You're Not a Saint for Thinking "They" Are Stupid
In today’s political climate, it’s easy to see our opponents as evil villains hell-bent on destroying us. But in a divided world, where polarization and hatred seem to be everywhere, many of us are taking the high road. Instead of blaming the other side, we blame their circumstances. It’s not their fault, we say, they’ve just been brainwashed into thinking crazy things.
There’s a word we use to describe people who seem prone to conspiracies and quackery: it’s sheeple. And the thing about sheep is that they’re stupid. At least more stupid than evil.
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This way of thinking is so widely accepted that it’s even been granted status as a philosophical razor. The adage “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” is called Hanlon’s Razor, and has been endorsed by august thinkers from Goethe to Churchill.
The sheeple explanation feels so charitable. In our heads, it sounds like we’re sidestepping division by assuming the best intentions in our political opponents.
Unfortunately, applying this heuristic in the political domain may actually be the most common way that we end up hating the other side. We blame them for falling for misinformation and we’re threatened by their ignorance. The sheeple narrative poisons our ability to have constructive conversations across divides and even makes democracy seem less appealing.
It may seem surprising that we could hate the other side without thinking that they’re villains. But this stems from a common misconception about what it means to hate.
The Substance of Our Hatred
Political hatred is a major issue in America, but what exactly is this animosity about? In popular writing about American polarization, pundits and scholars alike frame the problem as a deep moral divide. Much of our hatred seems to boil down to our perceptions of the other side as villains.
We’ve written previously about how Americans can’t stand being divided. If we want to bridge divides, the obvious solution seems to be to stop thinking of our opponents as evil.
Thankfully, Hanlon’s razor gives us an easy out. Instead of viewing the other side as villains, what if we took a more considerate approach and thought of them as well-intentioned people who are just too brainwashed and unintelligent to think clearly?
After all, if they’re not stupid or evil, maybe we are… Viewing them as misguided sheeple seems like the most charitable option, but do we actually do that?
More Stupid Than Evil
As a moral psychology lab, we’re accustomed to seeing morality as the driving force behind intergroup conflict. So when we asked people how they would describe their political opponents, we expected everyone to refer to the other side’s deep-seated evilness. But when we dug into the data, people were much more charitable than we expected.
A recent graduate from our lab, Rachel Hartman, conducted a survey asking Democrats and Republicans to estimate from 1 (almost no one) to 7 (almost everyone) the portion of the other side that was stupid versus evil. As Figure 1 below illustrates, people thought the other side was full of more morons than monsters.
(Figure 1 - Perceptions of outgroup unintelligence cluster around the high end of the scale (4-7), whereas perceptions of outgroup immorality cluster around the low end of the scale (1-4).)
In another study conducted in the wake of the 2018 midterms, Rachel asked North Carolinians why others voted “the wrong way” on a series of state constitutional amendments. People once again used Hanlon’s Razor, attributing the other side’s voting behavior to stupidity rather than malice.
But maybe people were just trying to seem morally virtuous by not demonizing their opponents when explicitly asked. It's well-established that people try to avoid seeming bigoted when answering survey questions. Perhaps if we gave them a blank sheet of paper to give their unfiltered thoughts, they’d attribute the other side’s beliefs to their hearts of darkness.
Rachel put this idea to the test in her doctoral dissertation. She showed people vignettes about a hypothetical member of the opposite party, Taylor, and had them respond to the open-ended question, “What do you think is the main explanation for Taylor’s political identity?” When Rachel analyzed the language that people used, she found that the most common explanation of why Taylor identified with the wrong party was “sheepleness.” That is, most people thought that others join “their side” because of their upbringing, the media they consume, or just a lack of independent thinking.
Another form of Hanlon’s Razor emerged in these data. People didn’t just describe their opponents as brainwashed but also scared. This trope of “scared sheeple” pops up in political discourse all the time. Conservatives accuse liberals of masking up and listening to the CDC because they’re terrified of Covid. Similarly, liberals depict conservatives as terrified of immigrants, vaccines, and transgender people. Each group thinks the other side is living in fear.
Hanlon’s Double-Edged Razor
On the surface, it seems promising that we actually view our opponents as more stupid than evil. It feels like we’re making good-faith efforts to understand the roots of their beliefs, referencing their upbringing and susceptibility to external influences rather than their cold hearts. But unfortunately, Hanlon’s Razor cuts both ways.
When Rachel looked at whether the sheeple narrative might help us circumvent hatred, she found the opposite. The more people viewed the other side as sheeple, the more they disliked them – they respected them less and had less desire to interact with them. It turns out that evil is not the only path to hatred.
The problem with the sheeple narrative is that it’s still a way of viewing the other side as inferior, which is condescending even when it comes from a good place. Consider the case of benevolent sexism – seemingly positive attitudes about women that actually reflect subtle perceptions of inferiority (women are frail).
Perceptions of inferiority can spiral into full-blown hatred, a process reflected in the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we dehumanize others. In the antebellum South, white slave owners justified their subjugation of black people by referencing their imagined cognitive inferiority. It’s easier to hate when we strip others of their human-like qualities, whether it’s their inner goodness or their rationality.
Of course, there are lots of people who we view as unintelligent without hating… It’s cute when kids make irrational blunders, and we feel sympathy, not hatred, for the mentally handicapped. Why, then, is the sheeple narrative a one-way ticket to hatred when it comes to politics?
