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Divisive Punditry

Divisive punditry is a very effective way to get your name out there (not to mention your ideas).

The higher the premium is for our attention, the more incentive there is for employing polarizing tactics as a means of gaining our notice.

This leads an interesting, hypothetical equation in the broader context of knowledge inflation: the more competition there is for public attention, the greater the payoff becomes for being more outlandish, brash, and belligerent than everyone else. If this true, the more knowledge we generate as a society, the more (relatively) ignorant we may need to sound in order to get one another’s attention.

Is it a paradox worth considering? What do you think?

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Optimism Bias: Why Other People are Idiots

You are in your car and you see someone else using their phone while driving. What an idiot, you think to yourself. They should know better. Of course, you have probably talked on the phone while driving before, too. So, if you are the average person, you would then quickly explain that the situation was somehow different when you did it. Likely, you would use one of the following excuses: it was an actual emergency when you used your phone, or the crisis warranted the risk; or, probably, you are a remarkable multitasker, better than the average driver.

This is optimism bias, and most of us have it. We tend to assume that disasters happen to other people. Smokers believe they are less likely to get lung cancer than other smokers. People feel they are less likely than the rest of the population to be the victim of crime. Cell phone users believe other people are more likely to get in an accident while talking and driving.

Curious to determine the causes of optimism bias, researchers identified three desired “end states” that tend to generate this bias. These are “under the hood” motivations, not in people’s conscious explanations.

“People may…estimate that their risk is less than the risk of others because doing so allows them to be better than average.”
“A motivation to perceive oneself as better than others may lead people to reflexively present their personal risk as less than the risk of other people.”
“People display a comparative control illusion, perceiving that they have more control over events than does the average person.” (Shepperd, 2002)

Comparing ourselves to other people runs deep in our mental wiring. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to avoid it at the subconscious level. We can, however, use the flaring indignation of moral judgment to catch ourselves. For example, as a pedestrian, I am irked when cyclists ride on the sidewalk. Why can’t they just follow the rules of the road and get out of my way? Have I ever ridden a bicycle on a sidewalk? Of course I have. What does my resentment and exasperation at the cyclist really represent? Probably my own subconscious need to feel superior.

Today, or tomorrow, the next time someone pisses you off, embrace the moment as a natural invitation to check your bias meter. Try counting the number of times that you get upset with someone else for doing exactly the same thing you have done before. Try it. It’s very humbling.

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Discussing White Privilege with Forrest Bivens

I recently sat down with my friend Forrest Bivens (@ForrestBivens) to chat about white privilege, class, and racism. This is one of those conversations that I wish I could have face-to-face with everyone. I’m very thankful to Forrest for taking the time to engage on this topic. I hope that our dialogue can play some small part in fostering further conversations, too. Your thoughts, reactions, and perspectives are welcome.