it has gone in other studies, when people selectively welcomed belief-supportive evidence about same-sex marriage, climate change, and politics. Ideas persist. Beliefs persevere. The belief-perseverance findings reprise the classic When Prophecy Fails study led by cognitive dissonance theorist Leon Festinger. Festinger and his team infiltrated a religious cult whose members had left behind jobs, possessions, and family as they gathered to await the world’s end on December 21, 1954, and their rescue via flying saucer. When the prophecy failed, did the cult members abandon their beliefs as utterly without merit? They did not, and instead agreed with their leader’s assertion that their faithfulness “ had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” These experiments are provocative. They indicate that the more we examine our theories and beliefs and explain how and why they might be true, the more closed we become to challenging information. When we consider and explain why a favorite stock might rise in value, why we prefer a particular political candidate, or why we distrust vaccinations, our suppositions become more resilient. Having formed and repeatedly explained our beliefs, we may become prisoners of our own ideas. Thus, it takes more compelling arguments to change a belief than it does to create it. Republican representative Adam Kinzinger understands : “I’ve gotten to wonder if there is actually any evidence that would ever change certain people’s minds.” Moreover, the phenomenon cuts both ways, and surely affects the still-fearful vaccinated and boosted people who have hardly adjusted their long-ago Covid fears to the post-vaccine, Omicron new world. The only known remedy is to “consider the opposite”—to imagine and explain a different result. But unless blessed with better-than-average intellectual humility, as exhibited by most who accept vaccine science, we seldom do so. Yet there is good news. If employers mandate either becoming vaccinated or getting tested regularly, many employees will choose vaccination. As laboratory studies remind us, and as real-world studies of desegregation and seat belt mandates confirm, our attitudes will then follow our actions. Behaving will become believing. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com . Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)
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Steven Pinker’s books—How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Enlightenment Now, and his latest, Rationality—offer a consistent and important message: Smart, critical thinking attends less to anecdotes that tug at the heart than to realities revealed by representative data. Year after year, 7 in 10 Americans, after reading the news, tell Gallup there has been more crime than in the prior year. In Better Angels, Pinker documents the reality: a long-term crime decline, along with other subsiding forms of violence, including wars and genocide. Enlightenment Now details other ways—from the environment, to life expectancy, to human rights, to literacy, to quality of life—in which, contrary to our news-fed sense of doom, the world actually is getting better. The same thinking-with-data theme pervades Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters . For my money, Chapter 4 (“Probability and Randomness”) alone is worth the book’s price of admission. It’s a chapter I wish I could assign to every AP and college introductory psychology student. Here, according to Pinker are some noteworthy outcomes of our flawed thinking: Statistical illiteracy. Our tendency to judge the likelihood of events by the ease with which examples come to mind—the availability heuristic—leads us to think folks are more often killed by tornados than by 80-times-deadlier asthma; to believe that America’s immigrant population is 28 percent (rather than 12 percent); to guess that 24 percent of Americans are gay (rather than 4.5 percent. And how many unarmed Americans of all races would you guess are killed by police in an average year? Sixty-five, reports Pinker (from reported 2015–2019 FBI data). Unwise public spending. In 2019, after a Cape Cod surfer became Massachusetts’ first shark fatality in more than eight decades, towns equipped their beaches with scary billboard warnings and blood hemorrhage-control kits, and looked into “towers, drones, planes, balloons, sonar, acoustic buoys, and electromagnetic and odorant repellants” . . . while not investing in reducing car accident deaths at a fraction of the cost, with improved signage, barriers, and law enforcement. Mitigating climate change. Compared with deaths caused by mining accidents, lung disease, dam failures, gas explosions, and fouled air, modern nuclear power, despite its vivid few failures, “is the safest form of energy”—and emits no greenhouse gases. Exaggerated fears of terrorists. Although terrorists annually kill