Moving Beyond Willful Ignorance

This is not the post I thought I’d be writing today. Two weeks ago, when I started to try to understand willful ignorance, I was mad. I suspect I shared that feeling with many of you. I was tired of the deliberate denial of fact that had consequences for all of us. I was frustrated with anti-masking, anti-vaxxing, anti-climate change and, most of all, anti-science. I was ready to go to war with those I saw in the other camp.

And that, I found out, is exactly the problem. Let me explain.

First, to recap. As I talked about two weeks ago, willful ignorance is a decision based on beliefs, so it’s very difficult – if not impossible – to argue, cajole or inform people out of it. And, as I wrote last week, willful ignorance has some very real and damaging consequences. This post was supposed to talk about what we do about that problem. I intended to find ways to isolate the impact of willful ignorance and minimize its downside. In doing so, I was going to suggest putting up even more walls to separate “us” from “them.”

But the more I researched this and thought about it, the more I realized that that was exactly the wrong approach. Because this recent plague of willful ignorance is many things, but – most of all – it’s one more example of how we love to separate “us” from “them.” And both sides, including mine, are equally guilty of doing this. The problem we have to solve here is not so much to change the way that some people process information (or don’t) in a way we may not agree with. What we have to fix is a monumental breakdown of trust.

Beliefs thrive in a vacuum. In a vacuum, there’s nothing to challenge them. And we have all been forced into a kind of ideological vacuum for the past year and a half. I talked about how our physical world creates a more heterogeneous ideological landscape than our virtual world does. In a normal life, we are constantly rubbing elbows with those of all leanings. And, if we want to function in that life, we have to find a way to get along with them, even if we don’t like them or agree with them. For most of us, that natural and temporary social bonding is something we haven’t had to do much lately.

It’s this lowering of our ideological defence systems that starts to bridge the gaps between us and them. And it also starts pumping oxygen into our ideological vacuums, prying the lids off our air-tight belief systems. It might not have a huge impact, but this doesn’t require a huge impact. A little trust can go a long way.

After World War II, psychologists and sociologists started to pick apart a fundamental question – how did our world go to war with itself? How, in the name of humanity, did the atrocities of the war occur? One of the areas they started to explore with vigour was this fundamental need of humans to sort ourselves into the categories of “us” and “them”.

In the 1970’s, psychologist Henri Tajfel found that we barely need a nudge to start creating in-groups and out-groups. We’ll do it for anything, even something as trivial as which abstract artist, Klee or Kandisky, we prefer. Once sorted on the flimsiest of premises, these groups started showing a strong preference to favour their own group and punish the other. There was no pre-existing animosity between the groups, but in games such as the Banker’s Game, they showed that they would even forego rewards for themselves if it meant depriving the other group of their share.

If we do this for completely arbitrary reasons such as those used by Tajfel, imagine how nasty we can get when the stakes are much higher, such as our own health or the future of the planet.

So, if we naturally sort ourselves into in groups and out groups and our likelihood to consider perspectives other than our own increases the more we’re exposed to those perspectives in a non-hostile environment, how do we start taking down those walls?

Here’s where it gets interesting.

What we need to break down the walls between “us” and “them” is to find another “them” that we can then unite against.

One of the theories about why the US is so polarized now is that with the end of the Cold War, the US lost a common enemy that united “us” in opposition to “them”. Without the USSR, our naturally tendency to categorize ourselves into ingroups and outgroups had no option but to turn inwards. You might think this is hogwash, but before you throw me into the “them” camp, let me tell you about what happened in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma.

One of the experiments into this ingroup/outgroup phenomenon was conducted by psychologist Muzafer Sherif in the summer of 1954. He and his associates took 22 boys of similar backgrounds (ie they were all white, Protestant and had two parents) to a summer camp at Robbers Cave and randomly divided them into two groups. First, they built team loyalty and then they gradually introduced a competitive environment between the two groups. Predictably, animosity and prejudice soon developed between them.

Sherif and his assistants then introduced a four-day cooling off period and then tried to reduce conflict by mixing the two groups. It didn’t work. In fact, it just made things worse. Things didn’t improve until the two groups were brought together to overcome a common obstacle when the experimenters purposely sabotaged the camp’s water supply. Suddenly, the two groups came together to overcome a bigger challenge. This, by the way, is exactly the same theory behind the process that NASA and Amazon’s Blue Origin uses to build trust in their flight crews.

As I said, when I started this journey, I was squarely in the “us” vs “them” camp. And – to be honest – I’m still fighting my instinct to stay there. But I don’t think that’s the best way forward. I’m hoping that as our world inches towards a better state of normal, everyday life will start to force the camps together and our evolved instincts for cooperation will start to reassert themselves.

I also believe that the past 19 months (and counting) will be a period that sociologists and psychologists will study for years to come, as it’s been an ongoing experiment in human behavior at a scope that may never happen again.

We can certainly hope so.

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