Our brain has a feature that makes us less tolerant and open

A representational image of a human brain | David Paul Morris/The Brain Observatory/Bloomberg

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Enter any of the following words into your browser’s search bar: progressive, liberal, conservative, evangelical, right wing, gay, straight, Muslim, Republican or Democrat. Do you notice that other terms that the algorithms think are related appear automatically?

Where you have paused — maybe to think more or to press the Enter key — autocomplete has stepped in to finish what you started.

Similarly, when we think of those political terms, the brain kicks in too. And, like autocomplete, it completes our thoughts — and not always for the better. The hostilities in our civic discourse are often exacerbated by this feature of our cognition. We live in an era of extreme political and social polarization: this autocomplete instinct undermines the possibility of effective deliberative democracy.

‘Lazy’ reasoning

Recent scholarship on human cognition demonstrates that we have evolved to be both biased and lazy reasoners. According to cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, we become “[b]iased because human reason overwhelmingly finds justifications and arguments that support the reasoner’s point of view, lazy because reason makes little effort to assess the quality of the justifications and arguments it produces.” We have evolved shortcuts that allow us to assess situations quickly and act accordingly.

These shortcuts allow for efficiencies that make life workable. When applied to our social and civic lives, this often contributes to polarization. As cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach argue in The Knowlege Illusion, “[i]nstead of appreciating complexity, people tend to affiliate with one or another social dogma.”

Also read: It’s time to change the way we tell the story of humans. Count your neurons, not just blessings

Response anxiety

I grew up having lively political debates with my parents around our dinner table. Since then, I’ve been ready, willing and able to jump into the fray of civic discourse in almost any context with very little prompting. Recently, however, I have become anxious and often just keep my mouth shut.

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