How Your Brain Tricks You into Thinking the Other Side Is Stupid

Two Practical Tips for Better Social Media Conversations

Sometimes your brain plays tricks on you. For instance, when you look at a stick in the water, it looks bent, even though it isn’t. Or, when you’re driving on a hot day, it looks like there is water on the road at the horizon, even though there isn’t. If you want to have true beliefs, it helps to know when your perception is untrustworthy.

In general, people believe things about political issues based on what seems to be true to them. Many different factors influence what seems to be true to us, some of them more than they should. We all have biases, incomplete information, and sometimes faulty arguments that influence what seems to be true to us. But just like it seems to be true that the stick in the water is bent, sometimes what seems to be true politically isn’t actually true.

This year I have identified one of my own vulnerabilities to mistaken political perceptions, and I have come to believe it is an incredibly common problem. When I see a pro-choice person, or a leftist, or someone else I tend to disagree with behave badly, I naturally (and wrongfully) jump from the fact that one individual person did it to the conclusion that that’s a general problem for everyone else in that group.

When someone outside of my tribe does something wrong, my brain treats the wrong action as representative of their entire group. (I have an experience with a really unreasonable pro-choice person and it kind of feels like that’s how all pro-choice people are.) When someone outside of my tribe does something good, my brain treats the good action as an irrelevant outlier. (I have an experience with a really gracious and intelligent pro-choice person, and that has a very small effect on how I think about pro-choice people in the future.) Over time, my perception of the group becomes inevitably worse because every wrong action from them worsens my perception of them and every good action is negligible in comparison.

I have since learned that I am largely describing the fundamental attribution error, which describes how we attribute our own good behavior or that of people in our group to internal, permanent characteristics (we’re good people), but we attribute our own bad behavior or that of people in our group to external, temporary characteristics (I was just having a bad day). In contrast, we attribute the good behavior of people outside of our group to external, temporary characteristics (they were unusually charitable today), but we attribute the bad behavior of people outside our group to internal, permanent characteristics (they’re bad people).

If this is a general problem, and, I think it is, it partially explains why polarization is so bad right now and why it’s so hard to dialogue on social media. I don’t know about you, but my Facebook feed is a depressing place whenever something controversial happens (this week it has been NFL players like Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem and Donald Trump’s reaction to that). It shouldn’t be this bad, because I have a lot of intelligent, articulate Facebook friends on both sides. But I think something about the Facebook environment makes the fundamental attribution error even more likely.

There are a few extremists on the left who seem to think Trump should be impeached for his statements and tweets about Kaepernick, a few extremists on the right who seem to think Kaepernick should be deported for not being patriotic enough, and then there’s everyone else in a big ambiguous middle area. Almost everyone in that middle area thinks Trump is annoying and that Kaepernick should have the right to kneel if he wants to, yet many of these people are having different emotional reactions to the kneeling protest. But the extremists on the left have really irritated my conservative friends and the extremists on the right have really irritated my leftist friends, and they’re all reacting to the extremists.

The problem is that once both sides get whipped into a frenzy and they are thinking about all of their frustration against people on the other side (some of that frustration legitimate), they don’t come across as very welcoming to productive dialogue. If your statements cause others to think that you believe anyone who disagrees with you is heartless or stupid, you’re doing it wrong.

I want dialogue on controversial issues to be better than it is right now. The more polarized we become, the less we want to dialogue with the other side, and, the sad irony is that, the more polarized we become, the more we really need to dialogue with the other side.

I have two suggestions:

#1: Be very intentionally mindful of your own bias.

When you have an experience with someone on the other side of the political aisle, remember the fundamental attribution error. Don’t allow yourself to say, “This Democrat is obnoxious, therefore all Democrats are obnoxious.”

This may mean that you ought to hide or unfollow the more obnoxious people on your friends list who disagree with you politically, and intentionally follow the more thoughtful people who disagree with you. (On Facebook you could do that by changing them to “see first” in your News Feed preferences. On Twitter you could do this by making a specific list for “thoughtful people who disagree” and checking that list sometimes.) It also might be good to hide the more obnoxious people who generally agree with your views, so as to avoid being negatively affected by their attitude about the other side.

#2: Make a clear statement on your social media platform (or platforms) of choice that you want to hear from people who disagree with you.

We all have a limited amount of time and a limited amount of emotional energy for political discussion, and that’s really okay. Even so, you should intentionally clarify that you are not attempting to shut down dialogue or call the other side idiots when you post about politics. I’m not committing to arguing on the Internet with anyone who wants to argue with me for as long as they want to argue (heaven forbid), but I am committing to treating people with respect when they disagree with me and encouraging them to state their disagreement even if I’m not up for an Internet debate that day.

