The Self and Its Worldview

What Other People Think, part 2

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)
What is this “self” thing to which Polonius tells us to be true? The great philosopher and social psychologist George Herbert Mead, whose career spanned the first three decades of the 20th century, understood the self as a generalized other. I always thought that was very helpful. The self IS others – certain important others – generalized into a single personality. A person’s “generalized other” is her conception of the important other people in her life in general – an amalgamation of the people with whom she identifies. (She literally identifies with them in the sense that she gets her identity from them.) The ones with whom the child identifies during the formative years, she generalizes into a shared set of attitudes and assumptions which are her attitudes and assumptions, defining who she is.

As the context of your life shifts, and the people you’re around, and the people you identify with, shift, who you are shifts. It does. Maybe just a little. Maybe a little bit more.

The question is: how much, how fast? When it happens too much, too fast, that’s a problem. You need a core sense of self that’s pretty stable over time.

You might hear advice such as: “Don’t let other people tell you who you are. Don’t let their voice be more powerful than your own.” What this means is: “Don’t let what people are telling you now replace too fast too much of what you have previously learned from other people.”

On the other hand, not shifting at all is also a problem. You need a core sense of self that’s pretty stable – but not totally static. Life is for growing and learning, and growing and learning means taking in influences from some other people.

Indeed, our vaunted rationality is more about social bonding than for discerning truth. A few years ago, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber published an article, “Why Do Humans Reason?” If reason evolved to discern truth or make better decisions then natural selection would have weeded out confirmation bias (which Wikipedia defines as: "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities").
“If a fact comes in that doesn’t fit into your frame, you’ll either not notice it, or ignore it, or ridicule it, or be puzzled by it—or attack it if it’s threatening.” (George Lakoff, qtd in Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "Why We Lie," National Geographic)
"I trust this site to tell the truth."
Confirmation bias is a huge distortion – an enormous obstacle to adopting the belief that best fits all the available evidence. Confirmation bias exists because forming beliefs that fit the evidence is not the purpose of human reasoning. Forming social bonds is the purpose of reasoning.
“Most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group. We’re quite willing to disparage anyone when, as Marilynne Robinson once put it, ‘the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.’” (David Brooks, New York Times)
Human thinking is fundamentally relational because for our ancestors going back millions of years survival had more to do with strong relationships and social bonds of support than it did with reaching conclusions that fit the evidence. Competition between groups placed a premium on group solidarity, and group solidarity was reinforced by sharing an ideology – a characteristic pattern of reasoning.

The genus homo has been around for between 2.5 and 3 million years, and the scientific method for less than 400 years. Clearly, coming up with a story that really fits best with all the evidence that has been or could be gathered is a low priority for brains like ours. But having a story that we share with our tribe-mates is a high priority.

So powerful is our own worldview, so convinced of the power of its arguments do we become, that we can’t imagine how someone on the other side would answer those arguments. When I have talked to someone on the other side of some opinion that I have, and they’ve told me their answer, even when I understand it at the time – which is itself a rare occurrence – I don’t retain it. A few days later, I’m back to being unable to conceive how the arguments on my side could possibly be answered. Since it's important to me to understand other people, I find this forgetfulness (about details of how they defend viewpoints different from mine) perplexing and vexing.

In a study a couple years ago, participants were told “Donald Trump said vaccines cause autism.” (And Trump has repeatedly suggested there’s a link.) Participants who were Trump supporters showed a stronger belief that vaccines do cause autism. That’s not surprising: For them, Trump is a credible source, so they believe what he said. Then
“the participants were given a short explanation—citing a large-scale study—for why the vaccine-autism link was false, and they were asked to reevaluate their belief in it.”
The explanation was cogent enough so that participants “now accepted that the statements claiming the link were untrue.” They got it. They understood that, in fact, there is no link between vaccines and autism. But they didn’t retain it.
“Testing them again a week later showed that their belief in the misinformation had bounced back to nearly the same level.” (Bhattacharjee, National Geographic)
If it doesn’t fit our worldview, it doesn’t stick. Even in cases where information is accepted and agreed with in the moment, if it doesn’t fit our worldview, we forget it.

That’s how powerful our worldview is. And where did that worldview come from? It came from identifying with certain other people, and forming a generalized sense of how they thought.

This is bad news for truth, but it’s good news for integrity. Integrity with our worldview, with the sense of self that has that worldview, usually trumps new information that doesn't fit our worldview.

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This part 2 of 3 of "What Other People Think"
See also
Part 1: We All Care What Other People Think of Us
Part 3: Biases and Anxiety

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