About 500 years ago, the French writer Montaigne wrote, “I consider myself an average man, except for the fact that I consider myself an average man.” I suspect there may be a little false modesty there, considering that Montaigne is credited with inventing the essay as a literary genre, but the main point is that he seems to have sensed something that psychologists have now documented extensively: the average person thinks they’re better than average. They think they contribute more to team efforts than the average person, they think they’re more morally upstanding than the average person, and so on.
This bias can also operate at the group level. We may think we are more upstanding than another person, or we may think that our sports team is more upstanding or commits fewer penalties. We may think our political party is right and the other one is wrong—that our nation is right and the other is wrong. The bias is the same, whether it’s operating at the individual level or the group level.
Related: The State of Mindful Resistance
Now you may ask, how do we hang on to these beliefs when they are at odds with reality? The answer is that we don’t really face the evidence—at least we don’t let all of the evidence into our brains equally. We tend to notice and retain evidence that’s consistent with our views, and we tend to either not notice or reject evidence that doesn’t support our views. This is called confirmation bias, and it’s one of the most important cognitive biases because it sustains the other cognitive biases. It’s a key part of the dynamic that lets us hold on to beliefs that are at odds with reality.
The Buddha seems to have had a sense for the way this operates. In the following quote attributed to the Buddha, he talks about the evidence presented by the senses and how a man might come to be sure that he is superior to his rivals. He said:
The senses’ evidence,
and works, inspire such scorn
for others, and such smug
conviction he is right,
that all his rivals rank
as ‘sorry, brainless fools.’
—Culaviyuha Sutta (SN 4.12; trans. Sir Robert Chalmers)
There’s an understanding here that our senses—our perceptual machinery—filter evidence to sustain a false view of reality. So the question arises: Is there anything we can do about confirmation biases? Is there any kind of adjustment we can make to see reality more clearly? For starters, we can try to understand exactly how confirmation bias works.
Here, Western psychology is catching up, in a sense, with a theme that has been a part of Buddhist psychology for a long time. For a long time in Western psychology and philosophy, cognition and affect—thoughts and perceptions on one hand, and our feelings on the other—were in two separate compartments. The standard metaphor, which comes from Plato’s Symposium, was the chariot and the chariot rider. The chariot rider is the rational mind, and the horses are the emotions. The rational mind sits there in its own compartment and decides whether it’s up to the job of controlling these things like rage, jealousy, and lust, and if it’s up to it, it pulls on the reins. There is interaction between the two compartments in this model, but they remain separate: reason is back here, feeling is up there. The battle between them is very much a case of conscious activity. But it turns out that the relationship between thoughts and feelings is more complicated than that; feelings influence our thoughts and perceptions in very subtle ways, and we are not conscious of much of this influence. Becoming conscious of it actually takes practice and discipline.
A good place to look for the way we often aren’t aware of the influence of our feelings is in social media. If you use social media, you’ve probably been in a situation where you’re deciding whether to share something or not. Suppose that what you’re thinking about sharing is something that either reflects favorably on your ideological tribe or unfavorably on the other, opposing ideological tribe. If you stop before you share and pay attention to your feelings, you may notice that the decision to share isn’t just a decision—it’s not purely cognitive. It feels good to share information that shows that some policy you favor is right or that some politician you champion has done something good. The decision to share that kind of information is an affective act, to some extent.
Sometimes the sequence of feelings is a little more complicated than what I’ve just described. For example, a politician you don’t like has done something horrible, and you are so outraged that you want to share this news. You probably will do that unless you are reflecting on the feelings of rage, or even hatred, that are giving rise to this impulse. If you do pause and reflect, then you are empowered to decide whether the feeling that’s driving you to do this should be trusted. You may stop and ask yourself, do I know for sure that this is true? Or, do I fully understand the context in which this apparently abhorrent act was committed? Is it really responsible to share this before I’ve investigated? If you pause and reflect in that moment, you can decide whether the feeling in this case is a good guide.
I encourage you to try to be mindful in situations like this, but it may not be easy. Mindfulness, like a lot of things, takes practice. If you have a regular meditation practice, it’ll probably be easier to comport yourself in this way on social media, especially if you didn’t skip that morning’s session.
Another thing I want to emphasize is that mindfulness is about more than just mindfulness of feelings. If you look at the ancient Buddhist text called the Satipatthana Sutta, it talks about being mindful of feelings, of thoughts, of perceptions, of bodily sensations, and so on. It’s an instruction about meditative, contemplative exercises that make you very broadly aware of the things in your environment. This awareness lets you have a clearer view of, and more control over, the machinery of your mind and your behavior.
Now suppose you don’t exercise restraint on social media. Suppose you tweet something of a tribal nature. You will have a second opportunity to observe the role that feelings play here, because you will probably notice that you hope you will be retweeted by members of your tribe—and if you’re not, you may feel anxious about it. Was it not a good tweet? Does your tribe not like it? And if they do massively retweet it, you may feel gratification. These feelings are all very common when we’re using social media, and they are a major driver of the tribal dynamic. The things that people are incentivized to do in order to raise their stature within their own tribe end up increasing the antipathy between tribes. The things that you’ll get the most positive feedback for in your own tribe are often the things that are going to drive the other tribe the craziest. This behavior creates a feedback loop where people in both tribes try to elevate their stature among their ideological brethren while deepening the divide between the two ideological groups. That’s one reason I would encourage you to behave responsibly on social media.
Now, I want to emphasize, being accepted or appreciated by your group can be a great feeling with no downside. One of the finest moments in life is when you’ve made some of the key contributions to your team, and it’s deeply appreciated. I wouldn’t encourage you to avoid what you can think of as tribal acceptance in all contexts, but I would encourage you to ask yourself, what are the consequences of elevating your stature within a group in a particular way? And if it is to just deepen a divide to no good end, that’s the case when mindfulness can come in handy.
Another side effect of trying to please your group or your tribe on social media is that it can lead to a kind of turbulence: wanting to be liked and feeling disheartened if you weren’t widely shared or retweeted. It’s a little bit of a rollercoaster, even leaving aside the implications for the tribal divide and exacerbating tensions among competing groups. You may just find that being a little less aggressive on social media can be more conducive to equanimity.
We began this exploration by introducing confirmation bias, which undergirds many other cognitive biases that in turn exacerbate the problem of tribalism. But as we’ve seen, cognitive bias is, in a way, a misnomer since affect plays such an important role in sustaining and activating the bias. And while modern psychology is still catching up with this particular dimension of Buddhist thought, mindfulness meditation—which is connected to some of the deepest and most radical ideas in Buddhist philosophy—can offer us a practical tool for dealing with the problem of confirmation bias and transforming the way we think about others and about ourselves.
This is an excerpt from Beyond Tribalism: How Mindfulness Can Save the World, a new six-week online course with Robert Wright, the bestselling author of Why Buddhism Is True. Beginning on May 20, 2019, Robert Wright will investigate the problem of tribalism through the lens of Buddhist philosophy and evolutionary psychology, while showing how mindfulness can make us happier and less reactive—and just might save the world. Watch a preview lesson at learn.tricycle.org.
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