“Our culture and our institutions tend to fixate on the individual—on his uniqueness, his distinctiveness, his independence from others. In business and education, in public and private life, we emphasize individual competition over joint cooperation. We resist what we consider conformity (at least in its overt, organized form), and we look with suspicion on what we call “groupthink.”
In some measure, this wariness may be justified. Uncritical group thinking can lead to foolish and even disastrous decisions. But the limitations of excessive “cognitive individualism” are becoming increasingly clear as well. Individual cognition is simply not sufficient to meet the challenges of a world in which information is so abundant, expertise is so specialized, and issues are so complex. In this milieu, a single mind laboring on its own is at a distinct disadvantage in solving problems or generating new ideas. Something beyond solo thinking is required—the generation of a state that is entirely natural to us as a species, and yet one that has come to seem quite strange and exotic: the group mind…
…Neither senseless nor supernatural, group thinking is a sophisticated human ability based on a few fundamental mechanisms. First, there’s synchrony: coordinating our actions, including our physical movements, so that they are like the actions of others. Second, there’s shared arousal: participating in a stimulating emotional or physical experience along with others. And third, there’s perspective-taking, in which the group takes turns seeing how the world looks through the eyes of one of its members. The extent to which these mechanisms are activated determines a group’s level of what psychologists call “entitativity”—or, in a catchier formulation, its “groupiness.” A sense of groupiness can be intentionally cultivated. The key lies in creating a certain kind of group experience: real-time encounters in which people act and feel together in close physical proximity.-Annie Murphy Paul “How Humans Think When They Think As Part of a Group.” Wired. June 15, 2021.
“Online media has given voice to previously marginalised groups, including peddlers of untruth, and has supercharged the tools of deception at their disposal. The transmission of falsehoods now spans a viral cycle in which AI, professional trolls and our own content-sharing activities help to proliferate and amplify misleading claims. These new developments have come on the heels of rising inequality, falling civic engagement and fraying social cohesion – trends that render us more susceptible to demagoguery. Just as alarming, a growing body of research over the past decade is casting doubt on our ability – even our willingness – to resist misinformation in the face of corrective evidence…
…To successfully debunk a myth, the authors conclude, it helps to provide an alternative causal explanation to fill the mental gap that retracting the myth could leave. Counterarguments work too, as they point out the inconsistencies contained in the myth, allowing people to resolve the clash between the true and the false statement. Another strategy is to evoke suspicion about the source of the misinformation. For example, you might be more critical of government officials who reject human-caused global warming if you suspect vested business interests behind the denialist claims…
…[When personal identity and values are involved, people tend to cherry-pick their data towards pre-determined conclusions, which] hints at a vexing conclusion: that the most knowledgeable among us can be more, not less, susceptible to misinformation if it feeds into cherished beliefs and identities…
…Since each individual has only negligible impact on collective decisions, it’s sensible to focus on optimising one’s social ties instead. Belonging to a community is, after all, a vital source of self-worth, not to mention health, even survival. Socially rejected or isolated people face heightened risks of many diseases as well as early death. Seen from this perspective, then, the impulse to fit our beliefs and behaviours to those of our social groups, even when they clash with our own, is, Kahan argues, ‘exceedingly rational’. Ironically, however, rational individual choices can have irrational collective consequences. As tribal attachments prevail, emotions trump evidence, and the ensuing disagreement chokes off action on important social issues.-Elitsa Dermendzhiyska. “The misinformation virus.” Aeon. April 16, 2021.
This article hits at many of the main points of why there are so many bad ideas floating around: a funky media environment, our need to make sense of the world, personal values that conflict with the demands of reality, in-group/out-group dynamics, etc. Thinking about it as a pathogen is probably a useful mental model. Social media is like the Plague and we are in the early 1350s in its transition. Humanity will likely need a few centuries to develop cultural antibodies for its effects, and while there may be policy interventions that might have some effect in the short term, it’s still going to take a long while for us to come to grips with the social disruption of this new kind of communication.
If you think about it, this is true of every type of new communication format, even in just the last two centuries. Telegrams, radio, and television all changed the landscapes of societies, and they are still doing it. Part of what makes the Internet so powerful is that it creates an abstracted layer for these forms of communication that can also be tailored to focused audiences, mass media transformed into media for one, which is much more engaging. It’s going to take awhile to come to grips with it.
“In the words of Paul Graham, “every city whispers something.” So when you choose to live in a city, you’re also choosing what kind of whispers you want to hear. Even if they’re subliminal, the whispers of cities are so influential that innovation has historically been clustered in small pockets. The cities we inhabit strongly influence our odds of success. As Paul Graham wrote: “How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot… Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.”