One possibility is that in the political domain, it’s not cute or endearing to be unintelligent – it's threatening. According to the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we have more to fear from the stupid person than the evil one. Referring to the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, Bonhoeffer famously wrote that “stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than evil.” He argued that evil people can be easily identified, exposed, and destroyed, but we are defenseless against the stupidity of the crowd, which can be manipulated to do evil deeds. On his account, while stupidity is a less obvious target for our hatred, it is a more deserving one.
In the political context, people seem to agree with Bonhoeffer. When every vote counts and the delusional people voting against you seem to be undermining the fabric of society, it’s easy to despise them for their presumed ignorance.
It would be one thing if we merely ridiculed the other side for being sheeple, but this subtle dehumanization has darker consequences. When we write off people who disagree with us as not even authentically holding their position, we begin to feel licensed to make decisions for them, a position incongruent with democracy.
The Problem of Democracy: When Your Neighbors Seem Like Morons
It has long been accepted that democracy is a system dependent upon a well-informed populace. James Madison said that "a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy." Today, when it seems like the other half of the population is blindly following a group of sinister shepherds, many Americans are asking questions about their democracy.
In a recent study, researchers asked voters to compare how susceptible their side and the other side would be to various forms of misinformation. Unsurprisingly, people gave a full-throated endorsement of the sheeple narrative, insisting that the other side was more vulnerable to misinformation than they were. But interestingly, the more people viewed the other side as susceptible to misinformation, the less satisfied they were with their democracy.
Of course, the people in this study weren’t necessarily storming the capital with pitchforks - being frustrated with the state of a system is a far cry from endorsing anti-democratic behaviors. But research does show that when we’re less satisfied with the reality of how democracy is functioning, our commitment to democracy as an institution starts to erode. Democracy is supposed to represent the will of the people, but what if people are too dumb to even know what’s best for themselves?
Plato had a solution. He envisioned an ideal society governed by wise and benevolent “philosopher kings.” He proposed that a society ruled by the intellectual elites, who had acquired the necessary knowledge to govern justly, would be better off than a democracy governed by the whims of the uninformed majority.
You might scoff at the thought of Americans ever endorsing this idea. Americans are freedom fighters, flag wavers, and champions of democracy! But despite how much Americans love democracy, they’re surprisingly sympathetic to alternatives. For instance, a recent poll found that almost half of Americans would support a system where “experts, not elected officials, make decisions according to what they think is best for the country,” a decidedly undemocratic system that bears an eerie resemblance to philosopher kings.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Not me.” You’re dogmatic about democracy, regardless of the nonsensical media the other side consumes. Self-government is non-negotiable. If you’re right, there’s still one more problem with casting people who disagree with us as sheeple: our relationships with them. It’s hard to be friends with people who we view as idiots. If we want to reverse our escalating cycle of polarization and hatred, we need to figure out better ways to think about people on the other side.
How to Be Less Condescending
We have all felt the sting of others’ condescending attitudes. Condescension is toxic for our relationships, particularly when people treat our deeply held beliefs as though we blindly or ignorantly arrived at them.
This is one reason why religious people and atheists rub each other the wrong way. Pastors and evangelists often describe people who haven’t found Jesus as lost, depressed, suffering, or deeply broken. Likewise, atheists give religious believers the same treatment. It can’t be that people believe in Christianity because they’ve thought deeply about different worldviews. It must be that they’re brainwashed or terrified of mortality and hell.
Our condescension runs rampant in political interactions as well. Researchers found evidence of this when they brought Biden and Trump supporters into the lab for some 1 on 1 political conversations. Biden and Trump supporters mutually assumed that the other person was feeling more threatened and fearful than they themselves were.
When we fall victim to this infantilizing bias (“they’re just scared babies”), we compromise our ability to have constructive conversations. In the study with Biden and Trump supporters, the more people viewed their conversation partners as threatened and fearful, the more confident they became in their ability to persuade them. But unfortunately, trying to persuade people with facts doesn’t tend to change people’s minds, and often actually backfires, making them more certain of their beliefs.
If we want to be less condescending, we need to recognize how asymmetrical we are when explaining the other side’s beliefs. We all think that we have the facts straight, but that they are a herd of sheeple blinded by irrationality and fear. While we’re likely correct that threats and external influences play a role in shaping their beliefs, it’s unlikely that these influences are unique to one political side.
Taking time to consider how the same factors have shaped our own beliefs can serve us a refreshing dose of intellectual humility. In a study aptly named after Robert Frost’s poem "The Road Not Taken,” participants were prompted to imagine their lives as though they were on the political path less traveled. They envisioned the beliefs their counterfactual selves might hold under different circumstances, such as being raised in a different religious tradition. After this brief exercise, participants reported significantly less hatred toward the other side.
Thinking about how our beliefs might be different if we lived in someone else’s shoes can help us escape the sheeple narrative. Their worldview, just like our own, is justified in light of their particular life experiences and fundamental assumptions about reality. In recognizing this, we can understand their perspective, not necessarily as correct, but as reasonable.
We often try, and fail, to be charitable towards the other side. We're right to reject the idea that our opponents are evil, but we instead view them as brainwashed and scared. Rather than promoting understanding, this view is condescending and only divides us more. If we really want to bridge divides, we need to reject the false binary explanation of our opponents as either stupid or evil.
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