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Published on December 16th, 2016 | by I Am Awake

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We remain divided due to lack of honesty, not lack of information

The reason the world is so divided in opinion is not because of limited access to knowledge but due to our instinctual response to defend our belief systems and filter out anything that could threaten them

By Andreas Vou

Access to information has increased exponentially in recent times but rather than the general public gradually edging towards a point of mutual understanding thanks to this abundance of knowledge we all have access to, we are instead seeing quite the opposite.

Not only do we remain largely ideologically divided but seemingly more than ever before, with each side of the debate more confident and insistent on its version of the truth.

The reason for this, however, cannot be pinned down to lack of information, or even due to misinformation. It is merely a psychological block, a subconscious habit of plucking out disadvantageous facts or perspectives that could threaten our own narratives.

Rather than allowing information to determine our opinions, most instead assess it through their own personal filters, including political allegiances and ideological standpoints, and then assess whether something fits into that belief system or not.

Seeing as the most common instances where we see this mental blockage taking place is in political discussion, it is key to highlight the need to separate information not based on left or right, but true or false, even if it were to contradict one’s affiliation. We need to stop picking teams and make the truth our only agenda.

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Cognitive dissonance

Unfortunately, the majority of our society is locked in a state of cognitive dissonance, whereby they will fight to defend their belief system when presented with information that goes against their pre-held suppositions. This is explained simply in the short documentary ‘God is in the Neurons’:

“Specific neurons and neurotransmitters trigger a defensive state when we feel that our thoughts have to be protected from the influence of others. If we are then confronted with differences in opinion, the chemicals that are released in the brain are the same ones that try to ensure our survival in dangerous situations.

“In this defensive state, the more primitive part of the brain interferes with rational thinking and the limbic system can knock out most of our working memory, physically causing “narrow-mindedness”. No matter how valuable an idea is, the brain has trouble processing it when it is in such a state. On a neural level it reacts as if we’re being threatened, even if this threat comes from harmless opinions or facts that we may otherwise find helpful and could rationally agree with.”

Consider this information when you either witnessed or participated in your latest political conversation, and contemplate how this could skew judgment.

We are so intent on ‘winning’ a debate that we will often sacrifice learning new information or adding new dimensions to our existing understanding of a topic.

Rather than filtering information based on its validity, we instead tend to sort into what we want to believe and we would prefer not be true. If an opinion conflicts with our belief, we either ridicule it or rationalize it so that we do not have to update our belief system.

During political discourse, if a left-leaning person is presented with a piece of information by a right-leaning person that would put into question their pre-held belief about the said issue, that information will usually be refuted, and vice versa.

This attitude is not dissimilar to the psychology of the diehard sports fan, where a person will fight to defend a decision in their team’s favor but will then be oblivious when an identical incident goes against them. Ironically, a non-sporting fan when witnessing such tribal behavior can easily perceive it as such, but when engaging in similar activity over another issue, they cannot.

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The attitude most people take when debating political issues is similar to that of a diehard sports fan, bypassing rational thinking merely to defend their team

In the era of social media, the type of behavior that is perpetuated is not one of exchanging ideas and having an open discussion. It is rather one where the majority seek to score a quick shot of gratification.

Again, from the same documentary as previously referenced: “When we express ourselves and our views are appreciated, these “defense chemicals” decrease in the brain and dopamine neurotransmission activates the reward neurons, making us feel empowered and increasing our self-esteem”.

This is why the collective fueling of this behavior leaves us in a position where virtue signaling is the most common path taken when discussing important topics.

Mindfulness is the key

There is a way to break this barrier. It is inherent within all of us. The key is mindfulness.  The truth is that we all intuitively know when we are being honest with ourselves or not. We have all been in the situation where we say the odd lie or exaggeration during an argument to get one-up on our adversary, and so are we aware of that nagging feeling inside us when we do it but continue in an attempt to come away feeling superior.

Determining what is true or false is no simple process, and not something that can be achieved with a quick judgment but instead after rigorous research and cross-referencing, but also the ability to let down our guard in the face of new information.

So, having truth at your disposal is one thing, being able to absorb it is another, and that comes with  introspection and self-honesty.

Do not become too attached to your beliefs

The late Robert Anton Wilson said, “never believe fully in anybody else’s BS, don’t swallow all their belief system and don’t believe fully in your own”.

Wilson adds: “Any belief system you have right now is going to have to be revised and updated as you continue to apprehend new events later in time. This is the natural function of the human brain, it’s the way children’s brains performed before they were wrecked by the school system, it’s the way the minds of all great scientists and artists work.

But once you have a belief system everything comes in either gets ignored if it doesn’t fit the belief system or it gets distorted enough for it to fit into the belief system. You have to be continually updating your map of the world.”

Becoming more self-aware helps to bridge this divide, as does constantly challenging and updating our viewpoints when new information comes to light, to impartially observe and assess it for what it is rather than seeing it as a threat.

True freethinkers are not those who feel they know everything, but rather those who are able to change their minds in the face of new knowledge and perspectives. Only once we manage to perpetuate this mindset and move away from this defensive mentality can we begin to bridge existing divides and move forward as a whole.

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