How to Stay Sane in the World Today.
Reading time: 15 minutes 31 seconds
Let’s talk about Israel and Palestine. Or COVID. Or Joe Biden versus Donald Trump. Or Brexit.
Notice, for a moment, what are you thinking right now?
What question are you asking yourself this second?
I don’t know about you but as soon as someone begins to approach these topics, I immediately find myself hunting for the frame of how to understand them. I want to know the following:
What side they are on?
What position are they taking?
Do they agree with me?
Let me ask you: Do you do this too?
Once you learn this information, are you already primed to interpret everything they say through that filter?
If so, you are making a fundamental mistake that is costing you. A lot.
THE PSYCHOLOGY BEHIND OUR DECISIONS
There is a tendency to do this because of a bias that has been wired into our neurology for thousands of years. This is known as ‘in-group bias’, a psychological habit where we instinctively categorize someone as either part of ‘our group’ or as ‘the other’.
Bob Cialdini, author of Influence, suggests that we are more easily persuaded by those in our group. This is what he calls the principle of ‘Unity’, his seventh principle of persuasion. It is rooted in the earliest decisions we had to make when we met someone in the wild: friend or foe, my tribe, or another tribe. Who do we trust to stay alive?
While probably helpful a few millennia ago, today, it can be deadly to our own mental health. Arguments on the topics above have led to countless family and friendship breakups. We ask the following questions:
- How can the other person be so dumb?
- How can they fall for the lies?
- How can they buy the propaganda?
- How can they stand by and watch?
- How can they support the other side?
To stay sane in a world like this, we need to comprehend what kind of world we are in. We must understand why this is happening. I believe the key culprits here are the ‘storytellers of society’. To get to the bottom of this, we need to study the stories that are spreading like wildfire throughout the world and find out how it all works.
THE ERA OF STORY WARS
We are living in the era of ‘Story Wars’. The media, as well as influencers and thought leaders on social media, are doing their very best to market and sell their stories to as many people as possible under the guise of ‘reality’.
The stories go like this:
This is what happened.
This is why it happened.
This is whose fault it is.
This is what it means.
This is what needs to happen now.
If you don’t agree then you’re the enemy.
Not only that but you are fundamentally a bad/dumb/naive person.
Now, agree with me or face my wrath.
I wish I was exaggerating.
Reality is up for grabs, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. So, how, exactly, do these polarizing stories work?
THE MECHANICS OF CATEGORIZATION
As I touched on, etched into our brains from the dawn of time is this need to identify what group someone belongs to. To survive, we needed to know whether they were friend or foe. This was made possible because of a crucial skill we developed from birth: the skill of categorization.
In order to effectively learn and remember the insane amount of information that it manages to process, our brain needs to find effective ways to categorize things, people, places, and stuff. It builds generalizations and establishes categories so that it can immediately understand what it is dealing with.
Robert Sapolsky, a brilliant scientist and author of books like ‘Behave’ and ‘Determined’ has explored the impact of this kind of categorization and explains an important factor known as the ‘outgroup homogeneity effect’. It is the tendency of people to overestimate how similar they are to other members of their tribe.
This makes the in-group bias that we discussed even stronger. We instantly evaluate whether or not a person is good or bad. We use the US and THEM categories. If they are in the US category we trust them. They are the goodies. If they are in the THEM category we don’t trust them. They are the baddies.
Our brains are wired for US and THEM. Then there is the creation of stories.
Story structure has been discussed by various experts for thousands of years from Aristotle to Joseph Campbell to Robert McKee. Our brains think in story. Story makes use of these two categories. Once upon a time, there was a goody. And they faced a baddy. We root for the goody to triumph over the baddy. Stories have polarization integrated into their very form: Good versus Evil.
Then, there’s the biggest catch of all:
We all believe we are on the side of good. We are all convinced that we are right.
Even if you believe that you happen to be on the right ‘side’, everyone else believes they are too. No amount of arguing with them will make much of a difference.
MEDIA’S ROLE IN POLARIZATION
When events happen in the modern world, the media covers them. Media organizations often have vested interests, influenced by their owners, investors, and advertisers. The media have a bias that is dictated by their viewers, listeners, or readers.