fewer people than are killed by lightning, bee stings, or bathtub drowning, we have engaged in massive anti-terrorist spending and launched wars that have killed hundreds of thousands. Amplified dread of school shootings. “Rampage killings in American schools claim around 35 victims a year, compared with about 16,000 routine police-blotter homicides,” Pinker tells us. In response, “schools have implemented billions of dollars of dubious safety measures . . . while traumatizing children with terrifying active-shooter drills.” “The press is an availability machine,” Pinker observes. “It serves up anecdotes that feed our impression of what’s common in a way that is guaranteed to mislead.” By contrast, unreported good news typically consists “of nothing happening, like a boring country at peace.” And progress—such as 137,000 people escaping extreme poverty each day—creeps up silently, “transforming the world by stealth. . . . There was never a Thursday in October in which it suddenly happened. So one of the greatest developments in human history—a billion and a quarter people escaping squalor [in the last 25 years]—has gone unnoticed.” This latest offering from one of psychology’s public intellectuals joins kindred-spirited data-based perspectives by Hans Rosling ( Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things are Better Than You Think ), Max Roser ( ourworldindata.org ), and William MacAskill ( Doing Good Better ), as well as my Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. Together, they help us all to think smarter by advocating reality-based, statistically literate, rational decisions that can help us spend and give more wisely, and sustain a flourishing world. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com . Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)
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In their new book, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass Sunstein introduce two kinds of error. Bias (systematic error) “is the star of the show.” The biases that skew our judgment captivate our science and our news. Noise (variable judgments) plays off-Broadway, with no marquee. Yet its contribution to inaccuracy and misjudgment is scandalously big. Noise pervades medical judgments. In an ideal world, all physicians would correctly diagnose medical conditions. In the noisy real world, physicians presented with the same symptoms vary markedly in their diagnoses of cancer, heart disease, pneumonia, and especially mental disorders. Physicians also more often prescribe quick-fix opioids if tired and time-pressed at the day’s end, rather than at its beginning. political asylum decisions. Asylum seekers face a “refugee roulette,” their fates determined by the luck of the draw as a judge becomes 19 percent less likely to approve asylum if two prior cases have been approved, or as one judge admits as few as five percent of applicants while another admits 88 percent. hiring and promotion decisions. Interviewers vary widely in their assessments of candidates, as do supervisors in their assessments of employees. There is more unreliability in assessment—more noise—than evaluators realize. sentencing and parole decisions. Criminal sentences for the same crime vary across judges. They also vary if a judge is hungry (sentencing before vs. after lunch), if the judge’s football team won or lost the day before, and if it is the defendant’s birthday. To experience the bias/noise distinction—or to teach it to students—Kahneman et al. suggest a simple demonstration. Pull out your phone and open up its clock or stopwatch. Use its “lap” function to check your accuracy in estimating consecutive 10-second time intervals. After you hit “start” and look away, let your finger hover over the “lap” button. When you sense that 10 seconds has elapsed, touch “lap” and repeat, until you have five trials. The difference between your averaged elapsed intervals and the actual 10.0 seconds reveals your bias—toward over- or underestimating the time interval. The variation among your estimates, represented by their range, is your judgmental noise. I launch my basketball free-throw shots with little bias—they average center of the net—but with more noise than I’d wish. So, how might we reduce unwanted noise? Kahneman et al. offer suggestions: Compile the wisdom of the crowd. In 1907, Francis Galton invited 787 villagers at a country fair to guess the weight of an ox. Galton had little regard for individual people’s judgments, which displayed considerable noise (variation). Yet their average guess—1200 pounds—nearly hit the bull’s eye (the ox weighed 1,198 pounds). Likewise, a crowd’s average answer typically bests most individual judgments when estimating the number of jelly beans in a jar, the temperature one week hence, the distance between two cities, or future stock values. A large foundation that I serve