How communication has failed us
I’ve agonized a long while over writing this article, for two good reasons: I’ve committed not to allow politics into this space, and this is a weighty topic, requiring research on my part and a real commitment to understanding on the part of my readers. What finally drove me to take on the task was actual fear that, due to the way humans quite naturally make and defend their decisions, our country might be torn apart or at least face an ugly, painful period of violence and dissension. And there’s more: I suddenly realized that the outcome of this election is going to allow both candidates to win – and possibly all of us to lose.
That made me mad. It motivated me to speak out. I guess I should first explain myself, and then we’ll get to the heart of the matter. As I tried to imagine the morning of November 9, 2016, when the election is over and the dust and rhetoric settle, I saw that half the country will be “losers.” We’ll have a “winner” who will be on the way to the White House, and we’ll have a loser who will be on the way to…
Wait a minute! Where will the loser be headed? Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton is going to end up a loser. I suddenly realized that, no matter who “wins” the election, the other candidate can simply return to a life of ease and safety and intellectual challenge, to a strong support network, a comfortable lifestyle, and all the things that fulfilled him or her in the past. No matter how the election turns out, neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump is really going to lose.
It’s “we, the people” who stand to lose so very, very much. If violence erupts, it’s the little guy who’s going to get caught in the melee, not Trump or Clinton behind their walls of protection. If gridlock gets even worse (if that’s possible), it’s the ordinary citizens, not the millionaires and billionaires, who will suffer. If half the country walks away from this thing mad, it’s our families that will be torn apart. The Clintons will gather around Hillary and the Trumps will gather around Donald, but what of the brothers who no longer speak to each other? What of the cousins who will no longer spend holidays together or even the spouses who will face the monumental task of salvaging a marriage mired in political angst? Yes, we, the people, need to take care of ourselves – and each other. In the long run, we’re all we have. Four years… eight years, and still we’ll have only ourselves and each other, and here we go again.
So what does all of this have to do with communication?
As the polarity has increased and emotions have been splattered all over television and social media, a guilty little awareness has crept into my consciousness. It’s a nagging little voice that has been saying things like this: The TV commentators you tune in to always say the things you like to hear, don’t they? You don’t ever watch the TV networks “they” watch, do you? When you do hear a strong voice from “the other side,” you immediately discount it and discredit it, don’t you? As much as you want to understand your loved ones who are now throwing stones at you from the other side of the fence, as much as you want to keep loving them after November 8 passes, you can’t really stomach what they have to say right now, can you? Do you follow their social media links and investigate their sources? Do you frequent the web sites where they get their information? Or do you gravitate, over and over, right back to your own comfort zone and your own brand of “the truth”?
Guilty as charged.
I could face tough questions like that from my inner voice because I have studied and understand the nature of human communication. I know it, but I’m not the expert who can explain it authoritatively, so I had to do some basic research today. What I saw wasn’t necessarily pretty. It was kind of like looking in the mirror and realizing you’ve gained ten pounds or your posture’s gone to hell or your haircut’s ridiculous. It’s not a good feeling. But it’s the truth, so I faced it, and now I am going to share it with you, my readers. Let’s see if you can face it too, because it’s not specific to me or to any particular person or political party.
Scientific research has demonstrated that this is how human beings develop their preferences, identify their “truths,” and fortify their “positions” when options are available.
We put the cart before the horse - naturally
Let’s start with “confirmation bias,” sometimes called “my-side bias.” This is our natural human tendency to first reach a hypothesis or belief, and then surround ourselves with the information that supports it. Sorry to burst your bubble, but the truth is, unless you discipline yourself mentally to overcome this natural tendency and truly accept and weigh all the evidence before committing - and as more comes along (which is very, very hard for humans to do), you are most likely also caught in this trap of confirmation bias. We tend to seek out information or interpret it selectively to reinforce the decision we’ve already made. (Incidentally, financial sociologists like Lois Vitt extend this concept to shopping choices: We decide to buy it and then select the data that supports our choice - and ignore a staggering price tag or a lousy warranty or poor reviews.)
We select our information source from a position of bias. If we’re for Trump, we go to Fox. If we’re for Clinton, we go to MSNBC. If we support Trump, everything Kellyann Conway says makes sense. If we’re for Clinton, Kellyann Conway is terribly misguided, and Rachel Maddow really knows the truth. And the more emotionally committed we are to the decision - the more we have dug in our heels - experts tell us, the more likely we are to continually pay attention to only the speeches and reports and tweets that make us feel justified and smart for having made that decision. We are, as human beings, programmed to continue to confirm what we’ve decided is true, and damn the torpedoes. The longer we believe it, the more we find proof that we ought to believe it.
