How to Avoid 7 Thinking Errors That Make Us Hate Each Other
The stories we tell ourselves can unite or divide us.
Posted Nov 20, 2020
In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, many in the U.S. are calling for unity. Finding our way through the major challenges we’re facing—COVID, the economy, issues of race—requires that we come together. And yet there are signs that the left/right political divide will only widen in the months and years ahead.
Vigorous political disagreements are inevitable in a nation as large and diverse as the U.S. and are a sign of a healthy democracy. But often our political disputes lead us to see the other side as reprehensible, and worthy of our hate. Some have even expressed hope that our country will decline when the opposing party is in power, as if rooting against America is patriotic.
The path from disagreement to hatred is often paved with cognitive distortions. Like a funhouse mirror, cognitive distortions cause us to see a distorted reality. These errors can have powerful effects on our actions and emotions, making them frequent targets of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Here are some of the most common types of thinking errors:
1. Emotional Reasoning
When I played high school baseball, I always thought the opposing team looked like a bunch of unfriendly guys that I wouldn’t want to hang out with. I knew nothing about them, of course, and was basing my judgment entirely on the fact that they were our opponent. Even at seventeen years old, I knew rationally that my beliefs about them didn’t make sense. But they felt true, and like an optical illusion, I couldn’t make myself see the other team differently.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was engaging in emotional reasoning. My tribal mentality had been triggered, leading me to see the opposing team as the “enemy,” and as fundamentally bad. We do the same with our political opponents, letting our dislike drive our beliefs about them. Our negative beliefs then strengthen our feelings about them, leading to further emotional reasoning in a self-perpetuating and escalating cycle.
2. False Sense of Responsibility
When someone sees the world so differently than we do, we might think we have to change their beliefs. A false sense of responsibility tells us it’s our job to convince them of our position. How can they really think that? we ask ourselves. How can they deny that Biden is a puppet of the far left? Or, How can they not see how Trump bungled the COVID response? We might tell the person that they have to admit what’s painfully obvious to us.
In reality, we’re not responsible for what’s in others’ heads, and our efforts to change their beliefs will be about as successful as their attempts to change ours. This is not to say that we should avoid debates about important issues, but we can let ourselves off the hook from having a responsibility for what others think. Accepting that we don’t entirely understand one another can go a long way toward reducing conflict.
Do you find yourself describing your political opponents with words like “all” or “never”? You might be overgeneralizing. When we overgeneralize, we extrapolate from a single instance to all instances. We generalize from one racist Republican to all Republicans, or from one violent liberal protestor to all liberals. Or maybe we call anyone who voted for the other candidate an “idiot.” But how likely is it that over 70 million of your fellow Americans are idiots, based on their political affiliation?
4. Black-or-White Thinking
When we see things in all-or-nothing terms, we’re engaging in black-or-white thinking. We might see Republicans as “good” and Democrats as “bad,” or see all liberal policies as sensible and all conservative ones as nonsense. But as with overgeneralizing, it’s worth asking whether we’re missing some shades of gray. Is it possible that the two sides of our political aisle offer some balance to priorities that stand in tension with one another? Might there be some perspectives worth considering among those we disagree with?
Seeing shades of gray doesn’t mean we avoid taking a stand, or that we don’t vigorously defend our position. But we can make fewer assumptions, and open ourselves to seeing things in less extreme terms.
5. Discounting the Positive
When we’re used to seeing the other side as bad, we’re bound to ignore instances that contradict our beliefs. If we’re a Democrat, we may deny that President Trump ever did anything helpful to our nation. If we’re Republican, we might deny that any liberal policy position potentially has merit. Our beliefs won't line up with reality when we discount the positive.
6. Mind Reading
We can’t know what other people are thinking, which is probably for the better, all things considered. But we’ll often think that we’re able to read minds—and hearts, too. We might believe that liberals hate America, or that Trump voters hate immigrants and people of color. Of course, it wouldn’t make sense to deny the truth of what a person says or does that suggests these things. But we can release some of our misplaced hatred when we stop assuming the worst possible intentions in others, based solely on how they vote.
7. Confirmation Bias
We’re all prone to strengthening our pre-existing beliefs through confirmation bias. Once we think something is true, we’re more likely to find evidence for it. If we love Ford and hate Chevrolet, we’ll notice every broken-down Chevy and miss the broken-down Fords. If we see Democrats as arrogant elitists, we’ll see everything they do through that biased filter. If we think Republicans are close-minded bigots, we’ll look for evidence that confirms our bias.
If we get all our news from a potentially biased source like CNN or Fox News, we’re strengthening our confirmation bias every time we watch it. As our preferred outlet stokes our outrage and indignation, we’ll be ever more prone to emotional reasoning. The uniformly negative coverage of the other side will make it easier to overgeneralize and think in black-or-white. And the one-sided reporting will strengthen our belief that we need to convince the other side they’re egregiously wrong.
I’m as prone to these biases as anyone else. I was raised a Republican, and grew up thinking Democrats were the devil. As a young adult, I became a Democrat, and transferred my dislike and mistrust to Republicans (even though I had recently been one). Now as an Independent, it’s still easy to fall into unhealthy ways of thinking about people who disagree with me.
And like so many of you, I’m weary of the division and hatred that underlie much of our political discourse—especially from experiencing these things in myself. How can we claim to be patriotic and yet hope that America goes downhill under Biden, or that “red states” suffer? How can we say we love America if we despise half of her people?
Retrain Your Mind
We know from CBT that we can change our beliefs and biases, even the deeply held ones.
The first step is simply noticing what our minds are telling us. Rather than accepting every thought as fact, we can recognize it as a story that the mind created—which could actually be… fake news.
Rather than assuming that everything we think about Republicans or Democrats is true, we can become curious about these beliefs. Are we absolutely sure we’re right? What’s the evidence that supports them? And this is crucial: Is there any evidence against them? Actively searching for evidence against our beliefs is the best way to counter confirmation bias.
Finally, we can ask if there’s another way of seeing a person. Is there a positive motivation that could underlie their political allegiances? Is it possible that their differing beliefs are based on reason and not stupidity? Could their intentions be as pure as our own?
When I was in college at Indiana University in Bloomington, I spoke many times with the U.S. Marine Corps recruiters who came to the student union each week. One day I complained to a captain about my liberal-minded roommate, who had expressed some anti-military sentiments. The captain was a combat veteran, and I was expecting to reach a sympathetic ear—and honestly, probably hoping to score some points with him.
If he’d shaken his head in disgust and made a derogatory comment, I probably wouldn’t have remembered the exchange. Instead, he said this: “Marines died defending your roommate’s right to say those things. We protect the rights of everyone, even those we disagree with.”
I hope to embody more of that officer’s wisdom and grace toward those of a different political stripe. Examining our mind’s assumptions is a good place to start.
Gillihan, S. J. (2018). Cognitive behavioral therapy made simple. Berkeley, CA: Althea Press.