I settled happily into my seat on American Airline flight 922 from La Paz to Miami: it had been delayed for 13-hours and we were ready to get going. Sitting in the window seat was a well-built young man wearing a bright yellow FIFA football top. Buckled and upright we began a round of formal chat of the ‘where we’d been and what we’d been doing’ style. Adam was a Pastor’s son from Indianapolis, Indiana and had been visiting his Bolivian girlfriend’s family in Santa Cruz in the eastern side of the country. Yasmin, pretty in the picture on his cellphone, was on another flight back to the US and her college where she was taking a degree in music. She and Adam had met at his church 3-years previously when she came with a choir to sing there.
Our chat drifted on to the subject of the forthcoming American election. Adam was staunchly on the side of Donald Trump, the Republican party’s presidential nominee, saying how he really had America’s best interests at heart. I asked about the immigration issue that featured so strongly as part of Trump’s electoral rantings. Adam was crystal clear on this matter, the millions of immigrants who had entered illegally should be fined, made to pay taxes and many of them should be sent home.
“They’re coming into our country illegally and taking our jobs,” he said, “I have to abide by the laws, so should they”.
I pointed out that Native American Indians could say the same thing about the takeover of their country.
‘That was then and this is now’ replied Adam, “there weren’t any laws back then”.
“There were the Indians laws”, I countered.
The Pastor’s son then launched into a biblical ramble about a character called Cyrus who back in antiquity had rescued the Israelites from the Persians. He soon lost his thread, tailing off with a “I can’t quite remember the sum of it”. That in many ways was indicative of our entire conversation. A young man’s garbled regurgitation of news that was itself a miss-mash of out of context statistics and over-sensational sound bites. Adam’s enthusiasm for Trump was all-encompassing and forgiving. The Donald would not enact strong anti-gun legislation (Adam’s family owned around 25 guns and rifles, some semi-automatic, and this was of huge importance and embedded in the bedrock of the constitution); Trump was a great entrepreneur; although not a diehard bible thumper he had the right values; he was anti-abortion; he was a heterosexual; he would rid America of all undesirables. To each statement I supplied a rational alternative response but none seemed to stick or be evaluated.
As these exchanges wore on I began to feel as though I was sinking in a conversational quicksand of a type that perfectly illustrated one of humanity’s quintessential flaws, our tendency to construct our beliefs based on insufficient knowledge and understanding, then to cling to them blindly, rejecting all evidence to the opposite.
In this sense, our “thoughts” are not based on true reflection but on crippling cognitive shortcuts, often borrowed from society rather than arrived at by our own methods. Such thoughts grow up unconsciously and without reference to the attainment of correct belief. From obscure sources and by unnoticed channels they insinuate themselves into acceptance and become unconsciously a part of our mental furniture. Tradition, instruction, imitation — all of which depend upon authority in some form, or appeal to our own advantage, or fall in with a strong passion — are responsible for them. Such thoughts are prejudices, that is, prejudgments, not judgments proper that rest upon a survey of evidence.
This type of thinking then leads to a condition known as ‘the backfire effect’ whereby once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead. Over time, the backfire effect makes you less skeptical of those things that allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.
As a final salvo I returned to the issue of immigration and the obtaining of a green card for Yasmin. Adam had told me earlier how much paperwork was involved and that it would cost $1,500 if done themselves with an additional $2,000 if a solicitor was involved.
“What if Trump is elected president and changes immigration laws and makes it even more difficult or impossible for Yasmin to stay in the US?” I asked.
Adam did not reply immediately but turned to look out of the aircraft window into the darkness.
“Well, whatever happens, it’s all in God’s hands”, said the Pastor’s son ending the electoral exchange.