Of Two Minds


From Sean Parker Dennison, in The Seven Principles in Word and Worship

“‘We affirm and promote the goal of world community, with peace, liberty and justice for all.’  As naïve or impossible as this, our sixth principle, may seem, I’m not willing to give up on it.  I want us to believe – and to live as if we believe – that a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all is possible.  There is no guarantee that we’ll succeed, but we will improve ourselves and the world by trying.”

 “Yes, What?” by Robert Francis

What would earth do without her blessed boobs
her blooming bumpkins garden variety

Her nitwits   numskulls   universal
nincompoops  jawohl  jawohl  with all
the yawps  burps  purrs guffaws
under the red-face moon?

From Hamlet Act II Scene 2, by William Shakespeare
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!...

The marches yesterday were breathtaking and inspiring.  Do you wonder sometimes how we got here – to a point where we need to march and organize, to write and sign declarations, a point very far from any vision of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all? 

We have a President who declared last month:  “There is no global anthem. …No certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag and that flag is the American flag.  America first!”  He said it again in his inaugural speech: 

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it's going to be only America first. America first.”

He’s right.  There is no global currency or flag or system of governance.  He represents a trend – a growing global trend – towards isolationism.  It showed itself in the British vote to leave the European union.  It is showing itself in nativist and anti-immigrant movements in other countries. 

The problem with this way of thinking is that there is only one globe.  Like it or not we share a global economy.  We share the oceans, the atmosphere, and more of the biosphere than people may realize.  And as Molly Bang points out in the story we read, there’s nowhere else to go.

Are we humans a piece of work?     “nitwits   numskulls   universal  nincompoops?” Or are we a piece of work “noble in reason, infinite in faculty…?”

If we were only the latter, noble in reason, it might be easier to think globally.  But we’re not, and we don’t. 

Committed anti-globalists count among them people who deny the existence of climate change, or human responsibility for climate change.  What makes an ordinary person reject overwhelming scientific evidence?  What makes someone a climate change denier? 

One reason people reject scientific evidence is that they make sense of the world by relying on anecdotes and stories, rather than on objective data.  Washington Post journalist Joel Achenbach writes, “We hear about a cluster of cancer cases in a town with a hazardous waste dump, and we assume pollution caused the cancers.”  (We’ve heard other stories about cancer and pollution – Love Canal, for example.) 

“Yet,” he continues, “just because two things happened together doesn’t mean one caused the other.   …To be confident there’s a causal connection…, you need statistical analysis showing that there are many more cancers than would be expected randomly, evidence that the victims were exposed to chemicals from the dump, and evidence that the chemicals really can cause cancer.”[i]

That is just not the way most people think.  We think in stories – what happened to us, or a family member or a friend.  What our favorite celebrity shared on Facebook.  Someone down south might say, “We never used to get snow down here.  Now it snows every winter.  So much for all that nonsense about global warming.” 

So how might you convince a climate change skeptic, or denier, that the data are real and serious and that radical action is needed?  Giving people facts does not seem to work.  A major reason, social scientists are learning, is related to identity, what groups we belong to, and what a given set of beliefs says about our loyalty to our group.

People’s social identities (gender, generation, ethnic background, class, where they live, and work and worship) can contribute to whether they accept or reject scientific evidence.

Mostly unconsciously, someone’s social identity is often internalized as that person’s sense of who they are.  Threaten the identity, and the person feels personally attacked.[ii]

It makes sense.  We all experience it to some degree.

And climate change information could be threatening to, for example, a conservative white male who identifies strongly with values like control, and economic superiority, and freedom of choice.[iii]

Climate change has become almost a tribal litmus test.   Do people who are like me believe in climate change, or not?  Rejection of the science has more to do with identity than with reason.[iv]

And this is related to the way our brains work.

Part of the human brain is tribal by nature.  We are conditioned, genetically, to see the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them.’  Joshua Greene, a neuroscientist and director of the Moral Cognition Lab at Harvard has written about this in a recent book called Moral Tribes.

He says that many, many studies have shown “widespread negative associations with out-group members in adults, children, and even monkeys.”[v].  People readily favor in-group members over out-group members, even when the groups are arbitrarily defined and temporary (as in a game).  … And there is a neurotransmitter, oxytocin, that makes people selectively favor in-group members.”[vi]

Greene and his colleagues use imaging to study regions of the brain involved in moral judgments.  He describes our brains as analogous to a dual-mode camera, with point-and-shoot automatic settings (“portrait,” “landscape”), and with a manual mode. These two modes have been mapped to different areas of the brain.

The manual mode, Greene says, is the brain’s capacity for deliberate reasoning, which makes our thinking flexible. The point-and-shoot settings are our emotions, including our tribal identity emotions.  These are efficient, automated programs shaped by evolution, culture, and personal experience. They operate outside our conscious control.

Our point-and-shoot emotions make us social animals, says Greene, turning Me into Us. But they also make us tribal animals, turning Us against Them.   Not only do they make us reject outsiders, they bias us towards accepting information that agrees with the way we see the world.

They also bias us to strongly reject information that challenges our tribal identities.  In fact, people not only reject the unwanted information, they get defensive, and dig in.  Rather than becoming convinced of their error, they become more convinced that they are right.