recognizes the wisdom of the crowd when judging grant proposals: When much is at stake in a decision, they aggregate many expert opinions. Harvest the wisdom of the crowd within. When researchers Edward Vul and Harold Pashler asked individuals what percent of the world’s commercial airports are in the U.S., they hazarded a very rough guess. Three weeks later, the researchers asked them to guess again. The average of their two guesses (on this and other questions) tended to be closer to the truth (for airports, 32 percent). We are, after all, different people at different times. For example, our momentary moods affect what we notice, how we interpret it, what we recall, and even how gullible we are. Thus, just as it pays to combine the wisdom of multiple people, so it pays to combine the wisdom from across our varying states of mind. Sleep on it, and decide again. Harness the powers of statistical prediction and machine learning. Whether predicting suicide risk, GPA, criminal recidivism, employee success, or mental disorders, statistical models outperform noisy professional intuition (as I also explained in Intuition: Its Powers and Perils). Likewise, artificial intelligence now enables machines to excel by reducing judgmental noise when recognizing faces, generating driving directions, spotting breast cancers, and detecting impeding cardiac collapse. Assess job candidates with structured interviews and create behavioral scales for assessing employee performance. Replace informal hiring interviews with work sampling and structured interviews that assess candidates on each work dimension. When evaluating employees, break a complex judgment into specific, behaviorally-described components. To reduce noise from some raters being lenient graders and others being tough, ask each rater to rank those being assessed. Eliminate sequencing noise. First impressions often matter, coloring ensuing interpretations. Likewise, the first person to speak when assessing an idea or a candidate, and the first person to rate an online product, often gain added influence. Control for such sequencing noise by having people independently record their judgments. Eliminating noise is usually, but not always, a good. The three-strikes life imprisonment policy reduced sentencing noise. But it did so with frequent injustice (when the offenses were minor, the life circumstances tragic, or the rehabilitation prospects promising). Algorithms that predict criminal risk may minimize noise yet be racially biased, as when the underlying crime data reflect over-policing in certain neighborhoods, over-reporting of certain offenses, or greater conviction rates for less affluent people. But more often, noise entails unfairness. When decisions become arbitrary—a matter of who does the judging, or their mood, or the time of day, or who speaks first—Kahneman, Sibony, and Sunstein recommend decision hygiene. Aggregate multiple judgments. Think statistically; discount anecdotes. Structure decisions into independent tasks. Constrain premature hunches. Welcome dissent. In sum, think smarter, judge more reliably, and decide more wisely. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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The Coming Post-Pandemic Fear Extinction
A recent YouGov U.S. survey produced a startling result. Of folks fully vaccinated against COVID-19, 54 percent nevertheless remain “very” or “somewhat” fearful of catching the virus—as do only 29 percent of those who “refuse to get vaccinated.” Asked about their comfort levels with various activities, 51 percent of vaccine refusers believe it’s safe to travel, as do only 29 percent of those vaccinated.
You read that right: Most protected folks still feel unprotected. And most of those unprotected by choice feel safe.
Fear Conditioning and the Pandemic
It’s no secret that the two groups differ in many ways, including politics. In Dalton County , Georgia, 9 in 10 people voted for Trump and, as of early May 2021, 4 percent were vaccinated. In San Francisco, 1 in 10 voted for Trump and 2 in 3 are vaccinated (and the COVID case rate is approaching zero).
As much as the vaccinated and vaccine-refusers differ, they seemingly share one thing in common: In their gut, neither fully trusts the vaccine efficacy science.
“No! Not social reëntry!” ~ Cartoon https://www.newyorker.com/cartoon/a24198 by Julia Suits
Some vaccine refusers discount the pandemic as overblown. As one said , “The coronavirus is a wildly overrated threat.” (Never mind its causing more U.S. deaths than the sum of all its wars except the Civil War.) But many also discount or suspect the vaccine science: They distrust the government, doubt the need, worry about side effects, perceive a conspiracy, assert their liberty, or question the benefit. Therefore, they agree with Senator Ron Johnson : “Why is this big push to make sure everybody gets a vaccine?”
