Opinions. Everyone’s got one. Here is one revelation for me about COVID-19: Your personal opinions can be easily swayed by your identities. We act not on facts—rather, we choose our opinions based on who we think we are.
I remember meeting a European CEO back in June. It was during the pandemic’s summer break. I had just arrived in Europe, flying directly back from Hong Kong. Seeing me wearing a mask, the CEO said, “Ah, I can see that you just came from Asia. Here in Europe, we don’t believe in masks.” Only Asians would wear masks—that’s what he was saying.
It seems impossible these days to talk with people on matters we disagree about. It’s stressful to have political conversations. Anything becomes nonnegotiable the moment it touches politics.
But as much as you might feel the need to defend your position, you must avoid making choices based on identities alone. Doing so would mean outsourcing your thinking. You will ultimately lose your ability to think freely. Let’s consider exactly how an issue is divided along party lines.
The Random Evolution of Political Parties in Picking Issues
In the U.S., the left-wing liberals, young progressives, and the college-educated population generally aim to challenge the status quo of society. They do so to bring about equality and elevate the standard of living for all. Conservatives, in contrast, respect tradition, support religious morality, and often harbor an aversion to rapid change.
One would think, then, logically, that conservatives would care far more about the conservation of the old ecological order. They should be passionate about protecting ancestral lands, forests, and rivers. But they aren’t. Texas has much weaker environmental regulations than Vermont. Averting environmental change is a left-wing agenda. The issue of climate change galvanizes today’s progressives.
You are right to suspect that these party lines are a bit arbitrary.
We are now so used to our current political setting that we forget it was the late Republican president George H.W. Bush who started the National Climate Assessment. “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the ‘White House effect,’” Bush said in a 1988 campaign speech. “As president, I intend to do something about it.”
But climate change got publicized by Al Gore. Gore’s movie—An Inconvenient Truth—became a global blockbuster. The Democratic vice-president had become the spokesperson for climate change. To Republicans, the conclusion was inevitable: if Al Gore becomes attached to a cause, that cause must be fought against.
Such are the historical quirks. But once the party lines were drawn, conservatives and liberals escalated their own commitment. The liberals started yelling that the sky was falling. The conservatives plugged their ears to the available facts. This is the outcome when an issue becomes “political.” Whomever you root for represents you, and when they win, you win. You need to prove that you are better than the other side.
But don’t forget that, despite all the emotions, the political process underneath is quite random. Issues get attached to a party by chance.
Of course, personally, you don’t feel it that way. You think it’s never the party lines that dictate your opinions. After all, you can certainly recite a list of reasons for the position that you’ve taken on various social issues. It just so happens your favorite party thinks the same way as you do. That’s why you choose to vote for them. But is that so?
The Human Bias toward Consistency
Here’s a thought exercise. Say you’re a smoker. The fact that you smoke contradicts your knowledge that smoking can kill. To be consistent in your own thinking, you must quit. Unless you justify smoking. So some will say, “Smoking keeps me thin. Being overweight is a health risk too.” See there? Your brain is the best spin doctor to ensure logical consistency regardless of your position.
Psychologists have long understood the power of consistency in directing human behavior. Humans avoid contradiction. Our minds help us avoid paradoxes.
It works the same way for politics. Right now, you probably want to go back to work or hang out at a bar. But evidence suggests these actions might be dangerous because of COVID-19. Your favorite party may have accidentally picked one side. And it’s all because of some quirks in the political process.
Nonetheless, if you’re a Democrat, you’ll listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci and stay at home. Your logic is intact. Your political choice is consistent with your personal actions. If you’re a Republican, because the party wants to resume economic activities, you’ll listen to Mike Pence. “The right to peacefully assemble is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution,” he said at a Trump rally. Now you also have a solid reason why you should ignore the warnings and not allow the cure to be worse than the disease. Either way, you’re a consistent person.
Notice how consistency is just another form of automatic response. It offers a shortcut through the density of modern life. Once you have picked one side, consistency allows you a very appealing luxury: You don’t have to think seriously anymore. No more expending the mental energy to weigh the pros and cons of an issue anymore. No more sifting through the blizzard of information you encounter every day to identify the relevant facts. All you need to do is to listen to the spin doctor in your mind and rationalize the choices that the political party has given you.
This is why it’s so important to know the identities you hold when interpreting the environment. When you hear or see something, what interpretation do you jump to? Where does that default interpretation come from? When staying consistent with your identities, are you serving someone else’s intentions instead?
To be aware of the reasons behind your reasoning is to increase your chances of having the right response. Self-awareness is the first step toward awakening. The danger is that our opinions on the latest matters are predetermined by our chosen identities. As Sir Joshua Reynolds once warned, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.” Let’s not be that way.
Yes, needing an identity and needing to belong are powerful motivators driving many of us. Coupled with an unconscious confirmation or consistency bias indeed makes exchanges on politics particularly troublesome.
Interesting piece Howard! This is something that we all need to be aware of. Thank you for sharing!
So true, being self-aware and understanding our own identities plays a significant role when interacting with people who have completely different preferences and in any circumstances.