It gets even worse as time goes on, and this election season is a perfect illustration of that. We fall prey to attitude polarization. That means, no matter how much objective information is put before all of us, the disagreement becomes even stronger. In the face of identical evidence, we selectively interpret it and come to completely opposite conclusions. Even when the evidence would seem, to any unemotional, uncommitted third party, clearly opposed to our position, we use it to prove we are right. A case in point might be the recent uproar over insistence on sexual aggression by Donald Trump and the alternative charge of “bogus” firsthand accounts by various women – when everyone has heard the same evidence. Another case might involve hacked and exposed emails from the Clinton camp that, to some demonstrate her duplicity and to others demonstrate the “desperation” of the Trump campaign. The evidence is all the same, but our interpretations must stroke our egos and stiffen our spines.
The more we care, the less we learn
Interestingly, experts tell us, as we invest more emotional energy in our position, we tend to place greater emphasis on the early evidence that first led us down this path, and we are increasingly likely to dismiss growing evidence to the contrary, though it might pile up right in our faces. Remember, now, I’m saying “we,” not “they.” This human weakness knows no political loyalty or gender bias or socioeconomic status. Unless we are clearly aware of our “my-side bias” and remain vigilant to keep it in check, we will repeatedly and consistently fortify our position by seeking out the sources that support it and make us feel “right.”
Do you ever turn away from your computer when you see yet another one of those damnable “left-wing” or “right wing” Facebook posts, and you just can’t take another one? That’s what psychologists call selective exposure. We choose to expose ourselves to the information that reinforces our pre-existing views, and we avoid – literally turn off the TV or leave the web site or throw down the newspaper – the messages that contradict the position we’ve already taken. But then, after you cool off and return to your Facebook page, do you spot a “reasonable” post from someone who shares your views, and then find yourself saying something like, “I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who hasn’t lost her senses”?
We look at what is mentally attractive and look away from what opposes our preference, and then it’s darned hard to change our minds. It’s darned hard even to open our minds. It becomes easier and easier to stand our ground in the face of overwhelming evidence that we’re foolish or misguided or completely duped. And it’s just the natural human tendency.
Dr. Leon Festinger, generally considered to be the father of modern social psychology, used the term “cognitive dissonance” to explain why we suffer from confirmation bias, attitude polarization and selective exposure. Information or attitudes or platitudes that oppose our foregone conclusions, he explained, give us mental discomfort. Once we recognize the source of the discomfort, we will avoid it in the future. If a news commentator’s claims make me feel mentally uncomfortable, even if I’m not conscious of the effect, I’ll avoid listening to that commentator in the future and gravitate toward another one.
Well, that all sounds like the way a democracy prepares itself for an election, doesn’t it? But here’s the danger: As helpless humans, we make up our minds very early in the process, and then we selectively ignore anything that might change our minds. We refuse to be further educated. As the noise level rises, we become emotionally invested – protective, wounded, threatened – and that makes us even more determined to cling to that very, very early evidence (which might have come to us as children being politically indoctrinated by a parent or grandparent), and we refuse to open our minds to alternate possibilities, no matter how sane and reliable they might be. We batten down the hatches and gird our loins and convince ourselves that we are choosing between Lucifer and Archangel Gabriel, and even God must be on our side. We say things publicly that absolutely stun the people who have known and loved us well, and we writhe in agony over their stupid, short-sighted reaction to it.
And then we cast our ballots (furiously!) and watch the results and watch the victor blaze a trail to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the defeated return to the protected penthouse, and all we’ve got left is ourselves. And each other. An embittered, tapped out populace.
And now we’ve built the fence so high, inflicted such deep wounds, positioned ourselves so firmly on a particular path, that we can’t even see each other or hear each other or touch each other. The Trumps and the Clintons will easily pick up the pieces of their lives and go on to the next good option. And we, the people?
Unfortunately, as is too often the case, I have identified the problem but can’t offer an actual solution. Will you? That’s what the comment box below is for. Here’s our chance as Americans to see each other and hear each other and touch each other. If nothing else, we can admit our cognitive bias and our trepidation about where it might lead. And maybe somebody will offer something that just might help us start to tear down the fence and heal the wounds before it’s too late. We haven’t much time left. We’re all we have – and maybe all we need.