Ironically, they are joined by fully vaccinated people who still fear a devastating COVID-19 infection and so continue to wear a mask when walking outdoors, to eschew socializing with other vaccinated friends, or to travel on planes with virus-filtered air. Never mind that among the 74,000 people in clinical trials receiving the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Astra-Zeneca, or Novavax vaccines, the total who died of COVID during the trial period was zero. And the number hospitalized with COVID was also zero. The vaccines are amazingly protective.
Fear Extinction after the Pandemic
Yes, a very few vaccinated people have contracted the virus (nearly all without becoming seriously sick). And among the millions now vaccinated, many will die—because even with no COVID-19, some 8,000 Americans and 800 Canadians die each day. Thus, there will be alarming stories of vaccination + death for media reporting. And the ready availability of those stories will, for many people, override the statistics of risk.
Thanks to their automatic use of the availability heuristic (judging the frequency of things by their availability in memory), most folks display probability neglect: They fear the wrong things. They fret about massively publicized remote possibilities while ignoring higher probabilities. So it is that most folks fear commercial flying more than driving (which, per mile, is 500 times more dangerous). So it is that many parents who don’t bother strapping their child into a car seat fear letting their child walk alone to school. And so it is that vaccinated people, after habitually living with pandemic fear for more than a year, have difficulty embracing the good news of vaccine efficacy. After 14 months, habitual fear is slow to subside.
But the good news: Subside it will. As exposure therapy has demonstrated, people who repeatedly face fear-arousing situations—starting with minimally anxiety-arousing settings—gradually become desensitized. Over time, their fear response extinguishes. Life will return to normal.
Meanwhile, for us educators, there remains an ongoing challenge: to help people think smart—to think critically, enlightened by evidence (and, yes, statistics). Between fearlessness and paralysis lies wisdom. Between cynicism and panic lies courage. Between recklessness and reticence lies informed prudence.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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Red and blue partisans alike are aghast at what others revere. As one incredulous friend recently said of his family, “I can't believe that I personally know people who are so foolish.” This divided family is not alone. The percentage of both Republicans and Democrats who “hate” the other party soared from 20 percent in 2000 to near 50 percent in 2016. Would you be unhappy if your child married someone from the other party? From 1960 to 2019, the percent of folks answering “yes” shot up from 4 to 40 percent. What psychological forces are driving and sustaining our great and growing divide? As I’ve mentioned in prior essays, belief perseverance solidifies ideas when personal explanations of why they might be true outlast the discrediting of evidence that inspired them. Motivated reasoning justifies what we already believe or want to believe. And c onfirmation bias sustains our beliefs as we seek belief-confirming evidence. There is also a powerful fourth phenomenon at work: group polarization, which further amplifies the shared views of like-minded folks. When like minds discuss, their attitudes often become more extreme. Long ago, George Bishop and I invited high-prejudice students to discuss racial issues with others (who, unknown to them, were of like mind). We did the same with low-prejudice students. As we reported in Science , the result was group polarization: The divide between the two groups grew. Separation + conversation = polarization (see Figure 1). The phenomenon can work for good—as peacemakers, hunger advocates, and Black Lives Matter activists gain strength from connecting with kindred spirits. Or it can be toxic, as like minds amplify bigotry, intensify conspiracy paranoia, and inspire terrorism. People have long gained conviction from the meeting of like minds. But three more recent cultural changes provide fertile soil for extreme group polarization: The internet. One, obviously, is 21st-century social media. Trump supporters connect with fellow Trump supporters in disparaging those whom they despise. Progressives friend progressives who similarly affirm their shared views. The end result? Differences escalate to demonization. Partisanship becomes tribalism. Partisan cable TV. But the internet is far from the whole story, because polarization has deepened even among those least likely to use it. The soil that nourishes polarization also includes today’s politicized cable television options. In the past, a handful of mainstream news sources fed us all. Today, we can choose like-minded news—think Fox and MSNBC evening talk shows, and the recently Trump-championed Newsmax and OAN—that reinforces our existing views. The geography of division. There is also a third and less obvious social phenomenon at work. In a contest between proverbs—do “opposites attract,” or do “birds of a feather flock together”?