Sometimes the media is influenced by the government of their country (BBC for instance). Even more important, most media companies today are very much prioritizing attention and the algorithms they use to do so are based on grabbing and keeping attention. They are not optimizing for truth.
To make matters worse, nobody acknowledges that’s what they are doing. They are “just reporting the facts’ yet if I watch CNN, Fox News, BBC, or Al Jazeera I will see different ‘facts’ being reported. Some of them are probably true. Some are false. Some kind of true but not really. Some kind of false but some truth lies in them. It’s never clear.
The alternatives are no better. Those who critique traditional media often fall into their own echo chambers, shaped by influential thought leaders who propagate their distinct narratives. The media YOU consume is propaganda. The media I consume is the truth.
And I hear these influencers/thought leaders/opinionists tell me:
“I deal only in facts and my facts don’t care about your feelings.”
“There is fake news and there is what’s actually going on. I am telling you what’s going on.”
In every case, however, what I see is a plethora of facts, opinions, weaponized language, and polarizing postulates hiding under biased narratives that promise:
‘Only I will tell you the truth.’
I ACCUSE STORY
So, here’s my “truth”:
Wars happen because of these narratives. Hundreds of millions of people have been murdered because of these narratives. And yet, as human beings, the overwhelming majority of us share the same fundamental values.
Let’s take something really simple as an example: ‘Murdering children is wrong.’
That’s an easy one, right? Of course, it’s wrong. But yet it happens every single day. And not just by the odd crazy psychopath that goes their own way. It’s being done by the very same people who say that it’s wrong but can justify it in this specific case – because of their narrative.
While few would admit this, one could be forgiven for suggesting a more accurate phrase to describe their thinking could be:
‘Murdering OUR children is wrong. Not murdering THEIR children. We don’t have a choice. It’s THEIR fault’.
Take each issue presented at the outset of this article. Depending on what ‘side’ you are on, you will be equipped with a variety of stories that cement your point of view. You may well share them on social media for four main reasons:
1. To show how virtuous you are and get validation for it.
2. To show your identity based upon your group or tribe or values.
3. To show you are right.
4. To persuade anyone who consumes your content.
The people who agree with you may very likely share it with more folks. The people who don’t will ignore it or may share their opposing views in response. We all enter into this not-so-fun game of trying to show why our story is the right one. And there is no way out. It’s easy to convince yourself that you’re on the just and moral side of this.
If you don’t share my exact point of view, you’re THEM.
If you can see both sides, you’re THEM.
If you don’t speak up and say what I want you to say, you’re THEM.
Meanwhile, media companies and social media companies get rich.
THE SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCE
They have their own stories of course. Social media helps us communicate better with each other. Let’s look at the mission of META:
Meta builds technologies that help people connect, find communities, and grow businesses.
Aww. That’s lovely.
CNN promotes its ‘unbiased coverage’.
Fox News celebrates its ‘fair and balanced news’.
BBC is known for its impartial and independent coverage (except when it concerns issues about Britain that is…).
Then, the podcasts and YouTube series of the smaller media outlets or just plain old thought leaders sharing their point of view where FINALLY you get unbiased coverage (that is almost never unbiased).
Everyone is telling the truth. Yet they all disagree with each other. One would be forgiven for going insane.
I too am engaging in this sport in this very piece. I am positioning the media and social media companies, governments and lobbyists, and thought leaders on such topics as the baddies. And I am proposing that we, human beings, are the victims.
Yet behind all of these companies are other human beings. To make things even more complicated, they are not necessarily bad human beings. They are just trying to get facts out there to the world. They’re not necessarily guilty of spreading disinformation on purpose to deceive us. It’s more likely that they’re spreading misinformation because they are deceiving themselves.
Regardless, these ‘not-necessarily bad people’ and these systems are making the world feel like a chaotic mess. They are dividing us.
I’m not having a go at you if you’re posting about such topics on social media. Maybe you actually are using social media as a tool to raise awareness of an issue. Indeed, it could be argued that this is necessary, especially in a world where traditional media is taking sides.
It’s very likely that your sole focus is to do good. Still, though, the storytellers get you.
