I'm reminded of this wonderful quote when I think about the recent Brexit vote and the common phenomenon it has brought sharply into focus. How is it that two individuals or groups of people can look at the same situation and form fundamentally opposing views? How is it possible for one side to see Brexit as the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to take back control of our country and make Britain great again whilst others view it as economic and political suicide?
One of the explanations that emanates from the remain camp is that leave voters were either ignoring the facts or naively believing the lies fed to them by politicians and the media. However, given that this was a vote about a unique and uncertain future what facts about the consequences of the decision to leave could the remain voters point to in order to justify their position? So in the absence of hard facts how do we form opinions?
In the classical economic view everyone is 100% rational and will look at all the facts and weigh up pros and cons before making judgements that are in our own best interests. The view of behavioural economists and psychologists differs greatly from this and describes a more human approach one that is much closer to the truth. When making a decision such as that presented in the Brexit vote we already hold beliefs about the value of the EU in our lives and whether or not we think it is a good thing or not. Thus we don't look at all the facts and weigh up the pros and cons to make our decision we actually filter the world through our beliefs about it and typically scan for information that supports our beliefs, discarding or dismissing that which doesn't. This is what psychologists call the confirmation bias. In this way both sides are able to construct arguments (no matter how weak or illogical their factual foundations) that they firmly believe are true and can keep them diametrically opposed.
Hence if we want to build bridges and bring people closer together, bombarding those on the other side of the argument with more facts is unlikely to be effective. What we need to do is try to loosen our grip on our own beliefs and attempt to see things as others see them. Perhaps with this new perspective we will find ways to bridge the seemingly intractable divides that we keep creating in society.
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