Now, the same thing is happening on social networks: each one whispers something. Twitter tells you to be witty, Reddit tells you to be clever, Facebook tells you to share your everyday life, Instagram tells you to be glamorous, and TikTok tells you to be entertaining.
Social networks are cities for the digital world.”-David Perell, “What Networks Whisper.” davidperell.com. February 2021
“…you can choose the people whose opinions you care about (and on what subjects), and you can choose the timescale you care about them on. Most people figure out the former  but the latter doesn’t seem to get much attention…
…You should trade being short-term low-status for being long-term high-status, which most people seem unwilling to do. A common way this happens is by eventually being right about an important but deeply non-consensus bet. But there are lots of other ways–the key observation is that as long as you are right, being misunderstood by most people is a strength not a weakness.”-Sam Altman, “The Strength of Being Misunderstood.” SamAltman.com. December 1, 2020.
It’s a tautology. If you understand something that the person you are conversing with doesn’t, you’re going to be misunderstood. Conversely, if someone you are talking with understands something you don’t, you won’t understand them either.
On one level, it’s a question of truth. The assumption that Sam Altman makes above suggests that, over time, truth will out. But, does it? I’d argue that we rarely have opportunities to check our understanding. Either we ignore facts that conflict with our worldview, or we tend to slowly change our views with new information and forget that we used to believe the opposite before we got it. Do we care enough about our own opinions to validate them? And for most of us, the answer is that we don’t want to rigorously validate our opinions. We simply would rather just believe we are right. This, at least, is the general tendency.
So, do we care about what our past or future selves might think? Are we willing to lay out our model, stake out probabilities and evaluate how we did?
Or, more generally, is this something that we can do in community, where people join together to come to a consensus, and reevaluate our beliefs as a group in light of evidence as it presents itself. In the group setting, the general tendency becomes exponential. Groups don’t want to evaluate how effective they are because bad groups will shed members and become extinct. Individual members will then be cut adrift, looking for another group, a task that is harder as we grow older, because group dynamics and cohesion solidify in ways that exclude new members and new thoughts, both of which are disruptive.
The question isn’t whether to care what people think, the question is whether it is worth trying to create consensus or come to a shared understanding or whether it is even possible. The reality is that most conversation isn’t driven by truth, it’s driven by groups trying to assimilate members into an existing belief system.
If we cannot even understand ourselves and deal in good faith with past and future versions, how then can we deal in good faith with the mass of humanity? Conversations are based in this tug-of-war, and the value, for individuals, is exposure to new ideas and different ways of doing things. This is also true of groups, but the strategy requires forming cliques and sub-groups to change the larger belief system. All the while, it is nothing but misunderstanding and the potential for conflict.
It’s easy to not care what people think when you don’t think you can do anything to change it. Further, if those people can make your life miserable, keep your thoughts to yourself. Being Jesus and trying to save everyone, whether from their ideas or their circumstances, is very often an exercise in futility and disappointment. Undertake it when you are willing to accept that outcome and have the energy to spare.
“One thing I think this illustrates is how non-transferable experiences of marginalisation are. bell hooks obviously has more experience of marginalisation than I do – she is a black woman in the US, while I am in most regards a fairly privileged white man. But I am also a queer neurodivergent person, and the experience of small towns for people like me is literally the worst.
If you’re sufficiently “weird” and live or go to school in a small town, chances are pretty good you know almost nobody like you, and it’s awful. In a large city you may still struggle to find people like you, but those people are at least there and once you’ve found a few you will find more through them. It is possible to build a community of people like you, and to build a love ethic within that community, in a way that I don’t think people like me are ever going to really find in a small town.”-David R. MacIver, “The conditional love of a small town.” DRMacIver’s Notebook. April 27, 2020.
Recommend David’s blog in general. Personally, I find I agree with much of what he says. I’ve been “weird” to other people my whole life, but I’ve never identified as being “neurodivergent”, a term I’ve only come to know in the last few years. However, it is a useful way to understand being out of step with the world and helps bring a sense of normality to being different.
In 2007, The New England Journal of Medicine had a study on obesity and social networks that has results that said:
“A person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% (95% confidence interval [CI], 6 to 123) if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given interval. Among pairs of adult siblings, if one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased by 40% (95% CI, 21 to 60). If one spouse became obese, the likelihood that the other spouse would become obese increased by 37% (95% CI, 7 to 73). These effects were not seen among neighbors in the immediate geographic location.”Christakis, Nicholas A. and Fowler, James H. “The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years” N Engl J Med 2007;357:370-9
It is clear that social contagion has impacts everyone across a wide-variety of behaviors. Hearing of a celebrity or having an acquaintance committing suicide increases the chances of those hearing of it committing suicide. News of mass shootings spawn other mass shootings.