All you’re trying to do is get people to see what’s really happening here. But, alas, the very folks you are trying to convince have already subscribed to another form of propaganda. You’re likely not having an impact on them at all. They think “We’re not going to be swayed by ‘Them’’.”
As I mentioned in my 2016 TEDx talk on Mind Control*:
“We’re all mental slaves on the wrong side of history.”
Social media can lead to change, however, it’s far better at mobilizing people who already believe a perspective than changing the minds of those who are on the other side, or even in the middle. While occasionally it can push those in power to rethink, all too often it just pushes us further apart. We’re all stuck in the story wars.
Here I am, attacking the use of storytelling while using it to make my argument. It’s that insidious.
UNDERSTANDING AND OVERCOMING POLARIZATION
Polarization over topics is certainly not new.
Take politics in the US. When America first declared its independence, very soon the election became primarily a fight between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republican Party.
In the 19th century, the Federalists disbanded and later the Democratic-Republicans broke into two parties that contested each election. It’s a two-party system and all a third candidate really does (to date) is mess up the chances of one of the two parties by splitting votes.
In my own country, during the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923, estimates are that a couple of thousand people died fighting over the Anglo-Irish treaty which, in a nutshell, was a treaty formed to establish the Irish Free State.
The pro-treaty side saw it as an acceptable step in the right direction of freedom. The anti-treaty side saw it as not enough. Families fell out. Best friends killed each other. It came down to which side you were on.
The real problem nowadays is how many things we can now disagree on and what that means. The disagreements can be around topics that don’t impact us whatsoever but it becomes simple for us to create the ‘US’ and ‘THEM’ labels. It is easier than ever to find your own echo chamber to convince yourself that you are correct. It is easier than ever to get riled up and mobilized into taking action. The algorithms that seek our attention know exactly how to get it.
Our brain focuses on anything negative and anything dramatic. That’s how you get somebody’s attention. For instance, consider the immediate, intense reaction if someone were to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded room. To survive as a hunter-gatherer, we needed to very quickly notice danger. Our brain evolved with the skill.
Now “danger” is two things: negative and dramatic. If it’s not negative, then it’s not dangerous. If it’s not dramatic then it’s not dangerous either. Danger assumes both qualities. And so, the media aims for fear and, of course, anger. Fear and anger are the keys to getting people to take action – like consuming more media and spreading it to everyone you know. Nobody ever mobilized depressed people into a movement.
So, when some event happens and we are propelled into taking a side, why is it that we can’t get through to the others? Why can’t they see the insanity in their way of thinking? Historian Yuval Noah Harari put it beautifully:
“When you are absorbed in the narrative of your own suffering, you have no room for other people’s pain.”
When people are feeling an immense amount of pain, fear, anger, or hate, it’s nearly impossible for them to jump out of their perspective and embrace other stories. In this collective rage, our group becomes the most important thing of all. Their reality is the only reality they can deal with. Their truth becomes the only truth they can see.
So, it’s not that we don’t hear the other side, it’s that we can’t listen to the other side because we are so absorbed in our own perspective. We are lost in a cycle of misunderstanding and hate that is designed by the ‘evil storytellers of society’. The worst part of this whole mess is that they aren’t actually evil. They are, themselves, simply the believer of a certain narrative.
STRATEGIES FOR STAYING SANE IN A POLARIZED WORLD
So, what are some tangible tips and ideas that can help us stay sane in such a world?
Fundamentally, the key is to understand what is happening and try some of the following:
- Reduce your news consumption. It’s hard for many to stop watching the news altogether. We like the idea of keeping up-to-date with what’s happening. The truth, however, is that we are not just learning the actual news of what is going on, we also must consume the narrative with all its agendas. I found myself consumed with the media on each of the topics above. Yet there is little I can do. This can never end well for your mental health. At the very least, minimize your consumption of the news. If the topic really is something that you feel the need to immerse yourself in, ask yourself what other ways you can make a difference. Can you send money? Can you volunteer? Watching news presented with an agenda over and over again can’t help anyone.
- Every time you look at the news, try to view it across four or five different channels. Get as many perspectives and narratives as you can so you can think more critically, and – ultimately, so you can be more empathetic to everyone. While I’ve strong feelings and opinions, I’m actively trying to challenge my own assumptions and expose myself to more ‘sides’ because I know how wrong we can all be on these topics.
