This past year has been highly politically charged and reading this book gave me a deeper understanding of the differences between the political parties and how their respective constituents have ideologically dug themselves in. Social psychology can teach us a lot about the current state of political trench warfare in this country. Gilovich and Lee write about numerous psychological principles, a first example being the False Consensus Effect: “People tend to think that their beliefs, opinions, and actions enjoy greater consensus than is really the case.” Think about how this principle (also known as consensus bias) is prevalent in today’s culture and how social media has exacerbated it to the nth degree. It’s easier than ever to connect with people who agree with your opinions regardless of whether you think Russia meddled in the presidential election or James Harden is the most over-rated player in the NBA. Your tribe is at your fingertips.
Another principle examined is Pluralistic Ignorance: “[This] phenomenon occurs whenever people hide their true thoughts and feelings because they have an exaggerated sense of how much others would disapprove.” This property examines the balance between voicing ones opinions and risking rejection by the group on the one hand and staying silent and safe yet disillusioned on the other. Human beings evolved to sacrifice for the greater good of the community. But which is the real sacrifice?
One of my biggest takeaways from this book was a new appreciation for the variety of different people’s perspectives on life. If two people go to a movie and one loves it and one hates it, both opinions are valid. They are both derived from the internal way that each particular individual viewed the film. These lenses and filters that people see life through are determined by the sum of their previous experiences, all adding up to who that person is in the present moment. While differing opinions about a movie are low stakes, we must remember to respect the variety of people’s perspectives when the stakes are high. Let’s take the political—and high stakes—example of affirmative action as our subject in this case.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, it was the with goal of building a career in comedy. I did all of the typical things one does in this field including performing stand-up, studying improv, auditioning for commercials and sitcoms, and writing my own scripts. The major television networks (NBC, ABC, Warner Bros, etc.) offer annual writing competitions for aspirational television writers and I applied 5 years in a row, from 2012-2017. There are 16 spots available, all ostensibly depending on who the judges deem to be the 16 best writers. At least, this is what is proposed by the submission guidelines, but a little digging suggests otherwise. At the end of each competition, one of the networks sends out a thanks-for-playing email with a photograph of the 16 winning writers attached. By the 5th year it became obvious that they were selecting winners based on a diversity quota. Year after year, the collection of winners was consistently 1-2 members of each race (white, black, hispanic, and asian) and roughly split in half by gender. Being a white male, I was realistically competing for 1 of maybe 2 spots, not 1 of 16. If I had known how slim my chances truly were, I probably would have thought twice before spending the countless hours I did writing and applying for the opportunity.
If we use this story as our ‘movie’, we can further examine two different resulting opinions. Person A (me) sees this movie and comes away upset at how affirmative action actively stunted their prospects at career advancement. Alternatively, Person B might see this movie and come to the conclusion that yes, affirmative action is working properly, because Hollywood needs more writers from different socioeconomic backgrounds in order to write better television for wider audiences. Depending on your political beliefs and your individual background, you might believe that Person A is right. Or you might believe that Person B is correct. However, the reality is that neither person is more correct or incorrect than the other. You cannot have a right and a wrong when it comes to matters of opinion. Applying labels like ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ to a person’s subjective interpretations of the world around them is naive (especially when you consider the fact that you are judging them based on your own subjective interpretations of the world around YOU!)
This leads us into another principle of psychology known as Naïve Realism. Gilovich and Lee share how naïve realism is “the tendency to treat our sense of what’s out there as a matter of objective perception rather than subjective interpretation.” So, some people out there think this country has a desperate need for affirmative action legislation. Some people in this country think it hurts more than it helps. Like our aforementioned movie, when viewed through different lenses based on previous life experiences, both can be accurate, because it is subjective. This is paramount to keep in mind. When we give in to our naïve realism, and believe wholeheartedly that we see the matter objectively and people who oppose us do not, it can quickly become ‘my way or the highway.’ While two people can amicably disagree on a movie, when it comes to serious matters that directly affect the qualities of our lives, the outcomes are often less civil. I have had people tell me that I’m racist for not supporting universal affirmative action, and, even worse, tell me they believe James Harden to be a valuable basketball player!
Social psychology has a lot to offer in terms of actually coming to agreements as well. Our authors write how their “hope is that agreement will lead to a normalization of relationships, to the building of trust required for continued cooperation, and ultimately to a fruitful and sustained peace. In our experience, this gets matters backward. It is the reduction of hatred, the building of some degree of empathy and understanding, and the creation of more trusting relationships that make it possible to get signatures on an acceptable agreement.” Personally, I have come to believe that both elements must happen simultaneously, in a type of virtuous circle (the opposite being a vicious circle). Let’s look at depression as an example. When someone is depressed, one of the first signs is that they stop taking care of themselves. They stop showering and shaving and let the house become more and more messy. However, the reverse is also true. If you stop showering and shaving and picking up after yourself and start sleeping all day, you will become more depressed. They go hand in hand. Same, I believe, with empathy and agreement. The more you agree with someone the more you will be able to empathize with their point of view—the virtuous circle. And conversely, the more you disagree with someone, the less you will be able to empathize with them. That is the vicious circle. They each occur simultaneously, metaphorically holding hands.
My favorite quote from this book is attributed to Abraham Lincoln when he once remarked “I don’t like the man, I must get to know him better” about a political rival. Lincoln naturally understood the power of empathy and it made him a more effective leader. The power of this statement is magnified when you consider the divisiveness of the times during which he lived and presided. What if more people in our current societal climate had a similar attitude? What might we all be able to agree on that we currently can’t?
This book has a tremendous amount of knowledge and insight to offer, and although none of it is truly revolutionary (they are not breaking ground on any new theories and proposals, but more-so condensing them in a digestible format and giving compelling examples) it was a great knowledge booster. They cover tons of psychological tidbits all designed to make the reader a better and wiser person and although I only touched on a few in my review, there is a plethora of good information in this book. In summary, I will end with this quote taken right from the beginning on page 3: “A person can be ‘smart’ without being smart about people. But it makes no sense to say someone is wise if the person has no feel for people or no understanding of their hopes, fears, passions, and drives.” That said, I firmly believe that we must diligently do our best to continually understand others, acknowledge our own biases, and think deeply about existing circumstances if we are to become wiser individuals.