We are the problem: How Williams students can take more responsibility for American polarization

Owen Foster

 A lot of Americans don’t like each other right now. Political polarization is one of the top issues across the nation. As Williams students we are no exception to this rule. Despite our education and critical thinking skills, we are still human. All humans are plagued by myriad cognitive biases that alter how they take in information and lead them to form misinformed, polarized opinions and beliefs. We have the same problems that the rest of America does. Me. You. Everyone. The good news is there is a really easy step we all can take: motivation priming. Let’s back up a second. 

A lot of smart people out there who try to explain America’s polarized climate blame the information we consume: echo chambers, misinformation, biased news. You’ve heard the terms. Bad information absolutely can drive people apart. If you and I read completely different sets of facts, we are going to struggle mightily to agree with each other. For instance, you probably don’t think SpongeBob the Musical is the best musical to ever grace Broadway’s stages. That’s fine, you haven’t seen it. We have received different information. And when I say information, I mean all information: from lectures to experiences to news headlines to conversations with friends.

But the bad news about this false information is that it’s not leaving us any time soon. If Fox News, MSNBC, Twitter, and Facebook all disappear, One America News Network, HuffPost, Parler, and Reddit will be there tomorrow. Imagine your source of information acts as a local reservoir. Even if you stop the current polluters, more polluters will come to dump their, uhh, news, in it the next day. When you can’t clean the water at the source what do you do? You get a Brita Filter. The good news about the bad information is that I happen to have a Brita Filter for you. And it won’t cost you a dime.

This filter is called “motivation priming,” and it is quite easy to use. While there are lots of great media literacy tools out there (from Crash Course Media Literacy to IREX’s Learn to Discern to Ground News), many of these courses and techniques are high effort interventions. Motivation priming only takes a few seconds to use. What’s more, motivation priming only requires your brain, and after a few uses it will work for the rest of your life. So how do you use it? It’s quite simple.

We are really bad at objectively processing new information. We really want it to confirm our preexisting opinions, or at the very least not to challenge them. We want it to make our friends look good and our enemies look bad. We want it to make sense in our worldview. Unfortunately, this isn’t a secret. Those who offer you new information know how you are likely to react to it, and so they use this predictable reaction in order to get you to think what they want you to think. For instance, if I spent the rest of this op-ed writing a profanity-laced tirade against everything you held dear, I bet I could get you to put down this newspaper, or at least turn the page. But now that you know what my goal is, it would be much harder. You wouldn’t want to give me that satisfaction. You wouldn’t want to give in to my plan. This is motivation priming. You just used the Brita Filter.

Motivation priming is the process of thinking about the motivations behind the person presenting you with new information. Why did they share that with you? Why did they phrase it in that way? What do they want you to think about it?

If you ask yourself some of these questions when reading the news, scrolling through social media, and listening to your friends, you will find that you start to believe things not because others want you to believe them, but because you want to believe them.

And the best news about motivation priming is that you don’t need to do it consciously. Just as there are countless cogntive biases that make us bad at taking in information (did you notice that cognitive was missing an “i”?), motivation priming can become a subconscious process. Just like almost any process can become second nature through repetition, so can motivation priming if you practice it a little bit. Ask yourself about your source’s motivations every once in a while. Decide not to get angry at something. Choose not to believe. And then very quickly, you will find yourself having these thoughts without any effort at all. It will become a subconscious process, and then boom, polarization solved. For real. If we all did this, we would be a heck of a lot less polarized.

And one last piece of good news: I know for a fact you are capable of subconscious motivation priming. Because you already do it. When you see a headline from a news outlet you vehemently distrust — be it Fox News, MSNBC, or Bikini Bottom News — you are less likely to believe it because you don’t trust their motivations. The key now is priming all new information in this way. 

This is my task to you: Stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution. Or not. That is just what I want you to do.

Owen Foster ’22 is a political science major from Manhattan Beach, Calif.