—one of social psychology’s oldest and most firmly established principles is that similarity attracts. Opposites attracting can make for a good story: think Frog and Toad. Or: “ I’m Aquarius—decisive. He’s Libra—indecisive. We complement each other with so little conflict, because he’s happy when I make the arrangements.” But in reality, people are drawn to those with whom they share attitudes, beliefs, interests, age, religion, education, intelligence, economic status . . . the list goes on. We could wish it were otherwise, because there are benefits to diversity in neighborhoods and work teams. Yet birds who flock together—rich birds, tall birds, pretty birds, smoker birds, evangelical birds—typically are of a feather. Likeness leads to liking. Similarity breeds content. And that helps explain why, in an age of increased mobility (we more often live at some distance from our original home), our internet/TV social bubbles are compounded by geographic bubbles, where people live among other like-minded folks. Blue counties have become a deeper blue, and red counties a brighter red. As Philip Bump reports, the Democratic presidential candidate’s margin in Democratic-voting counties increased from an average 15 percent in 2000 to 23 percent in 2020, while the average Republican candidate’s margin in Republican-voting counties increased from 26 to 43 percent. Whether you live in rural Wyoming or in central Seattle, just about everyone you meet likely thinks like you do. This increasing geographical segregation of like minds helps explain the astounding result of a September, 2020, Pew survey : Four in ten Biden and Trump supporters said they did “not have a single close friend” who supported the other candidate. As I am, so are my friends. When COVID-19 is defeated, our world will be left with mammoth challenges: preventing a climate apocalypse, reducing systemic racism and hyper-inequality, and also building bridges of understanding across our partisan chasm. For better and for worse, the internet, cable television, and geographic mobility will endure. So how might we depolarize? Technologists can surely help, by prioritizing Mark Zuckerberg’s original vision of “a more connected world.” By flagging demonstrable untruths, creating forums for “ deliberative democracy ,” and linking people across boundaries, future technologies can work at increasing shared understandings. Citizen initiatives can engage dialogue. Nonprofit organizations working to depolarize America include Living Room Conversation , the Civil Conversations Project , the Depolarization Project , and Braver Angels , which is bringing red and blue together “to understand the other side’s point of view . . . to look for common ground . . . and to support principles that bring us together rather than divide us.” For some specific policies, such as higher taxes on the super-rich, net neutrality , and a $15 minimum wage , there already is bipartisan supermajority support. Educators can advance understanding. One overarching purpose of education is to counter the power of repeated misinformation and “anecdata” by teaching evidence-based critical thinking. Education can also work at enabling people, even when disagreeing, to understand others’ perspectives. It can train intellectual humility (“What’s the weakest part of my argument? What’s the strongest part of my opponent’s argument?”). And, with our attention so often drawn to how we differ, educators can teach listening skills that enable us to appreciate our shared concerns and values. For superb, evidence-based, ready-to-use online pedagogy, see www.OpenMindPlatform.org . The utopian goal is not a Nineteen Eighty-Four-like uniformity of public opinion. Rather, our challenge is to affirm both our diversity and our unifying ideals, and so to renew the founding idea of America: diversity within unity. E pluribus unum: Out of many, one. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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“ The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.” This wisdom, often attributed to American historian Daniel Boorstin, suggests a sister aphorism: The great enemy of democracy is not ill will, but the illusion of understanding. It is social and political opinion that, even if well-intentioned and sincerely believed, sprouts from self-confident misinformation. Such is not the province of any one political perspective. Consider: A CivicScience poll asked 3624 Americans if schools should “teach Arabic numerals as part of their curriculum.” Fifty-six percent answered “No.” Among Republican respondents, 74 percent objected; among Democrats, the number was 40 