(This is a follow-up to our post on the Bias from Liking/Loving, which you can find here.)
Think of a cat snarling and spitting, lashing with its tail and standing with its back curved. Her pulse is elevated, blood vessels constricted and muscles tense. This reaction may sound familiar, because everyone has experienced the same tensed-up feeling of rage at least once in their lives.
When rage is directed towards an external object, it becomes hate. Just as we learn to love certain things or people, we learn to hate others.
There are several cognitive processes that awaken the hate within us and most of them stem from our need for self-protection.
We tend to dislike people who dislike us (and, true to Newton, with equal strength.) The more we perceive they hate us, the more we hate them.
A lot of hate comes from scarcity and competition. Whenever we compete for resources, our own mistakes can mean good fortune for others. In these cases, we affirm our own standing and preserve our self-esteem by blaming others.
Robert Cialdini explains that because of the competitive environment in American classrooms, school desegregation may increase the tension between children of different races instead of decreasing it. Imagine being a secondary school child:
If you knew the right answer and the teacher called on someone else, you probably hoped that he or she would make a mistake so that you would have a chance to display your knowledge. If you were called on and failed, or if you didn’t even raise your hand to compete, you probably envied and resented your classmates who knew the answer.
At first we are merely annoyed. But then as the situation fails to improve and our frustration grows, we are slowly drawn into false attributions and hate. We keep blaming and associating “the others” who are doing better with the loss and scarcity we are experiencing (or perceive we are experiencing). That is one way our emotional frustration boils into hate.
Us vs. Them
The ability to separate friends from enemies has been critical for our safety and survival. Because mistaking the two can be deadly, our mental processes have evolved to quickly spot potential threats and react accordingly. We are constantly feeding information about others into our “people information lexicon” that forms not only our view of individuals, whom we must decide how to act around, but entire classes of people, as we average out that information.
To shortcut our reactions, we classify narrowly and think in dichotomies: right or wrong, good or bad, heroes or villains. (The type of Grey Thinking we espouse is almost certainly unnatural, but, then again, so is a good golf swing.) Since most of us are merely average at everything we do, even superficial and small differences, such as race or religious affiliation, can become an important source of identification. We are, after all, creatures who seek to belong to groups above all else.
Seeing ourselves as part of a special, different and, in its own way, superior group, decreases our willingness to empathize with the other side. This works both ways – the hostility towards the others also increases the solidarity of the group. In extreme cases, we are so drawn towards the inside view that we create a strong picture of the enemy that has little to do with reality or our initial perceptions.
From Compassion to Hate
We think of ourselves as compassionate, empathetic and cooperative. So why do we learn to hate?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that we think of ourselves in a specific way. If we cannot reach a consensus, then the other side, which is in some way different from us, must necessarily be uncooperative for our assumptions about our own qualities to hold true.
Our inability to examine the situation from all sides and shake our beliefs, together with self-justifying behavior, can lead us to conclude that others are the problem. Such asymmetric views, amplified by strong perceived differences, often fuel hate.
What started off as odd or difficult to understand, has quickly turned into unholy.
If the situation is characterized by competition, we may also see ourselves as a victim. The others, who abuse our rights, take away our privileges or restrict our freedom are seen as bullies who deserve to be punished. We convince ourselves that we are doing good by doing harm to those who threaten to cross the line.
This is understandable. In critical times our survival indeed may depend on our ability to quickly spot and neutralize dangers. The cost of a false positive – mistaking a friend for a foe – is much lower than the potentially fatal false negative of mistaking our adversaries for innocent allies. As a result, it is safest to assume that anything we are not familiar with is dangerous by default. Natural selection, by its nature, “keeps what works,” and this tendency towards distrust of the unfamiliar probably survived in that way.
The Displays of Hate
Physical and psychological pain is very mobilizing. We despise foods that make us nauseous and people that have hurt us. Because we are scared to suffer, we end up either avoiding or destroying the “enemy”, which is why revenge can be pursued with such vengeance. In short, hate is a defense against enduring pain repeatedly.
There are several ways that the bias for disliking and hating display themselves to the outer world. The most obvious of them is war, which seems to have been more or less prevalent throughout the history of mankind.
This would lead us to think that war may well be unavoidable. In his famous talk, The Psychology of Human Misjudgment, Charlie Munger offers the more moderate opinion that while hatred and dislike cannot be avoided, the instances of war can be minimized by channeling our hate and fear into less destructive behaviors. (A good political system allows for dissent and disagreement without explosions of blood upheaval.)
Even with the spread of religion, and the advent of advanced civilization, modern war remains pretty savage. But we also get what we observe in present-day Switzerland and the United States, wherein the clever political arrangements of man “channel” the hatreds and dislikings of individuals and groups into nonlethal patterns including elections.
