Even though I try to stay out of politics, even though I don’t watch TV, or even live in the United States, every day I am met with another segment of “Can you believe what Trump did?” and “How can people still support this guy?” No matter what he does, his supporters still stay by his side assured that what they just witnessed isn’t true or that it’s completely justified for some reason. It’s easy to be befuddled by this and simply proclaim that “all Trump supporters are mindless idiots” but, in many cases, this is just the effect of our own psychology. And, in other situations, all of us act exactly the same.
It is well-documented that human beings have a lot of blind spots when it comes to perception. We primarily develop our judgment by trusting our senses, meaning we believe things we can explicitly see, hear, or feel. However, as psychology developed, we have become increasingly aware of just how messed up our minds actually are. One thing that almost every study in this field has shown is that in a lot of cases, our own senses – things we primarily base judgments on – are just flat out wrong. Things we see, hear, or feel can oftentimes be completely, utterly, and unquestionably wrong.
So… does that mean we’re all crazy?
Not necessarily. In most cases, it happens naturally, meaning that, in certain situations and under certain circumstances, our minds play tricks on us and present a false reality. It’s just the way our minds work and we can’t do much to change this.
But what is important to note here is that there are many ways in which you can influence this. Sure, your brain may malfunction so horribly you might think it was designed by drunk hillbillies with no thumbs, but herein lies the silver lining:
The more you know about these malfunctions, the easier you can fix them. And as hard as it may be, it’s not as hard as you think.
DO WE LIVE IN THE SAME REALITY?
The most basic starting point on which we base our judgments is the assumption that all of us share the same reality. I mean, sounds simple enough; we may differ in our political views, movie preferences, or outlook on life, but surely all of us at least live in the same reality.
As it turns out, it’s more like we all exist in the same virtual world, but each of us is playing a different game. So we crash into each other, fight and complain, without realizing that, while we’re shooting down Nazis in Call of Duty, the other person is collecting coins in Super Mario.
We see the same things, hear the same sounds, and experience the same stimuli, but every one of us forms a different version of reality based on these inputs. I mean, why else would we have such distinct views on supposedly objective things like who said what during a fight or which color a certain dress is.
Everybody operates under the assumption that the way we perceive the world is the same way in which others perceive it. Since most of us cannot grasp any other interpretation of reality than the one we are familiar with, we automatically assume that everybody else sees the world the same way we do. But this is simply not the case.
In 1954, researchers Hastorf and Cantril conducted a study titled “They saw a game” about a football match between two rival schools. After the game ended, the researchers asked members of both teams to look at the same video recording of the game and note down each rule violation they observed. The team who had won the game noted that their opponents made twice as many offenses than they actually did. Even though they won and had no reason to make excuses for losing or not being good enough, they still wrote down double the amount of violations than the other team.
Okay, so some guys in the 50s were pissed or whatever and counted a few more offenses than actually happened. People in sports often argue about rule violations and whether they actually happened, so this doesn’t prove anything.
— Probably you right now.
On its own, this would be true. But every study since has arrived at the same conclusion: even though we live in the same objective reality, each of us sees it very differently. As the researchers explained in their original study:
We behave according to what we bring to the occasion, and what each of us brings to the occasion is more or less unique.
None of us are objective — it’s impossible for us to be. All of us bring our own values, opinions, beliefs, character traits, and past experiences with us wherever we go. In a sense, this is how a mindset is defined: a set of values, beliefs, and assumptions that define the way you think and, therefore, the way you act.
If a man approaches a woman in a nightclub, she may be flattered, insulted, or skeptic. This woman may have been screwed over by men, so she will be wary of any guy who approaches her. She may be used to courting and like the attention. She may be having a bad night and end up taking it out on the poor fellow who just decided to walk up and say “Hi”.
If this happened and the rest of the crowd saw this, none of us would react the same.
A girl who recently found out her boyfriend was cheating on her might say: “He deserves it, the male pig. He probably said something offensive.” The average single guy on a night out with his friends might think: “What a crazy bitch, she probably just exploded for no good reason.” The old bartender making a dry martini ten feet away might shake his head in disapproval and mutter to himself: “These kids today are all crazy. Back in my day, nobody would be caught dead in a dark, crowded room, with a bunch of strangers listening to loud, repetitive music.”
Objectively, this is what happened: a guy walked up and talked a girl. But a hundred people who witnessed it have arrived at a hundred different conclusion based on their own pre-existing beliefs and experiences, even if they had heard the entire conversation.
And this is the same thing that happened in the original study and the same thing that happens in every single sport to this day. If someone was brought up in a violent household or a competitive neighborhood, they will be used to a much rougher style of play than others who may call “foul” at every sign of physical confrontation. To some, it’s a violation; to others, it’s just rough play.
Our perception (…) is heavily influenced, biased even, by our expectations, experiences, moods, and even cultural norms. And we can be pretty good at fooling ourselves.
— Hank Green, Crash Course Psychology
We may live in the same reality, but all of us experience it differently.
This is the same reason our minds are so susceptible to many visual, auditory, and sensual illusions. Despite knowing that what we are observing is a purposely altered perception of reality, our brains still get fooled. We still see the illusion and feel like it is really happening.
And, sometimes, this illusion goes so far that we purposely fool ourselves and don’t even realize it.
WHY YOU LIE TO YOURSELF ON PURPOSE
Now, you may think to yourself: “Okay, so maybe I sometimes skim the truth, exaggerate the stories I tell, and have some unresolved issues. But I most surely don’t convince myself of something that I know is incorrect. Why the hell would I do that?”