percent. (Do the respondents advise, instead, teaching Roman numerals?) CivicScience also asked people if schools should teach the “creation theory of Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre as part of their science curriculum.” Democrats overwhelmingly objected: 73 percent opposed such teaching (compared with 33 percent of Republicans) … of the Big Bang theory. Such ill-informed opinions—illusions of understanding—are powered by what social psychologists know as the overconfidence phenomenon (a tendency to be more confident than correct) and the Dunning-Krueger effect (incompetence not recognizing itself). And, as I have previously noted, illusory understanding—and what it portends for our civic life--matters because our collective future matters. Consider further: When—despite plummeting violent and property crime rates—7 in 10 adults annually believe there has been more crime in the current year than in the prior year, then fear-mongering politicians may triumph . When immigrants crossing the southern U.S. border are seen as oftentimes “vicious predators and bloodthirsty killers ,” then—notwithstanding the somewhat lower actual crime and incarceration rate of immigrants—we will call for the shifting of public resources to “build the wall.” When statistically infrequent (but traumatizing) incidents of air crashes, domestic terrorism, and school shootings hijack our consciousness—thanks to our heuristic of judging risk by readily available images of horrific happenings—then we will disproportionately fear such things. Gallup reports that nearly half of Americans (38 percent of men and 58 percent of women) now are “worried” that they or a family member will be a mass shooting victim. Feeling such fear, we may allocate scarce public resources in less-than-optimal ways—as when transforming schools into fortresses with frightened children—while being unconcerned about the vastly greater dangers posed by car accidents, guns in the home, and future mass destruction from climate change. (It’s so difficult to feel empathy for the unseen future victims of grave dangers.) Red or blue, we agree that our children’s and grandchildren’s future matters. The problem is that democracy requires an informed and thoughtful populace. Democracy’s skeptics argue that most people lack the motivation and ability to do the needed work—to absorb large amounts of information and then, with appropriate humility and openness, to sift the true from the false. Consider our collective ignorance on such diverse topics as the U.S. federal budget percentage going to foreign aid (1 percent, not Americans’ average guess of 31 percent ) to the mere 38 percent knowing which party currently controls the U.S. House of Representatives. Such ignorance needn’t reflect stupidity. Perhaps you, too, have rationalized: If the odds of my vote affecting an election or referendum outcome are infinitesimal, then why invest time in becoming informed? Why not, instead, care for my family, pay the bills, manage my health, pursue relationships, and have fun? Or why not trust the simple answers offered by authoritarian leaders? Ergo, the great enemy of an informed and prudent populace, and of a flourishing democracy, is misinformation that is sustained by an illusion of understanding. But there is good news: Education matters. Education helps us recognize how errors infuse our thinking. Education makes us less gullible to conspiracy theories. Education, rightly done, draws us out of our tribal social media bubbles. And education teaches us to think critically—to ask questions with curiosity, to assess claims with evidence, and to be humble about our own understanding. Said differently, education increases our willingness to ask the two big critical thinking questions: What do you mean? and How do you know? So three cheers for education. Education informs us. It teaches us how to think smarter. And as Aristotle long ago taught us, it supports civic virtues and human flourishing. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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Democracy presumes civic wisdom. When voters grasp truth, when facts prevail over misinformation, prudence prevails. When the electorate understands what actually advances (and threatens) human flourishing, it can inaugurate sensible policies and elect benevolent leaders. The collective wisdom of the cognizant is more astute than an autocrat’s whims. Alas, as the late Hans Rosling amply documents in Factfulness , too often the crowd is unwise. Ignorance reigns. Even with this forewarning, consider: What percent of the world’s 1-year-olds have had a vaccination? What percent of humanity lives in extreme poverty (<$2/day)? What percent of humanity is literate (able to read and write)? The factual answers—86 percent, 9 percent, and 86 percent, respectively—differ radically from Americans’ perceptions. Their vaccination estimate: 35 percent . And though extreme poverty has plummeted and