When your tribe is wrong

When your tribe is wrong

We humans are a tribal bunch.

We seem to be designed that way (see here); and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are hard-wired to find community, common cause, and a measure of identity within particular groups.  There are:

Evangelicals, atheists, vegans, hunters, gamers, naturopaths, NRA members, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Socialists, teamsters, doulas, environmentalists, and perhaps most cult-like of all: CrossFitters.

But if you stay in your tribe long enough, one thing is certain: It’s going to be wrong.  And not just on some minor point.  Given the fallibility of humans and the tendency of groups toward corruption, chaos, and dogmatism, your tribe is going to err on something important, and in a relatively widespread fashion.

Which raises the question: What do you do then?

As far as I can tell, there are three common responses:

  1. Deny

Perhaps the most frequent human tactic when facing embarrassing or threatening data is to simply deny it.  “Smoking can’t cause cancer! My uncle Ernie’s 97 and he’s a human chimney!”  “And No! My knee injuries are not because of Crossfit; they’re probably genetic; or the work of Russian trolls!” “#FakeNews.”

Similarly, the choice to just stay silent on one’s tribal errors can also be denial.

But if one does this long enough, the result can be devastating.  Before long, you forfeit credibility with all but the most Kool-Aid swilling faithful of your tribal kin.  And for Christians, that’s Kryptonite for Kingdom building.

Now for number two.

  1. Defect

When denial proves impossible, one might simply leave.

In some cases, this is warranted.  Some tribes are inherently toxic, while others start good but have their mission so perverted that one must either defect or be forever tainted.

But there are dangers here as well.

As the saying goes: It’s hard to reform organizations that you leave.  And if the tribe holds certain true or noble values, then defection can be deleterious.  It can simply cede the field to the worst elements within the remaining group.

Likewise, the desire for defection sometimes stems from vengeful and unhealthy motives.  “I’ll show them! They just made the wrong kind of enemy!”

Given the human tendency for knee-jerk reactions, we often swing from one form of tribal dogmatism to another.  In disgust, we embrace wholesale the opposition, while immediately denying the deep flaws and contradictions in this newfound tribal home.  “Anything is better than where I came from,” we say.

In a final twist: some attempt a total defection from mission-driven tribal homes.  “I’m just a member of the ‘human tribe’ these days.”  Nonsense.  If we are hard-wired for these tribal groups, we will either find them or die of loneliness.

  1. Distract

When denial or defection are rejected, a final option when confronted with one’s tribal “wrongness” is simply to shift the focus to the flaws of rival tribes.  “Yes, yes, we have our problems, but when you look at the alternative… .”

Of course, some tribes are worse than others.  The cartel is not the rotary.  But when this “Lesser of two evils” logic is used as a distractor from the obvious corruption or error within one’s own tribe, the result is much the same as with denial: The “distractor” loses credibility with all but the most loyal partisans.  Again: Kingdom Kryptonite.

One doesn’t put out a fire in the attic by pointing to the smoking ruins of a neighbor’s house; or by simply moving to the basement.

Distraction is denial’s evil twin.

CONCLUSION 

What then is the right response to tribal wrongness?

It depends, of course, on a variety of factors. It doesn’t always mean a snarky airing of one’s public grievances (see here).

But it should probably begin with (1) an acknowledgment of the problem, (2) an awareness of these three coping mechanisms (above), and (3) a refusal to go from “tribe” to “tribalism.”

Now to mix the Kool-Aid for my CrossFit pre-workout. It helps with my genetic knee pain.

 


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Breaking Bias: A children’s book for grownups

Breaking Bias: A children’s book for grownups

As a parent in that purgatory known as “potty training” I am of course familiar with Taro Gomi’s #1 Bestseller: Everyone Poops.

 

It is pearl of wisdom.

 

And since it has also been quite lucrative, I’ve even pondered writing my own classic to address a universal issue plaguing our society.

I call it Everyone Skews—a grownups guide to confirmation bias.

To save costs, we could even steal some illustrations from the Gomi classic (see especially the donkey and the elephant).

