A recent program from the TV series Hacking Your Mind explains that while we imagine our conscious minds make most decisions, in fact we go through much of our lives forming quick opinions without even realizing we’re doing it, using what researchers call autopilot thinking. We rarely take time to consciously consider opinons more slowly, which researchers call “slow thinking.” They also find we tend to stick to an opinion we made on autopilot, even if we later discover we were mistaken. We especially stick to it if it’s held by groups we feel we’re part of (Democrat, Republican, White, Black, etc.)
Knowing about slow thinking and some other ways our minds operate could help Americans right now. But before getting to those, I have a proposal. In hopes our divided nation can come together and solve problems in an atmosphere of civility and empathy, I respectfully ask those who are considering re-electing the president to read what’s below. I come in peace, and write from my heart. I hope you agree at least that rather than the conflict and angry rhetoric we hear so often, it could be so much better (and make us happier) if we could work together to solve our many problems. We might even get to know and like each other. (As I finished this post the president and first lady contracted coronavirus. I wish them a quick recovery, and have left these thoughts mostly as they were, assuming he’ll be able to continue his campaign.)
Back to Hacking Your Mind, researchers say it’s in our history and genes to want to belong to groups, and to feel a pull to compete with or even fight with other groups. This tendency can lead to an “us versus them” frame of mind. “Us vs. them” thinking oversimplifies and distorts complex problems by dividing the world into an “us” and a “them,” and scapegoating and vilifying” the “them” according to writers for Psychology Today.* We see this in sports, politics, and other areas.
The writers say there are two theories as to how “us vs. them” occurs.One involves competition. As I understood it, an example might be a country struggling with a terrible economy blames a particular group for it, even though that group has nothing to do with it. (A version of this occurred in Nazi Germany). Or it may arise for reasons concerning identity and self-esteem. One of the writers explains: “the mere categorization of people into an us and a them is enough to produce hostilities.” So if you’re a member of a certain group, you may think it’s natural to feel hostile toward a group that thinks differently, even if it’s full of lots of perfectly nice people. (Note from me: What if the two groups talked about their differences together over coffee? Can we not have some differences without figthing about them?)
Social media has made these tendencies more extreme, for example when it’s used by bad actors who want to get us so angry with each other that we fight with and even kill each other. Hacking Your Mind tells of someone on social media who made up names for two nonexistent groups, and statements that would make each group hostile to the other. They then announced a meeting of each group, on either side of the same street at the same hour. Hundreds of people who had identified with the two groups went to the meeting, and when they realized the others were across the street, began to rage at each other. No doubt this was very satisfying to the instigators, who now must feel they have a lot of power over us.
This is a terrible side of social media, and makes hopes of peaceful, unified problem-solving hard to hold onto. But we don’t have to fall for it. Slow thinking and vigilance can help us avoid the lure of such fake people and groups, and also of baseless dangerous theories and the often deranged, hate-or-power-obsessed people behind them. It would also help if we used social media less, and demanded that its owners better police themselves. By the way, our using social media is making the owners very wealthy. The site Investopedia tells us:
“If you’re not paying for the product, the product is you. The real transaction here isn’t you receiving enjoyment in the form of a free temporary distraction created by a media company at great expense, but rather, that media company renting your eyeballs to its advertisers.”
Re “us vs them,” Psychology Today’s Marika Lindholm says today we tend to take sides on all kinds of issues such as vegetarians vs. carnivores, or Coke vs. Pepsi, etc., but some will have more serious consequences than others. A solution she suggests for those is “boundary spanners,” meaning people who belong to multiple groups and social worlds, including immigrants, biracial or bicultural individuals, gay members of the military, and others. She says rather than marginalizing them, we can “honor and empower” them, because they can help us bridge “us vs. them” divisions. For more on this go to:
Now let’s apply slow versus autopilot thinking to politics. It’s clear Mr. Trump’s decisions please many people, and he’s a magnetic and skilled speaker. But did you ever feel swept up in the moment when everyone was cheering something he said, say at a rally, and then later hear a voice inside you ask, “Do I really go along with that statement?” Your autopilot thinking may have been at work at the rally, but a different decision later may be the result of slow thinking you chose to do when you got away fom the noise.
I suspect many of us act too often on auto-pilot, not taking time to think through the country’s most serious problems and how we can solve them. Take the pandemic. Say you saw photos of people on ventilators and doctors covered in protective equipment, you heard doctors say masks and distancing protect us, you saw many people wearing masks, and photos of huge new grave sites in various countries. Then you heard the president say the virus isn’t that dangerous or is nearly over. You might have made an autopilot decision to believe him, but later in a quiet moment you might have wondered what the real truth was as you slowly considered all the evidence. Even though he now has the virus, many people coming into the White House are still not wearing masks. They see how real the virus is, yet stick with their initial autopilot decisions, even at the risk of their lives!
We can find the truth by researching several sources, and asking ourselves questions such as (in this case) why would a leader we strongly supported lie to us about our own potential suffering and death? Why are so many businesses shuttered? Why do he and those around him get tested constantly, when many of us can’t get a test? Eventually we’d see that Mr. Trump got tested because he did know the virus is dangerous. Yet he needed us to feel calm and safe so we’d agree to opening businesses and schools, and would feel good about things seeming normal again. But why would he urge us to have such a dangerous “normal?” The only answer I see is that his main goal was re-election, and it didn’t matter to him if more of us suffered and died to make that more possible. Your autopilot opinion may tell you “no way!” about this, but try slow-thinking through the facts and you may change your mind.
Look at global warming. We’ve lost over four critically-needed years in which we could have slowed it, and not only does Mr. Trump not help, he’s done much to make it worse. As a model to the world he could help leaders work together and with us, to turn this hellish situation around. What’s worse is he does believe global warming is real. In 2009 he was part of a business coalition urging President Obama to take urgent climate action. See this link:
He has not and will not create national plans to stop the virus and global warming, but there is someone who will: Joe Biden. He’s got well thought out plans for both, having consulted the best experts he could find. Without such plans the pandemic will surely affect us deeply for another year or even more, and economic recovery will take much longer. If we don’t slow global warming we’ll soon see ever-larger areas where drought and heat force mass migrations northward; also more wildfires, loss of our remaining precious natural spaces, tropical diseases such as Dengue fever moving north, and more pandemics, just to start. (For more on this, one of many good places to look is the site of Union of Concerned Scientists.)
There are many other issues we’ll need to think about carefully, but the virus and climate change certainly are among the most urgent. Joe Biden is intelligent, grasps what’s at stake, knows how to research a problem, is kind, and will calm our overwhelmed nation and the world. He’s pledged to help people on all sides. So I respectfully beg you, even if you’re fond of Mr. Trump, please do consider at least for this one election voting for Mr. Biden.
I apologize if anything I’ve written here has offended you. I hope a time comes soon in which feeling offense is rare because despite our differences we’ll have learned to respect each other. We’ll become more aware of our prejudices, substitute kindness for them, make friends with people from diverse groups, and decrease hostile “us versus them” thinking. We’re all human. It can’t be that hard to unite in peace to solve problems, especially with the extra time we’ll have that we used to use to fight and hate. Most important, we’ll gain the gift of new friends. Researchers say that if we want to thrive, the support of many good friends is crucial.
*Psychology Today article by Arash Emamzadeh