Sheep in Wolves' Clothes

Human cognitive biases are a huge impediment to success in our personal lives and progress as a society. They lead us astray towards bad decision-making, when fully rational, dispassionate thinking would bring about much improved outcomes.

One of these cognitive biases is called “the regressive bias:” it means that when we personally see events happen frequently in our lives, we believe they're very common in the world. For example: iPhones are popular in the US, so it’s common to assume that they dominate the smartphone market. But they’re only the most common phone in a small handful of countries, and worldwide, Androids have maintained a significant lead in market share. When we see events frequently in our personal lives, our brains tend to shut down the curiosity sector that makes us hunt data to discover just how common different events are.

This cognitive bias plays a very destructive role in our political polarization.

Deep down, most of us are thoughtful, caring people with nuanced ideas and similar values. In short, we’re mostly very human humans.

But there are a few people out there who don’t have or can’t access those qualities much of the time. Often they’re hurt, angry, and loud. And they say some crazy stuff; maybe they post something inflammatory on social media, or they write a particularly dumb sign for a protest. They start to look less like humans, and more like wolves, when we only see them through a certain lens.

We find that stuff frightening and even infuriating. In our desire to connect to our friends and not be alone in these emotions, we share with them the angry, crazy, or stupid stuff we see. We find no particular need to share a whole lot of what reasonable people say, especially when those reasonable people happen to disagree with us: reasonableness never triggers the emotional response that makes us feel the need to reach out to others. So reasonableness stays quiet.

In short order, our exposure becomes highly biased. We expose others, and are exposed ourselves, only to wolves.

And our brains do that thing (the regressive bias) where we start to really believe that these wolves are the most of our opposition. We become afraid.

And to stop them, we don the wolf’s pelt ourselves. To fight. We bring anger and hyperbole to bear to counter what we perceive makes up the other side. We worry that if we are sheep and they are wolves, we'll be swallowed up. 

And a tragedy occurs: we become the very wolves we fear.

Should we fail to see the people that outnumber the wolves, and more, to find the people underneath all the wolves’ clothes, the cycle will perpetuate.

And we must take psychologically-difficult steps to look for the people underneath, and have the vulnerability to leave our wolfskin at home. Much like any fight, one side has to decide to stop fighting first.

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Erik Fogg

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