The need for such a book should be obvious: Everybody is biased at some level.

And in a highly polarized environment we become especially adept at spotting bias in “them” while being blind to it in “us.”

As Wittgenstein once said: “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving yourself.”

TYPES OF BIAS

In fact, there are many types of bias (see here)—and each should probably be taught with the kind of rote memorization once reserved for multiplication tables, and now replaced by Taylor Swift lyrics.

Examples include:

  • Projection Bias
  • The Gambler’s Fallacy
  • The Anchoring Effect, and
  • Current Moment Bias

But this is not about those.

CONFIRMATION BIAS

Confirmation Bias (or “Myside Bias”) is the tendency we all have to focus only on claims that reinforce what we already believe.

As the argument goes, we humans can interpret almost any evidence as a confirmation of our existing opinions.

And this can make us stupid.

In the words of George Dvorsky:

We love to agree with people who agree with us. It’s why we only visit websites that express our political opinions, and why we mostly hang around people who hold similar views and tastes. … It’s this preferential mode of behavior that leads to the confirmation bias … And paradoxically, the internet has only made this tendency even worse.

One result of this is what I call a “silo culture” (see here) is a general lack of listening.

WHY DOES IT SMELL FUNNY?

This is dangerous, because to quote Rosaria Butterfield (yet again): we all tend to become sentimentally attached to our bad ideas.

Hence the children’s book for grownups.

While Everyone Skews, more problems come when we deny that our biases stink like those of other people.

“Sure that other News network smells funny, but mine smells like roses and truth. It even says so on the label.”

(Never mind that both are driven by the same quest for ad revenue that guides Keeping Up With the Kardashians.)

CAN I FLUSH IT?

A further danger with confirmation bias is the evidence suggesting there is little correlation between one’s understanding of a given issue and one’s confidence in understanding it.

A sign of this comes in a recent Yale study (here) involving—and I am not making this up…—how a toilet functions.

The study asked folks to rate their understandings of basic processes, including zippers and how a bathroom stool works.

Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because …(Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.)

[The researchers] see this effect, which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do.

But while such ignorance is fairly unimportant when it comes to toilets, it is more dangerous in other areas:

It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban [or any other position] without knowing what I’m talking about.

Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” … And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem.

BELIEVING THE LIE

Interestingly, the New Testament goes even further.

In Romans 1, Paul attributes the universal human rejection of God (a fairly serious bias), not merely to ignorance or lack of evidence, but to our active “suppression” of the truth.

This is how deep bias runs.

As Paul argues, we all want to “believe the lie” at certain points because lies are more convenient.

Because of this, we need something more than information.

We need Grace.

In some ways, this startling diagnosis should encourage a certain patience when dealing with the biases of others, because I realize that I am prone to even more egregious truth suppressions.

THREE PRACTICAL STEPS

Apart from a gracious overthrow of previous perspectives, there are some practical steps to breaking bias. Here are three simple ones:

  1. Admit the problem.

I can’t have my biases challenged if I don’t admit their existence.

While some folks are clearly more biased than others, there is no view from nowhere.

Every perspective–including mine–carries with it certain blindspots and prejudices.

No one is completely fair and balanced.

So claiming to be so is either ignorance or duplicity.

  1. Irrigate your ideas.

Idea irrigation happens as we expose ourselves to new and differing perspectives. The goal here is not to adopt opposing viewpoints (they might be wrong), but to understand them and (this is important) to encounter them in their most cogent form.

Along these lines, I recently heard a libertarian colleague tell me that he gets all his news from periodicals (not the rubbish heap of Cable News).

Then he told me that he subscribes to thoughtful publications from opposing angles. That seems like great advice. Read diverse thinkers who know how to write in complete sentences.

  1. Embrace Surprise.

As the biochemist Isaac Asimov once said:

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny’.”

What he meant was that our greatest advancements come not when our old presuppositions are confirmed, but when they’re rattled—and we notice it.

Thomas Kuhn called these “anomalies.”

They are observations that don’t make sense under the current paradigm.

