by Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins
“Something is happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear ”
Lyrics from For What It’s Worth-Buffalo Springfield, 1966
“Six Officers Charged in Freddie Gray Death” 
“Public division about climate change rooted in conflicting socio-political identities” 
As I was writing the blog this month, I found myself distracted by news headlines that seemed to beg for my attention. I read the stories of riots in Baltimore over the death while in police custody of, a young black man, Freddie Gray. Eyewitness accounts differed dramatically on the “facts” of what transpired. And each witness seemed to have great confidence in the details as he or she described them.
Moreover, I ran across an article on climate change that stated, “U.S. believers and skeptics have distinct social identities, beliefs and emotional reactions that systematically predict their support for action to advance their respective positions.” The authors argued that communication and education are unlikely to resolve the divide since the opinions are rooted in emotion. They stated, “Interventions that increase angry opposition to action on climate change are especially problematic.”
I could have chosen any of dozens of headlines that demonstrate that we are not good at joining together in our collective space to productively address societal challenges. Yet isn’t it obvious that for the good of us all, we must find a way to do so?
Last month Katrin Muff, in her blog, Occupying the Collective Space, described how a variety of people and groups choose to occupy the “we” space. She was referring to that ground between the personal spaces each of us feels responsible for, and societal best interests. She challenged us to figure out how we can better occupy these spaces for the common good. In this blog, I would like to respond to this challenge by looking at a couple of steps we might each take to improve how we function in those “we” spaces when and where emotions are running high and polarization is likely.
Step 1: Acknowledge Our Own Individual Limitations
How is it that the eyewitnesses in the Freddie Gray case see and remember things so differently? All of us who have read about the tragedy agree that the situation was horrendous. Yet not only do eyewitness accounts vary, so do the interpretations of the mobile-device-produced video of the incidents. In this, as in most situations, we may find it difficult to admit to ourselves that though we viewed the video, we don’t have access to “the truth” about what occurred. Social science research provides us with plenty of evidence that our perceptions are subject to many biases. For example, we tend to attribute our own problematic behaviours to circumstances while we blame others’ for their character flaws. We tend to observe what we expect to see and overlook deviations from our expectations. We tend to interpret what we observe within the context of our own theories about reality. Thus what we notice, remember and understand is always incomplete at best, and flawed at worst. Nevertheless, we continue to draw conclusions with great confidence based on our imperfect observations.
The use of automatic mental shortcuts are merely part of the human condition and don’t imply any moral shortcomings. So why is it so hard for us to admit that we don’t always have all of the facts, let alone all of the answers?
Again from Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth, “What a field day for the heat. A thousand people in the street singing songs and carrying signs mostly say, hurray for our side.”
Step 2: Recognize Our Frameworks
In the case of the climate change debate, how is it that the two sides come to such radically differing conclusions even though they have access to the same information? Perhaps different forces and circumstances have shaped their social identities.
Each of us views the world from our own particular contexts. These frames of reference can come from our personal histories as well as from the social institutions within which we interact. Social institutions, as defined by sociologists, are complex social forms such as governments, the family, human languages, universities, hospitals, business corporations, and legal systems.  They rise above our individual behaviour. Instead, they are mechanisms for collective orderliness in society. They tend to be relatively enduring. And they can serve us well on the one hand, as they provide social meaning and social stability. On the other hand, they can deter useful critical thinking. They can support automatic judgments and irrational decisions based on taken-for-granted assumptions of which we aren’t even aware.
Step 3: Realize that Emotion Inhibits Critical Thinking
High levels of emotion surround the issues and opinions that are tucked under both of the headlines I have chosen to highlight. And emotionality is often a cue for self-perceived accuracy, according to social science research.  Thus we have a tendency to be overly confident in the correctness of our own theories when passions run high. Yet much evidence points out that we are more, not less, likely to distort what we see and how we remember when we are emotional.
While all of us unconsciously employ mental shortcuts we can reduce their impact on our critical thinking. We do have the capability to become more intentional in how we function in those collective spaces where emotions run high and controversy is likely. I believe that we can become more productive role models in our own “we spaces” by doing the following:
- We must acknowledge that our perspectives are subjective and are solidified relative to our level of emotion. They are shaped by our histories and contexts.
- We must accept that garnering the wisdom to solve our collective problems resides in gathering and integrating perspectives coming from both within and beyond our comfort zones.
“There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”
Lyrics from For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield, 1966
PHOTO CREDIT: Maryland National Guard, used under Creative Commons License CC BY 2.0
Photo caption: The Maryland National Guard patrols the streets of Baltimore following the riots sparked by the killing of Freddie Gray, 28 April 2015.
Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.