Here’s the statement I’m posting on Facebook today (the graphic has been optimized for Facebook timelines). Feel free to use mine, or write your own. If you write your own, please share it in the comments below.

Sometimes my political posts may come across more strongly than I intend. I really do believe that I may be wrong, that there are things I don’t understand, and that there are much smarter people than I on the other side of the political aisle. I promise that if you do me the courtesy of expressing your disagreement in either a comment, a private message, or an in-person statement, I will listen and treat you respectfully.

Author’s note: I received a message this afternoon that I didn’t explain the categories properly in this post. I don’t want to mislead anyone, so, with their permission, here is the message:

Hi Tim, I just read your blog post, and I think you did a really good job framing the issue and discussing it. For what it is worth, I wanted to offer a quick correction (in case this is a topic that you want to raise again). In your post, you refer to the process as Fundamental Attribution Error, which is technically incorrect. FAE is an individual-level process (I give credit to myself, but not to others, in general). When it rises to that tribal-level, it becomes Ultimate Attribution Error. UAE is a group-level phenomenon (I give credit to PEOPLE LIKE ME, but not to OTHERS WHO AREN’T LIKE ME). It is a subtle distinction in some ways, but when you are talking about group differences, it is best to apply a group-level concept. You seem like a man who chooses your words carefully and likes to be correct, so that is why I bring this up. Anyway, good post!


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The post “How Your Brain Tricks You into Thinking the Other Side Is Stupid” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Director of Training

Timothy Brahm is the Director of Training at Equal Rights Institute. He is interested in helping pro-life and pro-choice people to have better dialogues about abortion through 1) taking care to understand what the other person means, 2) using more carefully-constructed arguments, and 3) treating each other with care and respect. He graduated from Biola University with a B.A. in philosophy and is a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute.

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  • Thanks for a good post.

    “Sometimes your brain plays tricks on you. . . . If you want to have true beliefs, it helps to know when your perception is untrustworthy.”

    I believe that by far the best way to bring into consciousness many things that our brains do of which we would otherwise be unconscious, is a regular practice of meditation. (This is just the beginning of the benefits of meditation, but it is the one that is relevant here.) The more high-quality meditation the better, but to maintain the quality, we have to keep the rest of our lives in order also.

  • Val

    Good article.
    I live in a strange reality of being both prolife and liberal-leaning.
    That means I can be totally cool listening to progressive videos, and then have all my confidence in the host shattered when the issue of abortion comes up.
    All of a sudden, their ‘compassion and wisdom’ turns into them suddenly becoming “heartless and/or stupid”, as your article puts it.
    Pretty much the same thing has happened ‘in reverse’ when I post on prolife blogs.
    The one good thing about being in that position, however, is that I really do not see people as being either all good, or all bad based on positions alone, but it is very mind-bending for me.
    I must admit, though, that when I deal with posters who seem to be willfully hurtful or overtly hypocritical, I too often lose my composure.
    I agree that we have to learn to keep our cool, make our points as effectively as we can, listen to the poster’s points AND learn the proper time to quit when dealing with someone who is simply ‘playing’ us.
    It is a balancing act.

  • Claire L.

    Since I began taking the ERI course and reading the blog, I have made it a personal goal to repaint the picture pro-choice people see of pro-lifers by making a conscious effort to show that being a pro-life woman means I love all people, no matter their race, possession of a disability or lack thereof, political standing, moral viewpoints, or age (from newly-conceived, tiny human until the very end of their lives). And that I am not some weirdo who has somehow, despite being a woman, been brainwashed by an apparently misogynistic culture to have a strange obsession with saving fetuses.

    I want to be approachable to pro-choice people who may need to talk out our differences. Often I avoid the topic of abortion and keep my views on abortion to myself until after I establish a friendship, or at least a solid relationship with a person. In this way, a lot of pro-choice people I encounter end up categorized in my brain to be “people I know/people I like/friends” instead of a group that I try to keep as small as possible: my “those people” group. It also helps to be friends with pro-choice people because, if a half dozen pro-choice people get removed from my “those people” group and put into my “people I know/people I like/friends” group, it makes it a lot easier to not put the pro-choice person I’m dialoguing with into my “those people” group.

    After reading this article, I admit I am a bit disheartened in my efforts with the realization that it is likely that pro-choice people still see me as a weirdo and a random outlier on the edge of their “those people” group. Do you have any suggestions on how to minimize this problem and encourage other pro-lifers to do the same?