By Kasun Kamaladasa –
Events that took place after the Easter bomb blasts may seem as counter intuitive/ intuitive/ rational/ irrational depending on a person’s belief. People who were killed while praying, prayed harder. Peoples traditions that seemed to instill fear on others seemed to be more strong in holding those traditions, People who spread hatred from shadows came out to spread it in broad daylight, Extremist supporters started believing in extremism even more than before, Political supporters started backing their political parties more than ever. I myself refortified my stance as a person who is strongly against institutionalized religion.
My reasons for writing this article isn’t to change those people who act with fear and prejudice, because most of them will never sit-down and read anything. This article is for those who wish to understand why we all can easily behave the same way, if we are unaware of our own biases. Especially in times we feel threatened, even knowing these biases might not be enough to guide ourselves to see clearly. However, knowing them and knowing the limitations of our primitive minds, could give us a slight hope in recovering and understanding.
When our core beliefs are challenged, like God, Karma or Allah, we start believing in those even more blindly. When god allowed bombs to go out in his place of worship or when many generous and good people died tragically with no apparent Karma to deserve such a fate or how Allah would allow his name to be used to create such terror, each person of each religion would somehow justify these flaws. They will convince themselves of having a deeper understanding of their religion that no other-religious person would actually understand (only blind belief, conveniently hidden with the 2500-year-old claim “not everything can be proven”)
Sunken cost fallacy
We all have those things that we don’t let go of, an old car, a broken down house, an ex, a depressing profession. Even though clinging on to these things cost us heavily, we cling on because of what it cost us to get to them in the first place.
That is the same reason why we hang on to our beliefs (religious or otherwise) even though sometimes we know they are bad for us, that they misguide us. We have spent our whole lives building our identity upon it, we have spent countless hours listening and learning scriptures, traditions, philosophies and narratives. We have “invested” in them. It’s not easy to let go.
When we hear a news story we agree with, we might search for the same story and we might come across many articles confirming our suspicion, erasing our doubts. But we only look for confirmation of the story, not the denials or evidence against it.
This is one of the hardest biases we encounter today. Probably, that is what politicians, astrologers and marketers use most to fool people. With the internet, the number of stories/campaigns have skyrocketed.
During the past few weeks, so many such stories were shared, a story about Putin telling Muslims to leave the country if they don’t accept “Russian traditions” (When the real story was complete opposite and Putin acknowledged the great contributions of Muslims towards Russia), a story about China being a peaceful country (Chinese people wrote the book titled Art of War, they have been involved in many wars and had rulers who killed more people than Hitler), a story about how Japanese not allowing Muslims to get Visa (again published in many Islam phobic sites but was found out to be false)
Bertrand Rustle once said “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”
No wonder people who have barley read a history book in their lives have come out as History experts explaining how Islamic States were formed invading other faiths, and how governments with religious ideologies were raised. There is lot to learn from world history. Not from a single book or a single teacher but from a multitude of them and we can understand that all religions (and groups that demanded loyalty and faith, like communist parties around the world) have done their part in violent acts if/when they had such power to do so.
If a parent or elderly relative explains something to us, they normally begin with “In the good old days…”. If we are old enough we too may be guilty of starting a sentence like this.
But the truth is as animals who have been evolving some millennia to survive we all have adopted to remember the past as a much better experience than it really was. Erasing, replacing and editing our bad memories. Unless we are unusually tormented/traumatized we tend to remember the good friends, funny teachers and the fun times we had rather than the unpleasant, boring assemblies, the grumpy, useless teachers and the injustices we faced (Even those seem much less terrifying than they were in those days).
Since we know what happened in the past (at-least relatively) as opposed to what is going to happen in the future (That is mostly uncertain and, therefore, terrifying) we tend to look into the future with a much darker perspective.
This is why instilling fear seem to be very effective to motivate people to do all sorts of unethical, unlawful, violent acts to protect themselves from great evil that is yet to come. We are easily convinced that the future evil is much greater than what has passed.
