Over quarantine, I’ve watched the world become increasingly politically charged. Trump Era, chock full of fake news and licentious insults, was a game-changer when it came to the rapid polarization of our bipartisan nation. Then, once COVID19 hit, things began spiraling further as the right and the left became increasingly belligerent and unwilling to compromise or even understand one another. It got to a point where Democrats became equivalent to ANTIFA in conservative eyes, whereas Republicans became synonymous to the Proud Boys in liberal eyes.

In such a divided political environment, communication, compromise, and joint action has almost become a relic of the past. However, it is still possible for us to return to more peaceful, unified times if we push ourselves to check our own biases and reopen lines of communication between ourselves and our perceived enemies.

A Growing Divide

As a regular user of social media, I’ve noticed a trend in how people talk about politics and social issues online. Comment sections of posts supporting specific political views are often filled with discussion in support of whatever argument the original post or article is making. The occasional comment disagreeing or trolling tends to generate replies in the double digits telling the original commenter off. If you voice your disagreement to even one point, you are labelled as evil and assumed to support the most extreme views of the opposition. This hostile environment eliminates any possibility to express nuanced ideas or to have proper, constructive discussion.

Moreover, with the advent of fake news, and especially cult-like sources such as QAnon, people are more easily mislead by the power of fear, conspiracy, and a sense of underground community. Research has shown that when we surround ourselves with people who believe the same things we do, we become more and more extreme in our views.

The lasting effect of this type of cult-like, partisan thinking is massive political and social polarization across America. You must either be a far-right conservative or a far-left liberal — there is no in-between. In such a hostile political environment, it is increasingly difficult to find ways to lay down our differences and communicate as fellow Americans, rather than as enemy political affiliations.

Understanding Our Blind Spot

It’s funny. When the right calls the left socialist, anti-American libtards, we shake our heads and think they’re biased and uneducated on what the left truly stands for. And yet, at the same time, the moment someone shows support for right wing politics, we assume they are racist, misogynistic pigs — no bias involved.

Most of us are able to see how the people around us are biased. However, we tend to believe we don’t fall victim to bias, even though we think those around us do. This phenomenon is known as the bias blind spot.

Bias blind spot occurs because we judge others by their behavior and actions but ourselves by our more nuanced thoughts. As a result, we can rationalize everything we do, but don’t see others’ behavior as rational because we don’t have access to — or even give value to — their thoughts.

Our own biases are so powerful that even when we are given all the nuances of others’ mindsets, we tend to ignore them and label them as irrational without even giving them a chance. In one experiment, participants voted on made up California propositions knowing which propositions their party supported. They also wrote down their thought processes behind why they chose to vote the way they did. When these written thoughts were given to participants of the opposite party, they were disregarded as irrelevant. No matter what reasoning the written thoughts showed, participants believed the other side voted according to their party loyalties rather than any sort of rational thinking.

At the same time, we don’t necessarily have access to all of our thoughts, especially when it comes to unconscious biases. When asked why we made a particular choice, we often rationalize decisions while being unaware of our biases, thinking we are being completely rational in them. This occurs because we think we are aware of all our thoughts and our thought processes, even though in reality, we are influenced unconsciously by biases we think we don’t believe in.

This phenomenon is called the introspection illusion, and it supports the bias blind spot by revealing how we are not conscious of the biases influencing our own thoughts despite being aware of how others’ actions reflect their biases.

Luckily, learning about introspection illusion and bias blind spot has proven to more effectively influence people to question their own perceived rationality and look for hidden biases in their thoughts and actions. By accepting that we ourselves can be biased, we can more easily open doors to constructive discussions with people of differing points of view.

Keeping Things in Context

I recently took a test to see exactly what my political leanings were. Unsurprisingly, I am fairly liberal, especially when it comes to social and environmental issues.

A lot of my liberal values come from growing up in California, in progressive, diverse cities. Most of my friends growing up were second-generation Asian immigrants like me, and as I was in my school’s speech and debate club, I learned a lot about liberal politics from my fellow club members. My experiences as a brown girl in California taught me to value equality for all people, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. Now that I go to UCLA, alongside another pool of progressive, diverse students, I’ve only become more liberal.

But what if I grew up in rural Texas, where conservatism is the accepted political viewpoint, to a liberal college environment? What would I believe if I came from a staunchly religious family that considers homosexuality a sin? Would it be easy to throw away the values I grew up with and adopt those that my new college friends have?

Of course not.

I would probably put a lot of trust into my community’s interpretation of the word of God, much more than I have as an agnostic liberal. If the New York Times and CNN are trustworthy to the liberal me, Fox News would be my go-to if I grew up conservative.

We tend to forget how important our environment and relationships at a young age are in helping us formulate our values and beliefs. When we come across someone of an opposing political ideology, we ignore the experiences that led them there and assume they are uneducated fools who only wish to bring harm to others. How can we objectively claim that we are not the same?

A little empathy can go a long way. If you want to persuade someone the way they think is wrong, you can’t expect immediate results. If you get angry and call them names for believing what they believe, you can expect them to be less inclined to even give you a chance. Instead, you must accept that they may deeply believe in their political ideologies, and then gently suggest that those beliefs may not be as rational or foolhardy as they thought.

We are all only human, and just as others may be influenced by bias, you can be too. Everyone rationalizes their thinking as doing the ‘right’ thing, and nobody chooses what they believe in to intentionally harm others. Villainizing those with different views away trivializes their experiences and nuanced thoughts; it only pushes them to take on more extreme views while promoting hostility and limiting constructive discussions. It is only by understanding the limits of the human mind and rejecting the idea of inherent ‘evil’ in those against you that we will be able to put down our differences and work together to form a united, brighter future.

Hi, I'm Ash. I’m a college sophomore and aspiring scientist who loves discussing science, the brain, and our ever-changing society.