We’re Engaged in Reality Wars, Not Culture Wars

In a previous post, I discussed the book The Case Against Reality, by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman. This time, I want to loosely tie those ideas to the U.S. reality wars.

Echo Chambers and Halls of Mirrors

In today’s U.S., there are multiple political camps that, due to the structure of our system, invariably wind up channeled into just two political parties. This is maddening for those of us who want more choices, but for reasons known as Duverger’s Law, we’re stuck with just the two–at least for now.

Our two-party system leads to polarization, especially in an age when Americans find it easier than ever to lock themselves in media that do nothing but reinforce beliefs they tend to already hold. This especially applies to our cable news networks, with one recent study indicating that TV is a stronger driver of partisan news consumption than even our fractured social media.

That’s not to say social media doesn’t also play a role. Indeed, as one recent Atlantic article reported:

[R]esearchers who measure echo chambers by looking at social relationships and networks usually find evidence of “homophily”—that is, people tend to engage with others who are similar to themselves. One study of politically engaged Twitter users, for example, found that they “are disproportionately exposed to like-minded information and that information reaches like-minded users more quickly.”

Everywhere people look, they see versions of themselves reflected back and hear echoes of their own voices. It’s toxic narcissism writ large. As for other points of view, they are often distorted in grotesque ways that make people hate or distrust those who hold those points of view.

What makes this phenomenon even more destructive is that social media algorithms are designed to keep people engaged on their platforms so they’ll spend more time there. There are plenty of reports about how Facebook, YouTube and even TikTok are taking people down conspiracy-laden rabbit holes out of which they emerge as extremists.

The Reality Wars

Of course none of this is breaking news. In fact, it is commonly viewed as part of the so-called culture wars. What I believe, however, is that these trends extend beyond mere culture and influence our fundamental construction of reality.

Image of soap bubble: By KarlGaff – CC BY 4

If you believe Hoffman’s thesis that our perceptions are not based on some close-to-the-surface reality but, rather, on some sociobiological interface that bears little resemblance to whatever underlying reality is out there, then we literally generate our own realities to some degree.

(Yeah, I know that in a lot of ways this isn’t a new idea, even if now we have more evidence to support it. In fact, it’s straight out of Freshman Ponderings 101, bong tokes and dog-eared copies of Herman Hesse novels.)

Let’s assume for a minute that Hoffman is right. If so, then some human beings literally see reality in different ways, and this is bound to influence our politics.

Different Brains, Different Worlds

Certain factors shape our realities, not just our cultural views. This shows up in cognitive and psychological studies. For example, one study indicates that the brains of conservatives and liberals often function in slightly different ways. Scientific American reports:

The volume of gray matter, or neural cell bodies, making up the anterior cingulate cortex, an area that helps detect errors and resolve conflicts, tends to be larger in liberals. And the amygdala, which is important for regulating emotions and evaluating threats, is larger in conservatives.

No only do liberals and conservatives view the world in different ways, they even remember reality differently: “Among other things, partisan identity clouds memory. In a 2013 study, liberals were more likely to misremember George W. Bush remaining on vacation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and conservatives were more likely to falsely recall seeing Barack Obama shaking hands with the president of Iran.”

There are, in fact, various studies indicating that conservatives and liberals see the world differently. And, it’s not just the world they see differently. It’s their own minds and motivations. For example, whereas liberals and conservatives think they are applying judgment equally to all groups of people, they each tend to judge members of their own ideology more favorably than others. 

“It seems that most people think that they are applying their moral principles in an even-handed way,” authors Dr. Jan Voelkel and Dr. Mark Brandt told PsyPost. “However, our findings suggest that we humans struggle to apply our moral principles equally to our outgroups and ingroups.”

Naively Unrealistic about Reality

There’s a name for the human tendency to believe that we see the world around us objectively (and to see the people who disagree with us as irrational, biased or immoral). It’s called “naïve  realism.”

Naïve realism is theoretically responsible for a bunch of systematic cognitive errors, such as:

We’ve seen naive realism play out in spades in the U.S. over the last several years. Take the pandemic. The U.S. has suffered more Covid-19 deaths per capita than any other nations in the world except for Peru and Brazil, yet a 2020 poll from Pew Research Center found that 76% of Republicans believed the pandemic was handled successfully in the U.S. while the same was true for only 29% of Democrats.

Sometimes differences come down to which aspects of our reality we choose to pay attention to. For example, about 4 in 10 American’s have closely followed news about the Jan. 6th select committee’s hearings, but the the percentage who are following at least somewhat closely vary widely from 55% of Democrats to 40% of independents and just 28% of Republicans.

Divisions have gotten so bad that they’ve crept deep into our personal lives. For example, The Institute for Family Studies reports:

Marriages across political lines appear to be falling. In 2016, when Eitan Hersh and Yair Ghitza counted married couples among registered voters, they found that 30% of couples were politically mixed, meaning they did not share the same party identification. Most of these marriages were between partisans and Independents, and 9% of all marriages were between Democrats and Republicans. Today, only 21% of marriages are politically mixed, and nearly 4% (3.6%) are between Democrats and Republicans, according to my analysis of the new American Family Survey.

On Reality-Bending Demagogues

We live in an era of demagogues. Lexico.com defines a demagogue as “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.”

Politicians are probably demagogues if they:

  • try to make you fear or hate some specific group of people who have traditionally been ostracized from society
  • attempt to fan flames of outrage by making emotional appeals based on unsupported or widely exaggerated evidence
  • bully and attack others who dare to challenge their arguments, power or ego
  • make arguments that they themselves contradict because the arguments are based on emotions rather than logic
  • promise to solve complex problems with overly simple and often unworkable solutions
  • try to make “people like you” feel as if you are a victim of unfair treatment by some demonized group around which unproven (and usually unprovable) conspiracies are woven
  • repeat large lies again and again, following the dictate of Joseph Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Demagogues are typically reality warpers because their claims and emotional appeals can’t be well supported by the honestly presented facts. But this doesn’t mean the warping isn’t real. They can literally change the way people view their realities.

Some Results of Warped Realities

How does such warping work on a practical level?

Let’s use the issue of immigration as an example. On recent NPR/Ipsos poll found that fewer than half of participants correctly answered a range of true or false statements regarding immigration.

For example, 54% of Americans think it’s at least somewhat true that we’re experiencing an “invasion” at the southern border, with 76% of Republicans and 40% of Democrats believing it. Part of the problem here is that word “invasion,” which typically refers to armed forces but in this case refers to regular and generally unarmed people crossing the U.S. southern border. The emotion-laden word literally changes the way people interpret their realities and is largely a media-influenced concept. Republicans who cite Fox News or other conservative news sources as their main news source are more likely to buy into the invasion narrative.

But the reality warping extends beyond emotions attached to immigration. For example, half of polled Americans “believe it is at least somewhat true that migrants bringing fentanyl and other illegal drugs over the southern border are responsible for the increase in drug overdoses and deaths in the U.S.” This claim is not supported by the evidence. Almost all fentanyl is smuggled into the U.S. hidden in vehicles coming through official ports of entry.

So, why do so many people believe otherwise? It’s largely because demagogues and media figures mislead people. For example, Florida’s governor states, “You have people coming across illegally from countries all over the world. And so what has that gotten us? We now, in this country, have the leading cause of death for people 18 to 45 as fentanyl overdose.”

He infers that the illegal smuggling of fentanyl is directly linked to illegal immigration even those these two things are almost entirely unrelated. This is how realities are twisted and forged by politicians and media sources.

In another example, over half of Republicans believe that, compared to native-born U.S. residents, immigrants are more likely to use public benefits and to commit crimes, even though the evidence indicates that neither of these is true.

Working with the Threads of Shared Reality

So, how can we reweave some of these threads into a more cohesive U.S. reality? I wish I knew. It may be the single most important question facing U.S. democracy today.

One way to weave threads of common realties may be by starting with areas of political consensus and having people work together on those areas. For example, there are large bipartisan U.S. majorities that favor increasing the number of work visas to legal immigrants. Americans could work across party lines on the issue in an attempt to have lawmakers pass meaningful legislation in this area.

There are, in fact, various areas of political reform that both voting constituencies tend to favor by large margins. According to the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland, these include:

  • a Constitutional amendment to allow governments greater freedom to regulate campaign financing
  • requirements for increasing disclosure of campaign financing
  • an extension of the period of time that former government officials must wait before working as a lobbyist
  • a movement to make it easier for independent and third-party candidates to compete in U.S. elections

Not only could such public policy work help form more examples of shared realities, they would bring these different groups into closer contact with one another, allowing people to form closer emotional connections with those who think in other ways.

Final Thoughts

Although culture plays a role, the “culture wars” are, in a deep sense, reality wars in that people literally disagree about what’s real. If we can internalize this as the problem, then we can finally grok just how deep our national issues go.

Ultimately, though, what we call these conflicts is less important that whether we can come up solutions to address them. Democracies will always be characterized by differences of opinions. Such differences are good. In the war of ideas, you want the best ones to flourish. That’s why democracies tend to produce happier and healthier societies.

But we also need ways of keeping those differences from mutating into outrage, hatred and violence. Because a democracy that results in open conflict is a deeply unhealthy democracy, one likely to metastasize into something truly dreaded and deadly.

Featured image from Ústí nad Labem, the Czech Republic. Větruše hill, a mirror labyrinth.