Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

We can accept our differences – it’s better than killing each other

Getty Images
  • Human beings are psychologically hardwired to fear differences
  • Several recent studies show evidence that digital spaces exacerbate the psychology which contributes to tribalism
  • Shared experiences of awe, such as space travel, or even simple shared meals, have surprising effectives for uniting opposing groups

The year was fraught to say the least.

Riots in the streets, engagement abroad in a long-fought war, and an encroaching sense that the fabric that knits us together is pulling at the seams.

Still a single sentence from it all speaks to our ability to come together: "Thank you for saving 1968."

Those words of gratitude—standing out against the backdrop of a tumultuous year—arrived via telegram at NASA half a century ago following Apollo 8's successful trip around the moon. But their lesson applies today.

Emerging research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience demonstrates that we often need a shared experience of awe, humor, or physical exertion to help transcend our differences. (Think team-building trust falls and rope courses in the woods). Fortunately, it doesn't take a trip around the moon to bridge the deepest divides—even conversation over a cup of coffee or a meal can remind us of each other's humanity.

What does this mean for free speech? Everything, it turns out.

We are hardwired to censor what's unfamiliar. 

Our brains' first response to difference is not curiosity but fear or scorn. In a mid-20th century experiment called "Robber's Cave," researchers brought together two demographically identical groups of boys, randomly sorted them into two groups, gave them each a few days to form bonds within their "tribes," and then kicked off a baseball competition. The boys quickly started generalizing about the other team and drawing distinctions that didn't exist.

Even absent any particular reason to be in disagreement, the experiment reveals that people are primed to sort into 'in' groups and 'out' groups. In the spectacle that politics can be at times, we can see how easy it is for Americans to fall into this trap. The tendency is not unique to any one political tribe. Recent research by the Cato Institute found at least one thing the left and the right agree on. They both want to silence someone, they just disagree on who.

In light of all this, what we've witnessed in recent months may not feel surprising but is troubling nonetheless. Other examples are readily available from both sides of the aisle: elected and appointed leaders shouted out of restaurants, journalists receiving death threats, and bombs sent in the mail to public figures villainized by radical activists. Relying on intimidation to silence people goes beyond censorship. It's abhorrent.

Now take that tendency and add in the emerging digital landscape. 

The same technology that has made it possible to connect people instantly across great distances can also compound our divisional instincts. A recent study found that when individuals confront different perspectives online, the new information further entrenches their existing beliefs and increases skepticism of the opposing view. It's also now easier than ever to opt into what MoveOn.org board president and digital guru Eli Pariser calls "filter bubbles"—choosing to surround ourselves with homogenous communities and replacing diverse, in-person interaction with digital engagement.

So what do we do about it?

The increasing division and polarization our country's experiencing is the result of many factors—many likely not fully understood or even still unknown. The long-term solutions will be as complex as the humans at the root of it.

But we can make progress in the meantime in surprisingly simple ways. People are full of potential. Individuals can play an essential role in helping fractured communities heal and turning fear to curiosity when encountering other ideas, cultures, and perspectives. We have the opportunity to learn from each other's differences.

A decade ago on another space flight the crew of the International Space Station gathered for a meal. The astronauts came from different backgrounds: Iranian, Russian, American, and others—individuals who have shared that they may have otherwise struggled to find common ground on Earth. But when they broke (freeze-dried) bread together as they watched the Earth passing by, they experienced a "profound emotional experience of interconnection."

It doesn't take zero gravity. Just start a conversation rooted in deep respect for each other's inherent dignity. Be the change you want to see in this tiny, blue dot.


Sarah Ruger directs the Charles Koch Foundation's free expression work
More From Sarah Ruger
Related Articles

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?

Videos
  • From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
  • "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
  • Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.

COVID-19 brain study to explore long-term effects of virus

A growing body of research suggests COVID-19 can cause serious neurological problems.

Coronavirus
  • The new study seeks to track the health of 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
  • The study aims to explore whether the disease causes cognitive impairment and other conditions.
  • Recent research suggests that COVID-19 can, directly or indirectly, cause brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage and other neurological problems.
Keep reading Show less

Better reskilling can future-proof jobs in the age of automation. Enter SkillUp's new coalition.

Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.

Image: metamorworks / Shutterstock
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Outplacement is an underperforming $5 billion dollar industry. A new non-profit coalition by SkillUp intends to disrupt it.
  • More and more Americans will be laid off in years to come due to automation. Those people need to reorient their career paths and reskill in a way that protects their long-term livelihood.
  • SkillUp brings together technology and service providers, education and training providers, hiring employers, worker outreach, and philanthropies to help people land in-demand jobs in high-growth industries.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast