All the infighting makes sense from a scientific perspective
Fighting within the secular movement has unfortunately been all too common lately. Friendships have been lost, alliances have been broken, and terrible things have been said in situations where people are in 99% agreement. People are very quick to deal in absolutes which are quite harmful for our movement. Many good people do not even want to be involved because of all the unnecessary drama. Other good people are losing interest fast. It can be rather perplexing to see people viciously fighting one another when they agree on so much. In this post I hope to uncover why people deal in absolutes from our current understanding of how the mind works. I do this as both a curious neuroscientist, but also as simply a person who simply cares about our movement, the people within it, and is tired of seeing so much fighting when we agree on so much.
I consider dealing in absolutes to occur when a person leaves absolutely no room for a differing perspective. When dealing in absolutes, there is one absolute correct way and the mere questioning of that perspective in any fashion leads to vilifying and out casting. Skeptics have seen this kind of thinking in the dogmatic nature of religion, yet as skeptics we are often guilty of it ourselves. The reason this occurs is because we are just as human as theists and we are just as prone to cognitive biases. By not admitting this, we are only harming ourselves. Additionally, dealing in absolutes can often be quite vicious in nature. The ironic thing that people fail to realize is that being harsh can often be counterproductive for getting them to see your point. Countless studies have shown that competence AND warmth are crucial for being viewed positively in social interactions. You must be seen as capable and friendly to have your positions be viewed favorably.
I believe there are three major contributing factors to dealing in absolutes from what we know about the brain.
- The first reason is because it simply takes less cognitive effort to make simpler decisions. It is much easier to place a person or idea in one category or another and not evaluate them on a continuous spectrum. Our brains have developed to look for patterns and quickly classify things so it is easy to place a person in one category or another and not critically evaluate their behavior.
- The second reason is due to our vulnerability in committing the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is a famous cognitive bias that many people routinely make. It can be described as when people overestimate another person’s personality as the cause of their behavior and underestimate the effect of the environment and extenuating circumstances in their behavior. Thus, when dealing with absolutes, it is easier to think that one’s personality is flawed and the environment and other contributing factors have little to do with one’s behavior (and again, less cognitive effort). This falls in nicely with dealing in absolutes because we can quickly label someone as a ‘bad person’ instead of evaluating their perspective.
- The concept of amygdala highjacking contributes as well. Amygdala highjacking occurs when we are dealing with an emotional topic and we automatically react with emotion rather than reason. The amygdala is a part of the brain which processes emotion and when amygdala highjacking occurs, neural resources normally reserved for reasoning in other parts of the brain (like the frontal cortex) are allocated to the amygdala.
So basically, when humans deal with difficult or emotional topics, our brains are wired to jump to hasty absolute conclusions. So how can we possibly fight our biology? Well, we can fight fire with fire, or in this case, the firing of neurons with the firing of neurons. Despite having these built in cognitive biases, we also have a valuable resource called consciousness. We are self-aware. Our brains are malleable and we can change them by making a concerted effort to do so. We may not be able to control how our brains initially react to stimuli, but we CAN control what happens next. The great thing about the three reasons I mentioned is that they can all be alleviated with one simple process.
Okay, so our brains are built to look for patterns and minimize cognitive effort which makes us more likely to engage in such kinds of thinking. So it is very possible that when we see a perspective we disagree with we might quickly think ‘MISOGYNIST’ for example. And honestly, that’s totally fine. It’s OKAY to react emotionally. Emotions are awesome, quite useful, and it would be futile to try and stop them from occurring. The important thing to realize is that we have self-awareness and can know when we are engaging in such kinds of maladaptive thinking. Knowing that our brain is quick to react to negative emotional stimuli, we can combat it by first trying to take a step back. We can take a moment to ask ourselves questions such as:
- “What specifically has this person said to offend me?”
- “Is this an isolated incident or is there a pattern of bad behavior here?”
- “What sort of environmental components could have contributed to this behavior?”
- “Should I be more flexible in how I view this person?”
- “What is their perspective like while viewing this issue?”
The last question might be the most difficult, but is also the most important. Making a concerted effort to view another person’s perspective is very tough. And it also requires more cognitive resources. But it’s okay! Once we take our initial step back, take a few deep breaths, and make a GENUINE effort to evaluate the situation and differing perspective, we can respond much more rationally. This is the key step. Viewing a situation from an outside perspective limits the fundamental attribution error because it forces us to relate to the conflicting perspective more
Also, remember amygdala hijacking? To combat that and allocate more neural resources to the parts of our brain that deal with reason, we need to make a concerted effort to activate those rational parts of the brain. By processing to ourselves what we are feeling, the frontal areas of our brain involved in reason become active. Furthermore, if applicable, we can attempt to appreciate the person in some way we are communicating with as the feeling of appreciation will counter a negative feeling. This can be as simple as “well this person obviously cares about this issue and they want to help even if they are misinformed.”
By stating to yourself, WHAT is going on which makes you upset, WHY it is making you upset, and asking HOW this person could come to such a conflicting conclusion, you will find yourself in a much calmer and rational state of mind. The blood that rushed to your amygdala will now be more evenly spread to parts of your brain which process reason like the frontal cortex. Now your brain won’t quickly jump to yelling “MISOGYNIST”, but might think things like “hey, this person is saying something which is degrading to women and I’d like to find out why they are doing so.” Then, intelligent discourse can occur. Maybe you misunderstood that person, or maybe they are indeed a misogynist asshole. The point is that you do not shut the door on them right away. You can provide an opportunity to learn and educate.
In conclusion, it is crucial to be aware of our innate thinking patterns and make a concerted effort to combat them. This is the only way we will prevent ourselves from quickly dealing in absolutes and alienating those who agree with us so much. Our brain may be wired to process our environment a certain way, but that doesn’t mean we are required deal in absolutes once we regain our composure. By first taking a step back, thinking about the situation from a more objective standpoint, and then genuinely attempting to see another person’s perspective, we can have more civil discussions and make the world a friendlier place.
Note: This post reflects only a cursory understanding of the psychological and neurological components in dealing in absolutes. Contact me if you have further questions or leave a comment below and I will try my best to provide more information.