Along these lines, some scientists are now encouraged to start a “Surprise Journal” (see here) in which each entry chronicles three things:

  • The moment of surprise.
  • Why it was surprising.
  • What this tells me.

The point is to fight confirmation bias and to turn the dissonance into a moment of discovery.

What if more than just scientists did this?

What if we began to notice (and even delight) in those instances in which our presuppositions are surprisingly upended?

In my view, that would be a good thing.

Because all facts are friendly when you’re chasing truth.


 

For more on bias and what a proper information “diet” looks like, check out The Information Diet, by Clay Johnson (here).

Burn your silo; find a home

As Walter Lippmann said:

“When everybody thinks the same, nobody thinks very much.”

I love that statement, but it’s also convicting.

The gist is simple: There is profound danger in surrounding yourself with voices that sound strangely like your own. It’s called the “echo chamber,” and the result is the assisted suicide of critical thinking.

As I heard a wise man say:

“If you only read the books you write, your ‘truth’ will always be slanted.”

These days, the slant goes by many names:

  • confirmation bias,
  • the herd mentality,
  • tribalism, and
  • a silo culture.

 

In a silo culture, homogenous items are kept safely together, and safely separate from all else. There is little meaningful communication between silos, and few doors or windows. And as the Cold War taught us, “silos” now have a further purpose. They are for launching missiles in the direction of opposing silos.

bwsilos
Photo by Patrick Feller

Both meanings are fitting. Silos are symbols of separation, and of mutually assured destruction.

And whatever your position on particular social or political issues, you have to admit one thing: Our culture has embraced its silos.

Take, for instance, the way we get our “news”:

In prior eras, there were a few respected voices: Cronkite, Murrow, Brokaw. They were biased, of course (for everyone is biased), but we mostly drank from the same wells.

Not today. Now, we have our “silo-sources.” They have been carefully designed by market research to suit our preferences and our prejudices. Not too hot. Not too cold. They’re “just right”—with a steaming side of confirmation bias.

Are you a raging liberal who thinks George W. Bush would have been a Bond villain if only his IQ was higher than a Texas hunting dog? Enjoy the echo chamber of MSNBC.

Or maybe you think Obama is a secret Muslim who simultaneously loves gays and beer and Sharia law (think about that…). Good news. You too have Cable News corroboration. It’s fair and balanced. No tribalism here.

Unfortunately, we are now discovering where silo-sources leave us (see the current presidential frontrunners).

My point, however, is not about our news or politics.

It’s about community, friendship, and the kind of relationships that actually help us think.

Here’s my big idea:

While tribalism can be deadly, there is great value in belonging to a tribe.

While silos separate us, we still need homes.

Humans need community, and some of that community should be like-minded. That’s not a bad thing. To accomplish anything, we need shared vision. We need spouses and friends who see the same truth we do, just as we need voices to challenge our assumptions. To deny the value of all like-minded groupings is to cast oneself adrift on a sea of loneliness and isolation. That way lies cynical inaction.

There is value in belonging to a tribe, and I certainly have mine.

As a follower of Jesus from a particular segment of the Christian family, I am part of an admittedly peculiar (and imperfect) people. It is a bounded set, which means that it has fences, unique problems, and beliefs that we hold in common. That is as it should be.

In one sense, to have a tribe is to have a home, and homes are good.

Homes have doors and windows, and perhaps a welcome mat. In good homes, outsiders are welcomed with hospitality, and family members are bound together by more than shared opinions. In homes, there are lines of communication with the outside world, and not just the “Red Phone” for launching missile strikes! In a home, insiders leave and return, preferably on a daily basis, in order to embrace the outside world.

Because while we should have homes, we were never meant to hole-up there. Agoraphobia is a disorder—and a fear-based way of living.

Here’s my point: When tribes become tribal, homes become silos, and fences become unwelcoming walls (“y-uge beautiful walls”…perhaps paid for by Mexico). And that is bad for everyone.

It is killing civil discourse, and it is the assisted suicide of critical thought.

“When everybody thinks alike, nobody thinks very much.”

It’s time to burn our silos, while also finding homes.