I thought the same. But as science has shown us, this is exactly what all of us do in certain situations. This common psychological phenomenon is described as cognitive dissonance and it works like this:
You hold two contradictory beliefs or values at the same time and this confusion causes you mental stress and discomfort. If you think one thing, but act the opposite way, it doesn’t make any sense. So, you make up a story which explains the situation and convince yourself that you had a reason for behaving in such a way.
While the definition might seem confusing a bit, the best way to illustrate how this works in real life is by looking at the study from 1957. In the study, students had to perform some boring, pointless tasks for 30 minutes. When they were finished, the researchers told them something like this:
We usually prepare students by telling them that the tasks are super-fun, so we can track how their expectations influence their performance. But the guy who usually does this job isn’t here, so… can you just go out and tell the next student that the boring tasks you did were actually interesting?
Then, depending on the group, the student was offered either 20$ or $1 for their service. All of the students in the experiment agreed to be hired and, after they completed their job, they were interviewed once again and asked one simple questions:
Did you actually enjoy performing the boring tasks?
Simple enough to answer, right? I mean, the tasks were designed to be boring and without purpose. And, surely enough, students who were paid $20 admitted this: yeah, the tasks were boring, but I lied to the next person because I got paid. Dollar dollar bill, y’all!
However, people who were paid only $1 had no real reason to lie: they knew the tasks were boring as shit and they were paid basically nothing to lie. So… why did they do it? Are they bad, immoral people? In their minds, it didn’t make any sense. They were holding two contradictory thoughts:
1. Tasks are boring
2. I said they were fun
I didn’t lie for the money because $1 is such a small payout that it’s completely insignificant. Why then? Why would I just lie and sacrifice my own integrity for no good reason? Am I crazy? Am I a sociopath? No, I can’t be. If I said that the tasks were fun, then I’m sure that they actually were fun. Otherwise, why would I have said it?
And this is exactly what happened. Students who were paid $1 couldn’t comprehend why they would have simply lied for no reason, so they convinced themselves that they had actually enjoyed the tasks and that they would gladly participate in the experiment again.
This may seem like a one-in-a-million event, but it really isn’t. All of us do it, we just aren’t aware of it. We are oftentimes irrational; we do shit that makes absolutely zero sense. But our brains cannot accept that, so we make up reasons that justify our irrational actions.
This is the case with Trump supporters. Even when the guy obviously contradicts himself (as in, there is a video recording of him saying one thing and another recording of him saying the exact opposite), they will negate any criticism and find a compelling reason of why they aren’t wrong.
Most of us will look at this and think — how? I know we don’t see the same reality, but how in the hell can you not see that he is literally contradicting himself?
While it’s true that Trump has a tendency to attract crowds who have racist and xenophobic views, not all of his supporters fall under this category. If you voted for someone because you truly believed he would change things for the better and then, as time passes, you realize he isn’t doing shit, you start to think… why the hell did I vote for him?
Am I crazy? Am I responsible for the current state of things? Is it partially my fault? If I don’t like what he’s doing, why would I have voted for him? No, that can’t be right. I’m not crazy. If I voted for him, I must’ve had a good reason. He must actually be the good guy I thought he was, and the media is just biased and is reporting lies.
And this pattern of thinking is a textbook case of cognitive dissonance:
This tension makes us uncomfortable enough we’re motivated to reduce it in a number of ways. We may change the way we think about the decision or try to change how others think about it so that they can support our decisions. Or we may change some aspect of our behavior, so that our decision seems more “in character” with us.
In other words, we try to reduce the dissonance between how we think we should act and how we actually act by changing one or the other.
— Philip Zimbardo, Discovering Psychology (1990)
The problem with cognitive dissonance is that we never consciously go through this thought process. Our brains are hardwired to need to make sense of things, so when we hold two opposite ideas, our brain automatically conjures a story that explains it. And, since nobody really wants to questions themselves, we eat that shit up and never think twice about it.
We don’t want to believe we’re crazy, so we do crazy things to stop us from seeming crazy. Crazy, right?
SO… WHAT NOW?
This is just how our minds work. Fuck it. We’re imperfect.
But knowing that we have a tendency to brainwash ourselves, you can break the cycle. Sure, these things happen subconsciously, but you can now consciously recognize when they happen and stop them from causing any future damage.
It’s safe to assume that we’re all crazy and that’s okay. The phenomena I mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg. We can’t stop them from happening, but we can channel them into something useful. Just how being a good liar makes it easier to spot other liars and stop them from deceiving you, having knowledge of how people subconsciously draw conclusions will make it easier to connect with them and reach common ground.
Next time you feel like you’re struggling with your own actions or beliefs, think to yourself: is this making sense? Am I just justifying my irrationality? Should I maybe adjust or change my behavior or my values? If the answer turns out to be yes, do it. There’s no shame in it. You can’t fix your problems if you don’t admit they exist.
And the next time you get into a heated argument with someone and you just can’t seem to get on the same page, be empathetic. Try to put yourself in other person’s shoes. How do they see the world? How does their reality look like? How does it differ from yours?
Maybe they are wrong. But maybe, so are you. Maybe they are deluding themselves. But maybe, just maybe, so are you.
So next time you step out into the world and see people walking, running, or skating by, stop and think for a moment: each of these people lives in their own reality. Each of them makes up stories to explain their behavior. Each of them is stuck in their own world, playing their own game.