Political disagreements take a predictable form. When the White House traded for Bowe Bergdahl’s release, for instance, conservatives decried National Security Adviser Susan Rice as mindless (“She appears to have again repeated whatever crude, poorly informed talking points were put in front of her”) and President Obama as “irrational, erratic and perhaps not exactly what we might want to deem sane.” Liberals painted the conservative responses as ignorant and lacking in empathy. Another example is Thomas Piketty’s claims about income inequality to climate change. His champions who believe in rising income inequality and his detractors who see little cause for concern both say the other side is biased. Climate change believers and skeptics alike see their opponents as mistaken and lacking in basic analytical skills.
The arguments here, such as they are, rarely grapple with the interlocutor’s alternate view of reality, let alone the merits of the point. Rather, they center on the other side’s deficient mental capacity, and all the ways that “you” are less reflective, less rational, less empathic and more biased than “I” (or “we”). In other words, we see our opponents’ minds — their capacity for reason, emotion, thought and desire — as less sophisticated than our own minds, a phenomenon my colleagues and I have termed the lesser minds problem.
Whereas the “other minds problem,” a centuries-old philosophical question asking how one can be confident that other people have minds at all, poses no real problem (we readily intuit others’ mental states), the lesser minds problem is far more tenacious. There’s a simple psychological reason for this, which is that we experience our own minds firsthand, but can only experience others’ minds through others’ reports, our own analogical reasoning, or imperfect attempts at perspective-taking. Thus, our own minds appear brightly illuminated; they reveal their full depth, complexity, and intensity. Other minds, by contrast, appear inherently dimmer. Just as philosopher Thomas Nagel noted that no human could experience what it is like to be a bat (and Chuang Tzu suggested the same about a fish), no human can truly experience the mind of another human being.
Psychological research shows that in virtually every way, we assume that the minds of our peers are less rich than our own minds. For example, in one study, people reported strong reluctance to engage in a public mime performance because of intense embarrassment, but did not consider the emotional depth of others’ embarrassment and assumed others would be happy to perform. Another study showed that people report having considerable agency over their future choices, but also report believing their co-workers and peers to have more limited free will. A third study asked Citibank employees about their motivations and their co-workers motivations, revealing that people believe others are animated by simple desires (e.g., money) whereas they are animated by more complex desires (e.g., developing new skills). Embarrassment, free will and desire are only a few of the mental states that we believe that we experience more intensely than others. Given that this problem pervades even our daily lives, the lesser minds problem only intensifies when we encounter minds across the ideological divide that seem so different from our own. The minds of our peers may seem lesser, but the minds of our political opponents seem downright moronic.
The lesser minds problem makes it hard to crawl from the ideological muck, because it dictates the tactics we use to promote our own side’s point of view. If we believe our political opponents are as rational, thoughtful and empathic as we are, then we are likely to pursue political compromise through rational debate, civil discussion and collaborative analysis of the facts. But if we think our opponents are mindless, then it makes sense to forgo civility and push our opinions across the table with brute force and discount any counterarguments as rooted in irrational bias rather than objectivity. If I believe that I think more thoughtfully than you and feel more deeply than you, then it makes little sense for me to try to reason with you, much less listen to what you have to say.
Given the psychological impossibility of experiencing another person’s mind firsthand, how do we overcome these barriers? Step one is to recognize that it is a universal affliction, one that stems not from irrational hatred or stupidity, but rather from basic human tendencies to “see” what is apparent (our own minds) and fail to see what is invisible (other minds). Disagreements will come to look less like vitriolic and uninformed partisanship and more like alternate interpretations of reality. This suggestion to disavow oneself from beliefs of mental superiority is preached often, but rarely practiced. Bridging the gap between our own minds and other minds requires colossal efforts of deliberation, humility and cooperation, but recognizing why this gap exists to begin with can help start us on our way.
Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed a thought experiment to the wrong Chinese philosopher. The thinker was Chuang Tzu. The story has been corrected.