Maya Jasanoff reminds us of the time when anarchists terrorized Europe. The reaction to these acts of terrorism fit a familiar pattern: in response to fear we turn against the Other (immigrants, foreigners, minorities, etc.). The period examined by Jasanoff fits into this pattern, as she notes, “then as now, migrants and civil liberties paid the price.”
While history never repeats itself exactly, there are discernible patterns of human behavior that are instructive and this is one of them. To Jasanoff’s example we could add many others. Unfortunately, the knowledge gleaned from the past is by itself not enough to bring about change. The barrier to making this knowledge useful, as I see it, is also rooted in human behavior. To overcome this barrier we need to turn to psychology.
Here is just a few of the psychological barriers that prevent us from acting rationally:
- the irrational knee-jerk reaction in the face or fear that prevents us from acting or thinking rationally.
- the mismatch between the perception of threat and the actual threat. For example, the actual fear of terrorism does not match the slim probability of being killed by an act of terrorism.
- the tendency to scapegoat those who are different from us even when the evidence clearly doesn’t warrant it.
- the tendency to reject claims that are contrary to one’s intuition, ideology, or preferred positions, rather than on the basis of reason and evidence.
- the tendency to seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs and ignoring evidence to the contrary (confirmation bias).
- our irrational response to cognitive dissonance (the discomfort we feel when we are confronted with two inconsistent beliefs). For example, when an anti-vaxer is confronted with the evidence that are putting kids at risk pits the belief that they are a smart and responsible parent against the claim that they are not. To reduce the dissonance we could change our behavior or our beliefs, but more often than not we find a way to either ignore the claim or rationalize it away.
And of course, we need an educated population with the skills and desire to do the hard work to have informed opinions.
Read the informative article on anarchists here: The First Global Terrorists Were Anarchists in the 1890s – The New York Times