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Why we cannot agree on anything

  • Reading time:6 mins read

Because we are dancing apart


Summary: listen to the other person’s unconscious rhythm if you want your dance together to move from fight to discussion


The world is full of disagreement. Everywhere you look people are fighting over their opinions. The Internet has become a minefield of trolls and flame-wars. No matter what you say, it seems there are people holding the complete opposite view who have apparently infinite time and dedication to contradict you.

But it’s not just the Internet. Face to face conversations are become more and more difficult. We seem to be growing more and more divided. People find themselves on opposite sides of various topics with friends, family, co-workers.

This is not new. People have had disagreements since forever. What is clearly new is the volume and diversity of information. Each of us consumes different information and thus forms different opinions. This is a (good) consequence of freedom.

However, we not only have more opinions, we appear less able to discuss them. Any little disagreement is full of tension. Each of us appears to be emotionally invested in every little thing. And we appear to have an inability to discuss it openly.

In short, any disagreement turns into a (mostly verbal) fight instead of a debate.

Why? Because we don’t actually discuss the real issues, we talk about proxies. The real issues are unconscious. They are what form our superficial conscious opinions. Then we discuss the conscious opinions, but without going into the real unconscious beliefs.

To understand, let’s see why our behaviour, and beliefs, are unconscious.


Unconscious model of the world

Many consider Daniel Kahneman the father of Behavioural Economics. He won the Nobel prize for his findings from research. They are in his book Thinking Fast and Slow https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11468377-thinking-fast-and-slow where he proves we don’t consciously decide our behaviour. The sprawling fields of Behavioural Sciences have continued his work. They explore how our behaviour differs from our assumptions of conscious decisions.

What has Daniel Kahneman discovered? Over 95% of human behaviour is neither conscious, nor intentional or rational. Over 95% of human behaviour is unconscious, intuitive and (apparently) irrational. It happens with us being consciously involved, or even aware of the process.

Daniel Kahneman describes two types of decision making: System 1 and System 2.

System 1 and System 2 illustration

System 2

System 2 is conscious, rational, deliberate. It makes decisions by weighting options and thinking of consequences. It is slow, difficult and indecisive. This makes it impractical for most day-to-day decisions. It is cognitively demanding. Your brain’s need to conserve energy minimizes how often you use System 2. In consequence only 5% of our behaviour comes from System 2 decisions.

These are the big decisions where you make lists of pros and cons, research the topic deeply and evaluate many potential options. Decisions where System 2 is more likely to be involved are things like buying your first home, complex work tasks, big expensive purchases. System 2 is also more involved the first time you make a decision, that then becomes frequent. The first time you buy a refrigerator, the first time you play a game, the period when you learn the basics for a new skill.

If I ask you to find the result of 19 x 37 , then you will use System 2 thinking. You will recall the rules of multiplication and the procedure to multiply numbers over 10. You will slowly go through each step in your mind, to arrive at the result. It will feel difficult. Someone watching you closely will see evidence of physical effort: your muscles tense, your blood pressure increases, your heart beats faster.

System 2 uses willful attention to perform difficult mental activities. It is associated with feeling agency, choice, and concentration. It’s a conscious process where you feel you choose the outcome (and work for it).

System 1

The rest of 95% of behaviour comes from System 1. This is unconscious, associative and instantaneous. It consists of split-second decisions that appear thoughtless. Most of the time you don’t even know the real reasons for your decisions if asked about them.

System 1 operates automatically and quickly. There is little or no effort. And you do not feel voluntary control. System 1 decision can be described as ‘It happened’ while System 2 feels like ‘I made it happen’ or ‘I chose’.

Any repeated decision will be mostly System 1. Most of your daily behaviour is System 1. The decision to go on Instagram or take a walk, to get something to eat, to take a break, how you talk to the people around, and so on. The overwhelming majority of your purchases are System 1 decisions. I wrote an article about how advertising works because it influences System 1 through sheer visibility. [need link] Even big life decisions are System 1 to a large degree.

A common example used to demonstrate the two systems is the following puzzle: A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

In the face of this puzzle, most people instantly guess 10 cents. The correct answer is 5 cents. Most people can work this out after spending more time thinking about the question, and engaging their System 2. For years, this has been used as a perfect example of the two types of mental processes: fast and intuitive System 1, versus slow and analytical System 2.


Understanding disagreement

When two people disagree on a subject, they have a logical debate. Yet they often cannot reach an agreement. 

Why? Because the disagreement is at a System 1 level. They have contradictory deep beliefs. Their System 2 debate does not touch these beliefs. Rather it’s a cognitive dance to find rational arguments for their unconscious associations.

Each of them might make wonderful complex arguments. But they still do not meet. They are like two people dancing to different tunes. No matter how great each dances, they are not dancing together.


Transforming disagreement into discussion

Dance together instead of apart.

When you have a disagreement with someone and the discussion is transforming into a fight, take a moment to pause. Think about what might be your underlying beliefs behind your argument. Ask yourself: ‘Why do I believe this?”. Ask it three times to get deeper and deeper.

When you find the hidden belief, express it to the other person. Do it in a manner that is as non-conflictual as possible because it is almost sure to be an emotionally loaded subject.

Ask their opinion on the matter. Try to figure out together how this belief led to your argument. 

You might discover you have started dancing together rather than apart.

Is this a magical bullet? No. The discussion might still turn into a fight. The other person might reject the offer of discussion. But in some cases it might just work enough to create empathy instead of loneliness.