How we lost the ability to evaluate two seemingly contradicting facts at the same time–and why it could mean the end of empathy



Recent events on a global scale have shown us many things, most notably that there is a great deal of division as the sound of competing narratives echoes across the world. At one point or another, we have all been in the position of sitting, scratching our heads, and wondering how people can be so decided about everything, and with such wildly different opinions. Meanwhile, we wonder how can everyone who has a wildly different opinion be so convinced that they are right. How can everyone be right, and where is the truth?

Usually, truth sits somewhere in the middle. However, it’s becoming increasingly hard for each of us to reach the point of self-questioning and self-reflecting from which we can then come to a middle ground.

Why does this happen?

In situations with a high degree of division, conviction precedes empathy. Our first response to a situation that is presented in a polarizing format is usually not to try to empathize with the other side–it’s to double down on our pre-existing beliefs. And why should we listen to someone else’s experience? We want people to hear our own.

It becomes hard for us to hear and consider different perspectives when we are flooded with emotions in response to a situation. Our narratives around a situation feel personal because it is our objective reality that is called into question, so we withhold from questioning them.

To make it more complex, polarity complicates simple things. Society’s structures (governmental, societal, social) feed off of polarity and our egos naturally thrive off of conviction. We like to be right. We’re scared to be wrong. And it’s wrong to change your opinion.

Conviction allows us to tell ourselves, and others, how strongly we believe we are right. We live in a society that encourages us to have conviction and voice it loudly. Seemingly, the louder we voice our opinions, the more we believe them. And once we’ve voiced them, we’re no longer given the space to change them. If we voice them and change our minds later, we still risk being called out for what we once believed, which pigeonholes us into underdeveloped ideas and stunted growth.

Where does polarity stem from?

Polarizing narratives are fed to us naturally–not only in politics, but also in areas such as sports, marketing, music, and mainstream media. We create meaning around the world by having a clear depiction of what things mean.

Polarity resonates with the human brain because polarizing narratives feed our neurotransmitters and hijack our nervous system. Much like social media that feeds our hard-wired desire to receive attention, love, and acceptance, polarizing narratives release dopamine–which is why we have such intense emotional reactions to them.

Not only is polarization (combined with conviction) unproductive for society and individuals, but it is also counterproductive for problem-solving.

A key theme listed in multiple books detailing “the secret to happiness” is “don’t watch the news.” This is obviously not realistic advice.

Tuning out the world can become selective avoidance. It can actually reinforce our existing beliefs because we will most likely consciously or subconsciously choose to engage with the topics that we care most about when we inevitably decide to engage with current events.

Instead, we must a critical analysis approach to exploring polarity, division, and how we can lean into, rather than tune out, various perspectives in order to formulate the most cohesive perspective.

Multiple points of truth

Multiple points of truth in any given situation is a fact of life. Fundamentally, there is truth to each perspective depending on where we are seeing the object or issue in question from. Our perspectives are heavily influenced by our life experiences. And two people can experience the same thing, but experience it in different ways, depending on factors such as the stage of their psychological development and the age at which they experienced it. None of their beliefs formed from their realities would be wrong–they would just be limited to the confines of their own personal experiences. To invalidate either stance would be invalidating the person’s reality based on where they stand.

As platforms and outlets tend to capitalize on these differences in opinions to drive up readership and engagement, people are encouraged not to question other realities that may exist, preventing us from understanding the myriad of perspectives one could have around a single topic. Coupled with our reasonable distrust in media and government, as well as our individual desires to be right, to be heard, and to have our personal experiences validated, we might take solace in taking sides because feeling that having a community of others who sympathize or fundamentally agree with us somehow makes our experiences more valid.

In the most extreme of cases, we might have hyper-complex sets of life experiences that further complicate our narrative of the world. We might not even fully understand why we believe what we believe. More often than not, it’s because we formed a way of reasoning and a mental model based on an experience–and an assumption or conclusion that we drew from that experience.

How do we assess whose truth is real?

Empathy is our capacity to extract ourselves from our own beliefs and feelings–and understand why another individual may have theirs. It is our ability to show compassion for others, even when we may not fully understand the situation or the nuances of their experiences. To be able to question our own perspectives, we need to suspend our judgments and projections onto others and take a stance of inquiry rather than an assumptive stance around a given situation.

In a situation that is heavily polarizing, the ability to suspend our judgments is key. Judgment and compassion do not coexist.

We must recognize what we ascribe to as fact, and what we ascribe to based on an assumption, in our own stance. Then, we must try to find out what the facts and assumptions of the other side are.

Then it’s time to revisit the facts of our own stance: Graphs are selective sample sizes that are not representative of the broader picture. Often, history is told by the victor, not the oppressed. Often, there is a bias lean (as we are all prone to bias) in even the most thoughtfully architected analyses of events.

Finally, we must learn to evaluate contradicting facts without considering them as mutually exclusive. Instead of assuming only one thing can be true, I can assume two counter-intuitive truths.

We often repeat history–in our personal development, professional careers, and in real-world environments–in cycles as we iteratively evolve to a new approach.

While we think we know what would happen if we had approached something differently in a retroactive evaluation, the truth is there is no guarantee that our predicted alternate reality would have ever materialized–there are numerous other factors that we will never know about.

We love to criticize others as if we would make a better decision than they would–but we never really know how we would respond in the moment if we’re not the ones making the decision. We theorize, but research shows most people don’t do what they theorize they would do when push comes to shove.

Instead of adopting a hyper-simplified approach, we must take a counter-intuitive approach and assume there can be multiple realities that are true. This is how empathy works in a real-life setting. By taking a counter-intuitive approach to a topic, and recognizing that we can hold multiple points of truth, we can empathize with another person who is affected by the topic regardless of which side of the topic they are on. And if we all took this approach, there would not be sides to begin with.

It is often said that most people fundamentally agree on core values–but disagree on the best approach. The application of the set of answers that come from this form of reasoning will lead to a differentiated set of solutions across work, our personal lives, and how we evaluate current events.

By encouraging ourselves to take dynamic stances, we will form a new, expanded set of answers to problems we see in the world, which in itself is a massive step.

When we feel like we can do nothing in the world, or we have very little influence, encouraging ourselves to think in new ways has compounding effects. If each of us does it, we collectively will iterate faster towards solutions that we can all agree on.

Morgan Mercer is an entrepreneur, lecturer, and investor.

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The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.



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