Racial, gender and other stereotypes propagate across the social landscape in much the same way, both for good and ill. Social justice movements can reduce stereotypes just as racist, sexist and other groups can reenforce them.
Then, there is the whole process of demarginalization. In online forums, finding kindred spirits can help with being part of an often marginalized group, such as being homosexual. But, it can also lead to adopting extremist attitudes, such as the religious extremism that drives Islamic, and other ideologically-motivated terrorism.
All of which ties into the paradox of tolerance, a society without limits is a society that will be destroyed by tolerating behaviors that eat away at the social bonds that bind it together. But, where does brotherhood and sisterhood reside? Where should boundaries be drawn?
Should we select our friends based on whether they are physically fit? So, we reduce the chance that we will be influenced into behaviors that will make us obese?
What of people with a mental illness, such as the chronically depressed? What of stupid people? What of controlling, manipulative people? What of people with uncontrolled anger? What of the socially inept?
What if we change the perspective and ask ourselves about a society? Should individuals cut themselves off from a society, or parts of it, that have a negative social impact on them as individuals?
Clearly, the Western diet, as it is becomes the dominate way of eating around the world, leads to a whole host of modern ailments, from diabetes to dementia. It also seems likely that the Internet is a catalyst that is causing fissures in society by speeding up the forming of communities and the propagation of ideas, more of it bad than good due to the structure and incentives of the technology. Should healthy individuals cut themselves off from a sick society and technologies that tend to promote undesirable behaviors?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. However, I do remember a comment made at a Quaker meeting I attended once that seems relevant, they said:
“If you want to learn to love, don’t start with Hitler.”-Quaker Meeting comment
I think the demands of love are that we try to be as open and tolerant as we are able. But, I think it is not an unqualified principle. If a relationship doesn’t have the potential to benefit from tolerance, where the risk is substantial and the reward minimal, then we can draw lines based on our capacity. The Enlightened Buddha, Jesus Christ or a deity may be able to save all sentient beings. It’s a good goal. But, if you are just starting out on your journey or only a little way on, trying to love Hitler out of the gate sounds like an excellent way to be pulled from the path and to lose ourselves entirely. Like on an airplane, you’ve got to put your own oxygen mask on first. Save yourself, then you might be able to save others.
This is probably why Buddhist meditation on loving-kindness starts with our own selves. We must first learn to love ourselves. If we cannot learn to tolerate our own limitations and the negative influence of our own mind on our behavior, how can we hope to have much capacity to deal with the difficult individuals in our lives?
We surely have more capacity than we think we have and a principle of tolerance reminds us to stretch ourselves, perhaps even find our limits and run the risk of passing them. But, first start with yourself. Understand your limitations and weigh the risks. Don’t start trying to save the whole world. Start with just a small piece of it. Tending one’s garden can lead to tending the world.
“Every citizen in China, which now has numbers swelling to well over 1.3 billion, would be given a score that, as a matter of public record, is available for all to see. This citizen score comes from monitoring an individual’s social behavior — from their spending habits and how regularly they pay bills, to their social interactions — and it’ll become the basis of that person’s trustworthiness, which would also be publicly ranked…
…A citizen’s score affects their eligibility for a number of services, including the kinds of jobs or mortgages they can get, and it also impacts what schools their children qualify for…
…[In one version of the score], an individual’s score comes in a range between 300 and 850 and is broken down into five sub-categories: social connections, consumption behavior, security, wealth, and compliance.”
—Dom Galeon and Brad Bergan. “China’s “Social Credit System” Will Rate How Valuable You Are as a Human.” Futurism. December 2, 2017.
Contrast China’s overt Social Credit Score with this description of an American process of policing journalists.
“An explicit example of news outlets purging employees who “‘loosely’ opin[e] on stuff ‘just for the sake of weighing in’” is how Politico, a proxy for Washington’s courtiers among the managers of the public sphere, justifies political purges of job applicants whose social media postings may suggest a perspective that strays from majoritarian (white, cisheterosexual, male, able-bodied, bourgeois, Christian, etc.) subjectivities.
But long before the managers of the public sphere were shaken into action, those of us at the periphery of majoritarian subjectivities had been coerced into relaying white-supremacist values as ‘objective,’ values that have historically formed the ideological center of the ‘field of communications’ in America. Working in this field as a first-generation-immigrant, queer, and disabled person of color, my duties as a midcult technician have been performed under the courtly authoritarianism of a bleached-white managerial gaze.”
—Alfredo F. Riley, “The Management Estate.” The New Inquiry. November 14, 2017.
Which is worse: an overt FICO style score of evaluating and enforcing conformity or an implicit, subjective “the cop in your head” approach preferred by the American establishment? At least the former is honest about what it is doing.