Thursday, December 2, 2010

How Identities Cloud Judgement

I recently cam across this article: and I thought I would share it here.

Keep Your Identity Small

February 2009

I finally realized today why politics and religion yield such uniquely useless discussions.

As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

What's different about religion is that people don't feel they need to have any particular expertise to have opinions about it. All they need is strongly held beliefs, and anyone can have those. No thread about Javascript will grow as fast as one about religion, because people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that. But on religion everyone's an expert.

Then it struck me: this is the problem with politics too. Politics, like religion, is a topic where there's no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

Do religion and politics have something in common that explains this similarity? One possible explanation is that they deal with questions that have no definite answers, so there's no back pressure on people's opinions. Since no one can be proven wrong, every opinion is equally valid, and sensing this, everyone lets fly with theirs.

But this isn't true. There are certainly some political questions that have definite answers, like how much a new government policy will cost. But the more precise political questions suffer the same fate as the vaguer ones.

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.

Which topics engage people's identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn't. No one would know what side to be on. So it's not politics that's the source of the trouble, but identity. When people say a discussion has degenerated into a religious war, what they really mean is that it has started to be driven mostly by people's identities.

Because the point at which this happens depends on the people rather than the topic, it's a mistake to conclude that because a question tends to provoke religious wars, it must have no answer. For example, the question of the relative merits of programming languages often degenerates into a religious war, because so many programmers identify as X programmers or Y programmers. This sometimes leads people to conclude the question must be unanswerable—that all languages are equally good. Obviously that's false: anything else people make can be well or badly designed; why should this be uniquely impossible for programming languages? And indeed, you can have a fruitful discussion about the relative merits of programming languages, so long as you exclude people who respond from identity.

More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people's identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn't safely talk about with others.

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.
I think this article is very insightful and has some very good points. It makes me want to reconsider how I identify myself or at least how the way I identify myself may skew my beliefs.

However, even if you think you don't identify with a group you may still be falling into the above trap. For example, I am not sure how much of my argument for circumcision has to do with my identity (probably a lot) as well as I am unsure how much other peoples arguments against circumcision has to do with their conceived identities (either as atheists or whatever). It seems to me that people should always be on guard against the traps in our minds that we set for ourselves. You can never be too sure that you are arguing solely on rational grounds and that your personal emotional attachment towards a topic has nothing to do with your positions.