The world is insanely complex, we can’t really think of everything we know (Then of course there are things we do not). So for our ease of mind our brain frames things. Since the government seem to be miserably failing at explaining what is going on, recently some people started a campaign to boycott Muslim shops and in one of the facebook stories, it was said that a man searched all over Kurunagala to find a non-Muslim shop to get a reload, but couldn’t find one and got a loan instead… But the funny thing is one of the telecom service provider is a Malaysian company that would mean money that goes to a “Muslim” country and another though Sri Lankan owned, also allegedly had been involved in providing copper to the bomb manufacturers. If we change our frame, we could blame Sinhala politicians who stood idly, Buddhist priest who spread mistrust and hatred. If we change our frame even more we might even see that majority of homicides and violent crimes (Also a forms of terror) are committed by Sinhala Buddhist probably not because “they” are a really “bad” group of people, but simply because “they” are the Majority. So should we boycott “them/ourselves” as well?
***Just to be clear boycotting Halal is a valid point if a person does not wish to fund organized Islam and the corrupt groups that run the religious industry (and should be a personal choice), but not all Muslims are followers of Islam and although corrupt and insanely misguided (just like any other religious/faith based group) not all mosques promote extremism.
We tend to favor those who belong to our group, race, religion, school, university, home town… That’s why society has suddenly started blaming “Muslim only” Institutes when there are thousands of “Buddhist only”, “Hindu only” and “Christian only” institutes, that equally are responsible of favoring their own groups.
That’s why we falsely think all Muslims are plotting against “us”, yet “we” have plotted against all sorts of groups/people (maybe unknowingly) for decades.
Fundamental attribution error
We judge others on their character but ourselves according to circumstances.
Why they had swords, why they have different rules, why did they allow such things to happen. But we forget to apply the same to us and have situational excuses. Our groups had swords because ……., I have a sword in my house for decoration, or for my knife fetish, because I am a survival freak, we have different rules because of our history and it’s our right, because we own this country, we could not stop our children, monks, politicians, soldiers from committing …….. because………. and so on.
We allow negative things to disproportionately influence us. That is why terrorism and violence has been such a successful tool for both terrorists and corrupt governments. That is why swords in several mosques made us so easily forget how many mosques didn’t have weapons even while under constant threat from various thugs. That is why even though we could with effort find peace with our neighbors we tend to seek divisions listening to the provocations by media/politicians.
This is why even mathematicians and economist might be convinced that they will win a lottery, even though the very subjects they learn teaches them that it is unlikely. This is the reason some of us support tyrants and dictators because we think that the violence, corruption and chaos they bring will not affect us, it will only affect others. Our king will stop “other” people from believing what is wrong, he will let us freely “believe” in what is right. Our king will stop “other terrorists” allow our thugs to reign terror… and so on.
This is a bias we see a lot too; it is the urge to do/say something opposing to what we are told. We all do it especially when threatened or challenged. I guess that is why we can be easily convinced by some groups to commit violence (or other crimes) when the people who care about us mostly try to say “no/ don’t”.
The first things that we judge influences us for whatever judgements that come after.
So the classic example for this is how real-estate dealers will always say a much higher price for a land than which they are selling so even if the particular land is not worth half that price your mind will already be influenced to pay a higher price.
This may apply to relationships as well, if what you liked about a person (for most will be parents since they are the first relationship anyone ever has) is how clean they were and what you disliked is how much they liked sugar, your future relationships have a chance to be influenced by those characteristics, forever, comparing future partners/companions/friends upon those qualities.
This is why all religions love to have exclusive rights to indoctrinate children, when it becomes our anchor in influences every choice we make. Making us gullible to their narratives.
How to overcome our Biases?
It isn’t easy but being calm in chaotic situations, learning about biases of our mind, learning about ourselves (because each of us will have different kind of biases in different situations). Learning how these biases can be applied in any kind of event, listening to opposing ideas (with the intention of learning) and having access to wide array of information and professionals, should be the starting point.
We should always be mindful of our own mistakes, skeptical of things that sound right at a glance, keep on learning new things outside our field of work. Otherwise we might end-up being worse than monkeys with ability to form a few complex sentences.