- Find what you have in common with both sides and what you disagree with from both sides. You don’t have to announce it. Just understand it.
- Be responsible with how you share information. Avoid propagating a narrative full of bias and making matters worse. Do you really need to tell people how virtuous you are? Do you need people to know what side you are on? Do you need to prove your group identity? We have the power to spread ideas that bring us together or tear us apart. Whatever you decide to type or share contributes to this. How educated are you about the topic? It’s one thing to say you stand on one side of an issue but avoid falling into the trap of repeating propaganda. Don’t be goaded into social commentary especially when you haven’t fact-checked your sources.
- Become comfortable with uncertainty. When I’m looking for a book on a contentious subject, I’m more likely to be convinced it is worth reading when both sides accuse it of being ‘propaganda’ supporting the other side.
- Focus on your own world. So many of the things brought into our mental sphere are terrible tragedies and events in the world that we can’t control. If there is something you can do, do it. Champion whatever you feel strongly about. Peacefully protest if you want to. Donate money if you can afford it. If not, focus on your own microcosm. How can you make your own world as good as possible?
- Stop the tendency you have to divide people into groups, regardless of what they say or do. Try to ascribe them membership in multiple groups. This will help you avoid the trap of categorization that leads to fear, hate, and pain.
SEARCHING FOR THE ENEMY
To sum up, we became polarized because the media and social media channels leveraged our natural tribal bias to create narratives that engage us and wage mental war on us and between us.
The enemy in these stories could be anything: a school shooter, somebody who said something upsetting and offensive on Twitter (X), a terrorist organization, a bad government (which will be called a regime), Ebola, COVID, COVID deniers, and that famous tennis player for throwing his racket in anger, etc. They are the ‘enemy’. I referred to the enemy in my story as “The evil storytellers”. (This can stand in for governments, lobbyists, social media channels, certain thought leaders, and media organizations)
The other problem is that human beings are greedy. We want more, more, more. Money gives us power. So we want more money. As a result of greed and a desire for more money, the people behind these evil storytellers seek to maximize engagement or influence us to believe certain points of view and therefore highlight the most extreme perspectives and the most dramatic examples possible that sway us to believe their narrative.
Our brain’s negativity bias and drama bias therefore orient us towards such news which rewards these organizations with the most precious commodities: our attention, first, and then our compliance. They monetize that attention and everyone is happy.
Except for us.
What this means is that we are constantly at the mercy of these evil storytellers. Because, like a contagious virus, the real brilliance of this scheme is that it infects the minds of those you like and love and they carry the story to you. And if you don’t believe it, your whole social structure is under threat. You may lose relationships over this. Believe what I believe or you’re THEM.
Let me be clear about something.
I have strong feelings about a lot of the above topics. I have strong opinions. I’m sad. I’m furious. I’m disgusted. I want to scream at the television, at the computer, at my phone. But posting my opinions isn’t going to make the difference I want to make.
I’m a psychologist and my mission with my work on beliefs is to do what I can to help people to understand each other better. The only chance we have to make it through such profound disagreements is to find a way through the stories to a place where we can hear each other.
If I have one mission on this planet, it is to help people believe better. That doesn’t mean that they have to agree with me. It means that I help them understand why they believe what they believe so that they can change beliefs that don’t serve them.
I can’t promise I’m unbiased or know the truth. What I can promise is that the more we allow these ‘Story Wars’ to continue, the worse it will feel to wake up in this world. These stories have real-life consequences. Millions have died throughout history and this continues to happen because of the narratives that are designed to divide us.
I’m not naive. I know that solving the world’s problems has never seemed more difficult. But I am convinced that if we could all just understand more about what is going on between our ears and we could learn to believe better, we could make this world even slightly better. The only chance we have to get people to change their minds is by understanding why they believe what they believe in the first place. And maybe, just maybe, we have a shot at helping them see things differently. While we do the same.
At the beginning, I mentioned the topics of Israel and Palestine, COVID, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and Brexit. Which side am I on?
I’m hoping you’re not still asking that question.
I’m hoping you don’t care.
*If you are interested, you can watch my TEDx talk on ‘Mind Control: How to win the war in your head’ here.