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Human Misconceptions: Our Binary World

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

This is the first article of a series aiming at investigating the human misconceptions. In one of my favorite transcripts called “Factfulness”, Hans Rosling describes 10 instincts that affect human perception, the most important of which is the “gap instinct”. It is the most important because we face it every day (or moment) and heavily distorts our interpretation of the world, moving as away from the facts. I prefer to call the gap instict as "the binary world" and it is the irresistible temptation we all have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct that often conflicting groups: the rich and the poor, right-wing and left-wing, conservatives and democrats, the management team and the rest of the company, the fascists and the antifas, and so on. And it is not only our binary perception of the world, but we also assume a huge gap between the 2 groups. To further expand this notion, the misconception continues with the assumption that we all belong to one of the two groups (boxes). If you are not an antifa (box A), you are a fascist (box B). Or if you are not conservative (box A), you are a democrat (box B), etc.

Rosling explains that “dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive but also dramatic because it applies conflict and we do it without thinking all the time”. Journalists know this very well and they set up their narratives with conflicts between two opposing people views or groups. A recent example is the way the Covid pandemic has been covered by the media all around the world. Populists politicians also trigger the conversations around binary perceptions (such as “us-the good & honest” vs them “the bad & corrupted”, see Trump, Orban, etc.). Movie scripts, documentaries and books are based on this divided and opposed world (US vs Russia or China, Rocky vs all the rest, Maradona vs Pele, etc.). In Greece, we have seen a lot of similar examples during the recession: the “corrupted politicians” vs the “honest rest”, the “Euro supporters” vs the “Euro-haters”, the “violent cops vs the “peaceful protestors”, etc.

And how can we protect ourselves from the binary world? Look for warning signs:

- If a story is presented to you in a binary mode, question it! Replace the 2 “boxes” with more. For instance, you may not be a fascist, but you may also do not support the antifas. You may belong to a third “box” called “the peaceful and respectful citizens”.

- If they present you facts based on averages, look for the spread (the range of the numbers). The Covid pandemic losses per country is an interesting example. If you look at the average daily loss figures, you will inevitably draw misleading conclusions on the current pandemic status for each country.

- If you see yourself in one of the 2 boxes, it is very common to subconsciously place all the others (that do not share the same opinion with you) to the opposed box. Always question yourself before making this false assumption.

- Last but not least, look around who is in the same "box" with you. Do you feel you share the same values, you have some common attributes with those people? If not, this is a really good sign as well.

If you don’t look for and question yourself about the signs, there is no way to understand how the binary world might affect you. At the end of the day, you’ll always find evidence that “you were right”. The self-fulfilling prophecy will do the work. This is how it works:

I assume that there are only 2 boxes-->I pick a box-->I look for evidence that I picked the correct box-->I find evidence-->I confirm I was right-->All good, life goes on!

But this is not the case, because it all started with the false assumption that there are only 2 boxes. To put it in another way, how many times has it happened to realize you were not right, i.e you "picked the wrong box" or there should have been a third box? Who would be brave and conscious enough to admit it?

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