Why I Have to Be Right and So Do You.

Few people saw Donald Trump’s victory coming, including Donald Trump. There are easy culprits to blame for the surprise win (skewed polls and fake news come to mind), but the biggest enemy might be our own egos. It’s natural to ignore everything we disagree with, and many of us don’t realize that we’re biased until we’re shocked into noticing that things are not like we expected. That’s true regardless of who you ultimately voted for.” *

This is not just about politics. Let me tell you about my people. Anthropologist and psychologist, Robin Dunbar, tells us that there is a limit to how many people we can manage as our own ‘my people’. This is a bit of a digression but so interesting, I think, that I want to share it with you, here below on the Dunbar number:

The Dunbar number is actually a series of them. The best known, a hundred and fifty, is the number of people we call casual friends—the people, say, you’d invite to a large party. (In reality, it’s a range: a hundred at the low end and two hundred for the more social of us.) From there, through qualitative interviews coupled with analysis of experimental and survey data, Dunbar discovered that the number grows and decreases according to a precise formula, roughly a “rule of three.” The next step down, fifty, is the number of people we call close friends—perhaps the people you’d invite to a group dinner. You see them often, but not so much that you consider them to be true intimates. Then there’s the circle of fifteen: the friends that you can turn to for sympathy when you need it, the ones you can confide in about most things. The most intimate Dunbar number, five, is your close support group. These are your best friends (and often family members). On the flipside, groups can extend to five hundred, the acquaintance level, and to fifteen hundred, the absolute limit—the people for whom you can put a name to a face. While the group sizes are relatively stable, their composition can be fluid. Your five today may not be your five next week; people drift among layers and sometimes fall out of them altogether.

Back to my people…can’t think of a single one of them, not a single person I know, who doesn’t think s/he knows something. Kind of like the 10 blind Chinese men asked to say what an elephant is by touching it, each describing it differently based on which part of the elephant he was touching. All are right, of course, but only partially right, given the limitations of what he can ‘see’. The truth but not the whole truth, and yet each is completely convinced that he is entirely right – and that everyone else is wrong. It was certainly that way with my people and the election, and, as I said, not limited to that. That’s pretty much just the way (my) people are, including but not limited to the one** who saw the print out of this “How the brain tricks you…” article sitting on my desk and laughed, haha, thought he had me now, somehow missing that it kind of applied to him too, as it applies pretty much to us all.

Now why is this? What is wrong with us? Nothing. It’s a strategy. Our beliefs tie us together. Strength in numbers. They are a vital part of how we know that we are not alone in this chaotic world. Anything, like new and accurate information, that threatens the strength of these beliefs threatens the strength of the social bonds on which we depend psychologically for our sense of well-being in the world. Our beliefs define us as individuals too, or at least we think so, even if my philosophy tutors are quick to point out that’s just the Ego talking, and the Ego talks too much. They call it the Ahamkara, aka the personality, that becomes so full of itself it doesn’t even know how little it knows. But try to diddle with the Ego, and it fights for it’s life. It’s right and you’re not. Simple as that.

So here’s the good news: People want to be right, but they also want to be good. Robert Wright, in The Moral Animal, tells us so and I have seen it myself again and again in written responses on exercises in organizational workshops I have run. Maybe because if we are not good our reputations can suffer and people with bad reps in the environment of evolutionary adaption were left to die, seems we are hardwired to think we are good even when we are not until and unless we get exposed. Then we get defensive. Then we have to be right.

But not really. No one is perfect. No one has to be. We are all just a bunch of humans trying to get through the day in the best way we know how. And if we want to draw people near, instead of pushing them away with our opinions on politics and other things, then here is what we can do. First thing is that we can remember the 10 blind Chinese men. Thoughts are not facts; they are events of the mind. The more recurrent they are, the stronger we feel them, and the more we think they are true even if they are not, especially if our thoughts are shared by people whom we think really matter to us.

So the next time you may find yourself mired in a ‘groupthink’ belief that is potentially obnoxious to others, or even obnoxious to a part of your own more rational self, good time to pause and remind: There goes thinking – thinking, thinking, thinking. Thoughts are not facts. They are events or ideas of the mind. Other people’s thoughts are events and ideas of their own. We are all right, based on what we can see, and not so much on what we cannot. But we can be more on-purpose curious about ideas and information outside of our own awareness – to at least try to see what we can’t see – for the good of all. Practice, practice, practice…and see what happens.

To work on this or something else, would love to hear from you:

Email:  Madelaine Weiss

* “How your brain tricks you into believing you’re the reasonable one: It’s so natural to ignore everything we disagree with,” Angela Chen, Nov 23, 2016, http://www.theverge.com/2016/11/23/13718636/donald-trump-psychology-confirmation-bias-truth-backfire

**Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.

Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.







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