But these dislikings and hatreds that are arguably inherent to our nature never go away completely and transcend themselves into politics. Think of the dichotomies. There is the left versus the right wing, the nationalists versus the communists and libertarians vs. authoritarians. This might be the reason why there are maxims like: “Politics is the art of marshaling hatreds.”
Finally, as we move away from politics, arguably the most sophisticated and civilized way of channeling hatred is litigation. Charlie Munger attributes the following words to Warren Buffett:
“A major difference between rich and poor people is that the rich people can spend their lives suing their relatives.”
While most of us reflect on our memories of growing up with our siblings with fondness, there are cases where the competition for shared attention or resources breeds hatred. If the siblings can afford it, they will sometimes litigate endlessly to lay claims over their parents’ property or attention.
Under the Influence of Bias
There are several ways that bias from hating can interfere with our normal judgement and lead to suboptimal decisions.
Ignoring Virtues of The Other Side
Michael Faraday was once asked after a lecture whether he implied that a hated academic rival was always wrong. His reply was short and firm “He’s not that consistent.” Faraday must have recognized the bias from hating and corrected for it with the witty comment.
What we should recognize here is that no situation is ever black or white. We all have our virtues and we all have our weaknesses. However, when possessed by the strong emotions of hate, our perceptions can be distorted to the extent that we fail to recognize any good in the opponent at all. This is driven by consistency bias, which motivates us to form a coherent (“she is all-round bad”) opinion of ourselves and others.
Association Fueled Hate
The principle of association goes that the nature of the news tends to infect the teller. This means that the worse the experience, the worse the impression of anything related to it.
Association is why we blame the messenger who tells us something that we don’t want to hear even when they didn’t cause the bad news. (Of course, this creates an incentive not to speak the truth and avoid giving bad news.)
A classic example is an unfortunate and confused weatherman, who receives hate mail, whenever it rains. One went so far as to seek advice from the Arizona State professor of psychology, Robert Cialdini, whose work we have discussed before.
Cialdini explained to him that in light of the destinies of other messengers, he was born lucky. Rain might ruin someone’s holiday plans, but it will rarely change the destiny of a nation, which was the case of Persian war messengers. Delivering good news meant a feast, whereas delivering bad news resulted in their death.
The weatherman left Cialdini’s office with a sense of privilege and relief.
“Doc,” he said on his way out, “I feel a lot better about my job now. I mean, I’m in Phoenix where the sun shines 300 days a year, right? Thank God I don’t do the weather in Buffalo.”
Under the influence of liking or disliking bias, we tend to fill gaps in our knowledge by building our conclusions on assumptions, which are based on very little evidence.
Imagine you meet a woman at a party and find her to be a self-centered, unpleasant conversation partner. Now her name comes up as someone who could be asked to contribute to a charity. How likely do you feel it is that she will give to the charity?
In reality, you have no useful knowledge, because there is little to nothing that should make you believe that people who are self-centered are not also generous contributors to charity. The two are unrelated, yet because of the well-known fundamental attribution error, we often assume one is correlated to the other.
By association, you are likely to believe that this woman is not likely to be generous towards charities despite lack of any evidence. And because now you also believe she is stingy and ungenerous, you probably dislike her even more.
This is just an innocent example, but the larger effects of such distortions can be so extreme that they lead to a major miscognition. Each side literally believes that every single bad attribute or crime is attributable to the opponent.
Charlie Munger explains this with a relatively recent example:
When the World Trade Center was destroyed, many Pakistanis immediately concluded that the Hindus did it, while many Muslims concluded that the Jews did it. Such factual distortions often make mediation between opponents locked in hatred either difficult or impossible. Mediations between Israelis and Palestinians are difficult because facts in one side’s history overlap very little with facts from the other side’s. These distortions and the overarching mistrust might be why some conflicts seem to never end.
Avoiding Being Hated
To varying degrees, we value acceptance and affirmation from others. Very few of us wake up wanting to be disliked or rejected. Social approval, at its heart the cause of social influence, shapes behavior and contributes to conformity. Francois VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld wrote: “We only confess our little faults to persuade people that we have no big ones.”
Remember the old adage, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” This is why we don’t openly speak the truth or question people, we don’t want to be the nail.
How do we resolve hate?
It is only normal that we can find more common ground with some people than with others. But are we really destined to fall into the traps of hate or is there a way to take hold of these biases?
That’s a question worth over a hundred million lives. There are ways that psychologists think that we can minimize prejudice against others.
Firstly, we can engage with others in sustained close contact to breed our familiarity. The contact must not only be prolonged, but also positive and cooperative in nature – either working towards a common cause or against a common enemy.
Secondly, we also reduce prejudice by attaining equal status in all aspects, including education, income and legal rights. This effect is further reinforced, when equality is supported not only “on paper”, but also ingrained within broader social norms.
And finally the obvious – we should practice awareness of our own emotions and ability to hold back on the temptations to dismiss others. Whenever confronted with strong feelings it might simply be best to sit back, breathe and do our best to eliminate the distorted thinking.