The Illusion of Sameness

by Elizabeth 1 min read22nd Jan 201172 comments


I have lately been pondering two contradictory human beliefs: the belief in our own exceptionalism and the belief in our own ordinariness.  We model the world with ourselves as prototypical humans, using our own emotions and reactions and thought processes to run a program predicting the behavior of others.  That is, after all, what our mirror neurons evolved for.  However, when it comes to our abilities or our intelligence or our problems, we believe we are something out of the ordinary.  The second bias is easier to compensate for than the first, but it is the first that interests me, because even when confronted with significant evidence of your own difference, it is extremely difficult to really internalize it and change your model of the world.

I consider it likely that among those reading this, more of you grew up in families of intelligent, educated people than the national average.  It is also likely that the number of readers who grew up in liberal and nonreligious families exceeds the norm.  Not all, certainly.  Quite possibly not even the majority.  However, I think there must be many among you who understand the shock of leaving your family and community, perhaps to go to college, and slowly discovering that there are people who don't think like you.  People who don't share your foundational knowledge, who trust different authorities, who have completely different default settings.

There are two separate pieces to this: the first is our default setting for the beliefs and authorities of others as similar to our own, and the second is our modeling of other people's mental processes as similar to our own.  The second is seldom run across in everyday life, unless engaging in a discussion of mental processes as in the comments on this post.  The first is run across fairly frequently, but here I must apologize for bringing up the mind-killer, for it is most apparent in politics.  I will endeavor to keep my example brief.

In the spring of 2010 I was substitute teaching in a rural area of upstate New York.  I was in the teacher's room eating lunch, with ten or so other teachers, when the subject of the BP oil spill arose, as it was the major current event at the time.  My experience dictated that the conversation would start with "Isn't this a terrible thing?" and proceed to "Oil companies shouldn't be allowed to make a mess they can't clean up." or "Shouldn't we invest in clean energy?"  However, though the conversation began as I expected, I was subsequently informed that the oil companies were fully capable of cleaning it up, and that the reason it had not been cleaned up already was a conspiracy on the part of President Obama.

This was particularly shocking to me because there were no warning signs.  These were people who were all educated to a Master's Degree level.  I had spoken to several on more innocuous topics, and they seemed both interesting and intelligent. (I realize that this reveals a potential bias on my part regarding a correlation between intelligence and a liberal bent).  They seemed, in every respect, to be people like me.

How could I have better predicted this?  I remain at a loss.  The only significant difference between that group and the people who react according to my model is region of origin, but that oversimplifies the question.  I am not only confused, I am viscerally uncomfortable.  How do we model for people whose cultural contexts and information delivering authorities are fundamentally different from our own, without lumping them into a faceless group?