Group confabulation

When we think about the way being a part of the group can affect us, we may think of mass hysteria or Facebook filter bubble. In fact when we are a part of a group our perception of the world changes drastically. Here I want to address the false notions and memories the groups tend to create. For more information, you may want to read here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Why do we think differently in a group

The most important group we are part of is our family. We trust our family to care for us and protect us. The wellbeing of every member of the family is important to us well above an average human being, and we know we are important for every member of our family. Every family does not just share DNA but also shares some family identity, which is very important to all family members. We can see in the animal kingdom that some families of apes learn useful tools and foraging tricks, while others don’t. Probably we trust that there is something in the family culture that is a key to the survival of our DNA.

A tribe of people is in a sense an extended family, at least it used to be that way. We did not have enough time to adopt other patterns. When we are on our own we use in terms of our own survival, but being a part of a group we often value the group and its identity above our own value. While we may be wrong, we trust the group to be right. This trust in the wisdom of the crowds is quite often very accurate, and also it frees up some of our own capacity for the things we do best.

Group moral compass

Probably 80% of the members of the group share certain stereotypes, and maybe 20% can keep a different opinion. There is strange psychological experiment demonstrating this point, known ad Knobe effect. I quote from the original paper:

The CEO of a company is sitting in his office when his Vice President of R&D comes in and says, ‘We are thinking of starting a new programme. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.’ The CEO responds that he doesn’t care about harming the environment and just wants to make as much profit as possible. The programme is carried out, profits are made and the environment is harmed.
Did the CEO intentionally harm the environment? The vast majority of people Knobe quizzed – 82 percent – said he did. But what if the scenario is changed such that the word ‘harm’ is replaced with ‘help’? In this case, the CEO doesn’t care about helping the environment, and still just wants to make a profit – and his actions result in both outcomes. Now faced with the question ‘Did the CEO intentionally help the environment?’, just 23 percent of Knobe’s participants said ‘yes’

Various experiments show that people on average tend to respect the need for the individuals that think differently. People assign greater intent and free will when bad things happen. Intuitively not following the trends is dangerous. Blame is very different from punishment. People think those who commit accidental harms should be punished but not blamed as strongly. We think the punishment should be based on outcomes, not intentions. And we think the blame should be based on intentions, not outcomes. When we think something bad has happened, we are driven to identify both the victim and the offender.

Our emotions developed to help us deal with other members of our own tribe. When we are dealing with other members of our tribe, relying on our emotions is inconsistent but probably OK. What happens when we apply our emotions to the members of other tribes?

Other person’s perspective

We are not as good at taking other person’s perspective as we would like to think. In one study students were asked to describe their opinion about math. The response was along the lines “Math has anything to do with reasoning. It’s all memorization.” Their teachers hold an opposite perspective, and after seeing the student’s response they were very surprised. I see some of these effects in my own courses, where students think that mechanical memorization will fix all of their learning problems. Our success in learning is influenced by our ability to adopt certain forms of reasoning and use this reasoning in real life situations. Whether or not we remember certain specific facts might change some of our grades, but will not influence our deeper skills and understandings, especially not that everybody can use google.

Learning is just one asymmetric situation. A vast majority of people think they are better drivers than the average. They understand that the math does not make sense, yet they think that others are wrong. We think that we are more courageous than the average. When confronted with an abusive situation, most people think they would have acted to change it, however, we know that very few people ever tried to do that.

On election night in 2016, half of the Americans could not believe anyone would vote for Hillary Clinton. The other half could not believe anyone would vote for Donald Trump. Probably many people thought: if I was in the other person’s shoes I would act differently. I had a very similar discussion with my parents several months ago: I thought only a fool would trust Netanyahu, and they thought only a fool would support an opposite position. Since I know the science behind this argument, it was very funny, and they mistakingly took my political views for a joke.

Filter bubble

Our social networks, search engine personalization, personal connections, even cultural tastes and preferences prevent us from getting a large part of the information. This sort of bubble is called filter bubble. It is new, and we only learn to fight it.

Magic is old, maybe as old as the humanity. 50% of Americans think astrology is not at all scientific, while 50% are willing to grant it credibility. The medical experts know that there is no principle in their science that can explain why homeopathic drugs work. We do know that there is a Placebo effect. Every month one of my readers asks me how I can believe in such a nonsense as evolution. Would divine plan build a different adaptation mechanisms? Accepting some sort of reality shared by your group, even when this reality is different from common sense, is probably wrong. However, being wrong is often not such a bad thing.

Being a part of a group we trust the senses of the other group members, sometimes even more than we trust our own. The history is filled with cases of mass hysteria when people reported witnessing something that could not happen only because the group as a whole believed it actually could happen. In 2016 there were multiple sightings of killer clowns all over the globe.

We may look funny at the person perceiving a different reality due to his filter bubble. We may want to argue, but we will probably not punish or blame him for his reality.

Confabulation

Some stereotypes can be offensive. Particularly the stereotypes that have to do with someone’s religion or skin color. Certainly, if we consider the human history a lot of good people have been harmed for no good reason. And this does something strange to our memory creating a false memory.

Many people in South Africa share a memory that civil rights leader Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s. Why is that? In oppressive countries when a person disappears, this usually means he is not coming back. Since Nelson Mandela disappeared from public eye, many people suddenly stopped seeing him. When trying to remember what happened their mind created a story about Mandela’s death. Some others were influenced by the believers.

There are many other mythmaking situations around us. I am quoting from an article which coincides with my personal experience:

In my conversations with former Jewish dissidents who remained in Russia, Russian Jews who emigrated to New York, and an American Jewish lawyer who actively participated in the fight to ‘free Soviet Jewry’, I was struck by the contradictions in their narratives, shifts in memory, and the ways in which their retelling of the past seemed to fulfill a role; whether that was validating the decisions they had made, affirming their current positions, or finding a way to cope with open wounds and traumatic family histories. The stories I heard were untidy, ambiguous, sometimes self-contradictory, and anything but one-sided. I was in the midst of myth-making, and through every speaker, I observed how each constructed a personal narrative and wrestled with his past. How does one separate one’s own history from the collective narrative, and when does the line between the two become irrevocably blurred?

We do our best to remember what we learn and create a consistent model of our reality, and at the same time, some part of our mind is busy modifying this model of reality and creating a myth instead.

It is even possible to plant memories into someone head, for example describing a distant crime they did not commit. After a while, when enough pieces of evidence available, people start recalling the events of the crime as if they committed them. Experiments in social psychology have shown that the pressure to conform to a group can cause people to say things that they actually know are not true. In other words, they blatantly lie in order to fit in. We are very good at lying to ourselves: either because we want it to be true or because it is not a lie for us anymore.

Science to the rescue

Fortunately, confabulation and inconsistencies generate further questions and provoke curiosity. This curiosity can motivate a scientific inquiry. Being in a consensus position is not enough for true scientists. Scientists are looking for sound theories and undeniable facts. Generating clear and consistent logical argument is not an easy task, and it motivates a search beyond one’s “filter bubble”. Scientists have consistently delivered the paradigm shifts, where a consistent theory supported by a rebellious minority changed the scientific consensus.

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