literacy has soared, most don’t know that. More than people suppose, world health, education, and prosperity have improved (as Steven Pinker further documents in Enlightenment Now ). Such public ignorance—compounded by the overconfidence phenomenon (people’s tendency to be more confident than correct)—often undermines civic wisdom. When year after year 7 in 10 adults tell Gallup there has been more crime than in the prior year—despite plummeting violent and property crime rates—then fear-mongering politicians may triumph . Our ignorance matters when horrific but infinitesimally rare incidents of domestic terrorism, school shootings, and air crashes hijack our consciousness. We and our children will not only disproportionately fear the wrong things, we will then risk more lives by extreme public spending to avoid these frightening things—to, say, block the “vicious predators and bloodthirsty killers ” supposedly pouring across our southern border, rather than to mitigate climate change and more extreme weather. In the aftermath of anti-immigrant fear-stoking (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists .”), many people do fear immigrants. Americans are, reports Gallup , “five times more likely to say immigrants make [crime] worse rather than better (45% to 9%, respectively).” Roused by anecdotes of vicious immigrant crime, “Build the wall!” becomes a rallying cry—despite, as the conservative Cato Institute freshly documents , a lower crime rate among immigrants than among native-born Americans. And what do you think: Is eating genetically modified (GM) food safe? “Yes,” say 37 percent of U.S. adults and 88 percent of American Association for the Advancement of Science members. Moreover, the people most opposed to GM foods are (according to a new study ) those who are most ignorant about them. As the famed Dunning-Kruger effect reminds us, ignorance and incompetence can, ironically, feed overconfidence. Ignorant of my ignorance—and thus prone to a smug overconfidence—I am blissfully unaware of all the possible Scrabble words I fail to see . . . which enables me to think myself verbally adept. We are, as Daniel Kahneman has said , often “blind to our blindness.” The result is sometimes a theater of the absurd. A December 2015 Public Policy Polling survey asked Donald Trump supporters if they favored or opposed bombing Agrabah. Among the half with an opinion, there was 4 to 1 support (41 percent to 9 percent) for dropping bombs on Agrabah . . . the fictional country from Aladdin. But ignorance needn’t be permanent. Education can train us to recognize how errors and biases creep into our thinking. Education also makes us less gullible —less vulnerable to belief in conspiracy theories. Teach people to think critically—with a mix of open-minded curiosity, evidence-seeking skepticism, and intellectual humility—and they will think . . . and vote . . . smarter. Ignorance matters. But education works. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com.)
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Psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford vividly recalls being sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when both were teens. Kavanaugh remembers no such event and vigorously denies Ford’s accusation. The potentially historic significance of the allegation has triggered a debate: Is she telling the truth? Or is he, in claiming no such memory? Without judging either’s current character, psychological science suggests a third possibility: Perhaps both are truthfully reporting their memories. On Ford’s behalf, we can acknowledge that survivors of traumatic events typically are haunted by enduring, intrusive memories. As Nathan DeWall and I write in Psychology, 12th Edition, Significantly stressful events can form almost unforgettable memories. After a traumatic experience—a school shooting, a house fire, a rape—vivid recollections of the horrific event may intrude again and again. It is as if they were burned in: “Stronger emotional experiences make for stronger, more reliable memories,” noted James McGaugh (1994, 2003). Does Ford’s inability to remember ancillary details, such as when the assault supposedly occurred, discount her veracity? Not at all, if we’re to generalize from research on the accuracy of eyewitness recollections. Those whose memory is poor for incidental details of a scene are more accurate in their recollections of the essential event (see here and here). But if Kavanaugh and his friend were, indeed, “stumbling drunk,” then perhaps they, genuinely, have no recollection of their impulsive behaviors while “severely intoxicated.” Memory blackouts do happen, as we also report: Ergo, if trauma sears memories into the brain, and if alcohol disrupts them, could it be that both Ford and Kavanaugh are telling the truth as best they can recall it? (For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit www.TalkPsych.com)
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