This phenomenon has been dubbed the “backfire effect.”  When someone has an opinion that is rooted in social identity or feelings, rather than facts, giving them information in the hopes of changing their mind will backfire.

Giving them information is more likely to strengthen the belief you are trying to change.[vii]

Years ago someone I was close to had fallen in love with a man she had known in high school, someone with whom she had recently reconnected.  Both were divorced; both former spouses had left them for someone else; both had children. 

I had gotten to know the man and I didn’t like him.  I shared my concerns with her.  Fact:  He was a 40 year old who often behaved as if he was in his twenties, flitting from one thing to the next.   Fact:  She had complained, with ample examples, that he was irresponsible with money.  Fact:  Her children didn’t like him.  Fact:  She didn’t like his mother, who lived nearby, and whom she found overbearing and intrusive.

She didn’t disagree with my observations.  She did say I was trying to stand in the way of her happiness.  They got engaged.  They got married.

The marriage didn’t last very long. 

People dig in.  Despite clear facts, they dig in about climate change, or about an emotional decision they have made.  Apparently, they dig in deeper when confronted with information that challenges their sense of who they are, and who they belong to.

I know I don’t like being lectured at.  And I really, really, really do not like being told what to do.  Especially when the lecturer is right.

What’s wrong with me?  Possibly I am, at times, a nitwit   numskull and   universal  nincompoop.  Possibly being told what to do offends my sense of who I am, “noble in reason,” someone with excellent judgment at all times.  :-)

I didn’t watch the inauguration.  I heard from people who watched it and were disheartened. 

Yesterday morning I read Trump’s speech.  And there was, again some of the frightening campaign bluster:  “America first,” and some anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric.  But his message was also a populist one, much of which could have come from Bernie Sanders.

Of people living in poverty, of people whose lives are shattered by drugs and gangs he said, “Their dreams are our dreams and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home and one glorious destiny. The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.” 

Do I believe he is sincere?  And if not, is it because of objective evidence or because my tribe is on the other side?  I think I know the answer to that.  But I’m looking for a glimmer of hope, an opportunity to try to find some common ground.  I’d like to believe finding common ground is a possible first step, with some people, on some issues.  Because science tells us we are unlikely to change people’s minds by lecturing at them. 

One more story:

Nathan Kontny, who runs a software company called Highrise, tells a story about eating breakfast with his two year old daughter.[viii]  They are sharing a salad when his daughter announces she wants jellybeans.  They have a family rule:  no candy for breakfast.  So he says, reasonably,

“We don’t have jellybeans for breakfast.” 

She starts to fuss, he explains why the rule is sensible:  candy has lots of sugar, sugar isn’t good for us, etc.  The fuss escalates toward meltdown.  He decides to change tactics:  he switches to empathy.  “I’m sorry.  I know what you mean.  I want jellybeans too.”  She stops wailing and looks at him.

“Actually what I really want is ice cream.”

She jumps up – “There’s ice cream in the freezer, Daddy.” 

Oops.  But he persists:  “Hold on a sec.  I really want ice cream, but I know that it’s not a good idea to eat unhealthy things for breakfast.  So even though I’d really like to, I’ve decided I‘ll eat healthy things instead.” 

And, so he says, she accepts this matter-of-factly, drops the jellybean demand, and goes back to her salad.

I haven’t seen anyone try this with my grandson.  But I am sure that empathy works better than reason when feelings are involved.  I learned this long ago, in an organizational behavior class.  There’s a lot more scientific evidence supporting it, now.  When we are emotional, we don’t respond to reason. 

When we are emotional, when we’re relying on the tribal side of our brains, when our sense of who we are is threatened, we may respond to empathy.  We may respond to being heard and understood. 

To change someone’s mind, we can try to touch their heart.  Nearly everyone responds to respect for their feelings, interest in their values, sympathy for their struggles, affirmation of their hopes and dreams. 

In the days and months and years ahead, we can resolve to resist all forces of divisiveness.  We can translate our values into action – standing, sitting, rolling, writing, petitioning, protesting,         AND listening, learning, and trying to understand. 

All on the side of love. On the side of love, and on the side of an impossible dream – a dream of global community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

[i] Joel Achenbach, The Age of Disbelief, National Geographic, March 2015

[ii] Matthew Facciani, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/accordingtomatthew/2016/08/the-science-of-why-we-reject-science-and-what-we-can-do-about-it/

[iii] McCright, A.M., Dunlap, R.E., Cool dudes:  The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States.  Global Environ. Change (2011),  doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2011.06.003 (http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/students/envs_5000/mccright_2011.pdf)
“Conservative white males are likely to favor protection of (a social and economic order) which has historically served them well.  ..(They) have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system, … benefitting from ample amounts of prestige, status, and esteem.    …. Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the current economic system, it makes sense that conservative white males’ strong system-justifying attitudes … may drive them toward climate change denial.”

[iv] Achenbach

[v] https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/iatdetails.html

One form of study uses implicit association tests (IATs).  These are rapid-judgment exercises that measure the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy). The main idea is that making a response is easier when closely related items share the same response key

[vi] Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes, Penguin, 2013, chapter 3

[vii] Facciani; also Greene; also Kontny, below

[viii] Nathan Kontny, “The Backfire Effect…”  Forbes, June 2016