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I just really like this stock photo.

Practice Saying This Phrase

It’ll make you a better friend and also less of a jerk

There’s plenty of ire (outrage, one might even say) around “outrage culture,” and the near-compulsive way that those of us who stare into our pocket-sized lighted boxes seem to react to just about anything.

Much of this critique is rooted firmly in woefully misguided ageism; though it’s always young people who are used as the face of “outrage culture,” Millennials do not corner the market on knee-jerk reactions. Numerous surveys have demonstrated that it’s actually Boomers who are more likely to be distracted by their phones during mealtime and, anedoctally, having moderated the Facebook pages of numerous political candidates and campaigns, I can attest to the fact that the most reactionary, most vitriolic, and most convicted social media users are those over the age of about 55.

I digress.

There is something to the seemingly unending deluge of things we should care about, should be outraged about, should be reacting to on a daily basis. If we’re not angry about the right things, we’re somehow negligent.

And to be fair, there’s a lot to be upset about. The news feels like an unending river of unpleasant, frightening, or tragic information. It’s not necessarily that there’s more to be upset about than in previous years—Watergate was a thing, so it’s not as though shady politicking is somehow an invention of the new millennium—but instead, many of us are being exposed to more angering things, thanks to a combination of new distribution channels, citizen journalists, and lower barriers for making information available. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, and the many newly-minted class of dogmatic pundits, we’re exposed to events, snippets, and trends that likely would have passed by without our knowledge in previous eras.

This has resulted in not only a feeling of perpetual dread and anxiety, but also to a need to address it, to tamp it down, or to gain some kind of control over it. You can’t simply let the news wash over you—you have to do something.

At a time when there are any number of contentious, difficult, or divisive issues demanding our attention, one way to compartmentalize and contain these feelings is to quickly and, often uncritically, draw a conclusion and stick with it.

More simply, when confronted with a lot of information that seems important, we feel the need to gain control over the chaos by forming an unshakable, categorical opinion about literally everything, even when we have only a small amount of evidence to support it.

So here’s what I suggest, as we round into a year that looks as though it might be just as taxing as 2017 and 2016 because like, this is our new reality. Practice saying this phrase:

“I’m not really sure how I feel about that yet.”

There it is. That’s really all there is to it. And you may be surprised how hard it is to say.

Much of this is, as I’ve written before, a defense mechanism. Our brains will go to great lengths to protect us from feeling doubt or discomfort while simulateneously making it difficult to identify any cognitive dissonance that may result. Research has demonstrated that social attachments, rather than hard facts or data, have a greater influence over the formation of opinions. Opinions are formed and held more strongly during times when the subject matter is up for great debate—see: the Overton window—even if when the masses are not necessarily receiving all or even some of the information about the subject matter.

One example of this is in how consumers of the news view their role in media markets and trends.

Many, many Americans get their news on Facebook, though most (60%, according to one very small 2015 survey) don’t know how the algorithm works, or what they’re being served and why. This doesn’t stop them from drawing strong conclusions about Facebook and its operations, though.

According to one poll conducted by the Verge in October, most people don’t trust Facebook itself (57%)—however, the majority (about 75%) say they do see the news they find there to be as trustworthy if not moreso than other sources, ostensibly because they get that news from sources they’ve hand-selected, including trusted family or friends.

Under 10% said they had “no opinion” about Facebook’s veracity or bias.

Of course, this is only one example based on a handful of polling data. Plenty of people have no opinion about Facebook or the way it serves content or whether or not its news (by which I really mean, the news that friends, family, and content farms choose to share) is trustworthy.

But time and again, data show that in the United States, we tend to form opinions about complex issues based on an ideological rubric, rather than, say, our lived experience or information that comes from outside our partisan space.

Gun ownership in the United States, according to Gallup data, is a good indicator of how a person will feel about stricter gun laws. However, political party is a better indicator; Americans are more staunchly opposed to or supportive of stronger laws about gun ownership not based on their own experience with firearms, but instead, because gun laws are a partisan issue.

Similarly, most people, regardless of whether they are conservative or progressive, have a terrible understanding of the basic facts about abortion, including how frequently the procedure is formed or even what happens during an abortion. And yet, regardless of the generally low information that most Americans possess with regards to abortion, it remains one of the most polarizing issues in the United States, and one wherein most voters have drawn their conclusions based on political ideology, rather than, say, data or personal experience.

This is not to say that coming to new conclusions or forming new opinions is inherently bad. Nor would I ever encourage anyone to entertain opinions that are clearly damaging or harmful (Nazis = Bad. We’ve all got that down, right?).

However! When confronted with a new issue — something that you’ve never come across before because, say, the story has just broken — it’s perfectly acceptable to take a small amount of time to read more information, gather more evidence, and seek the counsel of others before forming an opinion.

That may mean reading dissenting opinions, waiting to see what other news may break about the subject, or even checking your initial source. Who is helping build your opinions and how much information are they giving you? What has been omitted? Why do I feel such a strong reaction to this?

If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. — Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World : Science as a Candle in the Dark

Instead of feeling compelled or even required to immediately draw a conclusion on an issue as soon as you learn about it — as soon as you see the headline, most often — try getting comfortable admitting that you’re still making up your mind on something.

This seems, on its face, extremely basic; just gather information before forming an opinion. But evidently, it isn’t that simple.

The human brain draws conclusions in a matter of seconds, based on any number of minute details, including the person delivering the information and the source. Specifically, we tend to trust pretty people more and those who echo our own worldview.

Chart showing the data found here, via the Media Insight Project

And, despite growing distrust of “the media,” consumers of news and information are overwhelming more likely to trust content that comes from their news sources than from “the media” in general. This spans the ideological spectrum, as well; news consumers on both the left and the right are more likely to immediately and uncritically trust the information they receive from news sources that they like, whether the information is factual or not.

We’re kind of hard-wired to work this quickly; taking a very long time to process information before reacting is a luxury of the modern era. Thanks to our survival-instinct brains, imagery and emotion still get the quickest response. Eye-tracking research has found that the actual written text receives less attention than the images, logos, or headlines on a website — meaning we’re forming impressions not based on content (i.e. reading the page) as much as packaging.

Forming an opinion doesn’t have to be this in-depth

The result? People may immediately like or dislike a story or subject based on the image or the news organization presenting it without actually considering their own feelings on the subject matter.

This isn’t impossible to overcome, though. The key is to notice when you’re doing it and then allow yourself more than a few minutes to form an opinion.

I think we frequently conflate being unsure or undecided with being unwilling or unable to make a decision or become sure about how we feel. We’re concerned about looking like we’re waffling, or like we don’t have strong convictions.

There’s also a drive among those who feel like the bearers of news in their social circle—the mini thought-leaders, the ones who are often out front of current events—to get to things first.

But just like the race to cover news quickly, we have to remember that speed and accuracy are frequently at odds with each other.

The race to have an opinion about a trending topic can be incriminating later on — or worse, it can actively be harmful (never forget the people who raced to decry allegations against Harvey Weinstein because he “didn’t seem like they type” or they staunchly believed in “innocent until proven guilty”).

SAY IT.

In fact, deliberating over new pieces of information proves the opposite; rather than forming an opinion and sticking to it even when it might not, at its core, be in alignment with our personal beliefs, taking some time to parse an issue is a principled and respectable approach.

By no means is this advice to remain neutral in times of great moral crisis; instead, it’s a prompt to ensure that your actions (including smashing the “Share” button) and opinions are strong enough to withstand those crises.

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