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Beyond the Twitter clean up: what I’ve learned about human beings and what that should mean for our public debates

Beyond the Twitter clean up: what I’ve learned about human beings and what that should mean for our public debates

Elizabeth Oldfield looks at social media, tribalism and our limitations as rational actors.

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This week the CEO of Twitter announced it would take action to help make our public conversations more healthy. Jack Dorsey admitted that the platform was hosting toxic engagement in “increasingly divisive echo chambers”. 

Further details of what this means in practice are yet to emerge. It is a laudable and overdue move. Increasingly, our public conversations are happening in digital forms, in particular on social media, and paying attention to how that environment frames and shapes them is vital. 

However, the platform can only control so much, if the underlying ideas about human beings are wrong, and if we collectively lack the skills to engage healthily. 

I live in the world of ideas. My background is in factual programme making at the BBC, including on The Moral Maze, and I now run a religion think tank. Facts and arguments, graphs and theories are the official currency of academia, journalism, policy and politics, and by extension, our public debates. It’s an economy in which, we are taught, evidence wins and logic reigns. 

Except it doesn’t. 

Everywhere I engage with our big, neuralgic issues – whether they are our national identity, how we distribute resources, immigration, rights and obligations at the beginning and end of life, race, gender or anything else painful – I come across a disconnect between how human beings really are and how we are trying to engage. 

Part of the problem is that our model for why we believe what we believe and how we change our minds is outdated. Rational actor theory underpinned much economic and social thought in the 20th century. This model painted a picture of human beings as rational self–optimising individuals making broadly utilitarian choices to maximise their pleasure and minimise their pain. Homo Economicus, as people in this model are sometimes called, presented with better evidence and clear arguments, would make better and different choices. Rational Actor Theory was never intended to be anything but a helpful economic model, but the dominance of market logic means it’s filtered into a broader sense of idealistic individualism. It’s a very attractive picture of ourselves – coolheaded, reasonable, enlightened and clear sighted. Not swayed by peer pressure or beholden to irrational emotions, but charting our own course. Unfortunately, it is also almost completely false. 

The academic consensus now offers a very different picture. Jonathan Haidt has written about the rational brain as like a rider on an elephant, thinking it is in control but in fact providing justifications for where the emotional mind already wanted to go. Our feelings of disgust, fear, anger, pride or attraction kick in faster, deeper and more enduringly in our decision–making than the rational reasons we are consciously aware of. 

Joshua Green in his book Moral Tribes unpacks why we are fundamentally social creatures; interdependent persons, not independent individuals. We long to belong, which sadly often makes us also ‘us and them’ creatures, wired to detect, and defend against, difference. Evidence and arguments coming from people who feel like “one of us” will be filtered and understood entirely differently from the same evidence and arguments presented by someone who feels like “one of them”. We are all biased. We are all to a greater or lesser extent ego driven, scanning the world like Narcissus’ pool for glimpses of our own reflection.   

Any PR person will tell you that we are also narratively driven creatures – motivated much more by story than by data. Neuroscience is also exploring just how automatic and habitual we are – making big and small decisions and judgements based on past experiences to save on cognitive capacity. And behavioural psychology adds every day to the list of the cognitive biases that hinder our ability to make purely rational decisions. 

None of this will sound new to those interested in theological anthropology. Religious understandings of what human beings are like have never really been close to Homo Economicus. The Christian tradition, for example, takes seriously human beings’ capacity for self–delusion, self–aggrandisement and self–righteousness (sin) and our fundamentally connected, community craving nature because humans are made in the image of a trinitarian God. Christianity teaches radical scepticism towards ourselves, and values truth arrived at in community and through story alongside individual human reason. You don’t need to sign up to the doctrinal roots however to recognise why a more humble, if less inspiring, vision of human nature should change how we interact with each other when we disagree. What is clear is that our current tendency to shout statistics, and failing that insults, across the chasm of our tribal allegiances is unlikely to get us anywhere. 

I’ve spent five years connecting with people across divides of belief and unbelief, trying to apply these insights about human nature to help us have better disagreements. I’m currently exploring them through Theos’s new podcast The Sacred, and hearing from those much more experienced than I. These are the things that I’ve learned so far: 

  • Connect before you correct 

This is actually an adage from parenting books. Apparently there is an old youth worker version that goes “people won’t care what you know until they know that you care”. When you express contempt, derision or proud ignorance of people who disagree with you, you are demonstrating that you don’t really want to persuade them. You are simply playing to your base and making yourself feel better. Much of what passes for public engagement is in actual fact shoring up our existing tribal identities rather than trying to solve problems. 

On the other hand, if you begin with empathy and seek to build trust, you can have constructive conversations with people from tribes very different to your own. 

  • Recognise and manage your own emotions, and those of others 

I am more and more convinced that our bodies react to intellectual threats to our sense of self or our tribe in a very similar way they do to physical danger. When faced with a threat, our bodies release cortisol – a reaction commonly known as ‘fight or flight’. When faced with people who disagree with us, our reactions often map onto those two options – withdrawing into our filter bubbles to avoid encountering difference, or lashing out with withering insults. Cortisol inhibits the ability of the brain to process information rationally and makes everyone look like the enemy. It takes an enormous amount of self–control to recognise that threat response, and that self–righteous anger is attractive because it feels safer than fear and anxiety in an unstable world. Letting that first stress response wear off before trying to process information or attempting to respond helps a lot. 

Recognising this fight or flight reaction also helps me have patience with others. Quite often, without knowing much about me, my very presence as a Christian can provoke a threat reaction in people. Perhaps they have painful history with the church. Perhaps they are gay and assume I will be hostile to them. Perhaps the very concept of God feels undermining to their individual autonomy. Either way, when people get angry with me for my beliefs, it helps to remember the emotional firestorm going on inside and give it time to wear off without reacting defensively. 

  • Reflect on what you hold sacred, and develop curiosity about it in others. 

In The Sacred podcast, I ask everyone about their sacred values. I mean by that not necessarily something religious but instead the principles that we hold most dear. We are often only semiconscious of these. Sociologist Gordon Lynch defines the sacred as “what people take to be the absolute realities that insert profound moral claim over their lives”.  Anthropologist Scott Attran defined sacred values as something that if someone offered you money to give it up you would feel insulted. For Attran, understanding the intractable nature of the Israel/Palestine conflict starts with recognising that the land is sacred – not something to be bought or sold. No evidence of harm or benefit can loosen people’s attachment to the things they hold sacred. For others, national identity is sacred, or intellectual honesty, or justice. My assertion is that we all hold something sacred and in better understanding what that is in ourselves and others, we will have more honest and constructive conversations across difference. 

These are just starters, and we have much more to learn. One thing we definitely need to wean ourselves off, however, is the attachment to an idea of ourselves as the unique, clear thinking individual in a world gone mad, putting things right with our reason and evidence. It’s less of an ego boost to admit our limitations, but we might actually get somewhere. 


 Image from pexel available in the public domain.

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Elizabeth Oldfield

Posted 5 March 2018

Communities, Identity, Media, Tribalism


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