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In this war, cognitive biases win

By Middle EastOctober, 2023March 17th, 20244 min read

Support for Hamas from various groups has astounded many people: “Can’t you finally realise what they are? Call them terrorists? ” On social media, it has prompted a meta-war (i.e. a war about a war) as well as satire. But in fact, it is no mystery at all.

Hamas’s attack directly targeting civilians and doing so in the most horrifying way imaginable has shocked us. Sadly, many Jews are not surprised. Indeed, it has only reinforced the view that it is only the constant vigilance on the part of the IDF and the intelligence community that has stood between Hamas and the pogrom-like attacks we have seen recently. The facts have reinforced previously held beliefs and world-view.

But others have an entirely different set of beliefs. For them, Israel is a bastion of settler colonialism – the aggressor against Palestinians who are the perennial victims. This view of the world goes hand-in-hand with victim politics and intersectionality. In these models of the world, there are two types of people: victims and oppressors. Jews – a victimised people for thousands of years – challenge this worldview as we have shifted in status: we have a state (albeit one under constant threat), perceived power, success, and therefore are more conveniently recategorized as oppressors. It defies logic. It ignores history. It goes against the facts on the ground.

But facts are actually not relevant here because far stronger factors are at play: confirmation bias and group identity. We seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs, and reject information that goes against them. Strong beliefs become part of our identity, and we connect with others that have similar beliefs. Being part of those communities becomes our group identity and that bond is very strong. So strong that when confronted with facts – yes, undisputable fact and evidence – we would rather reshape or reinterpret those facts into something completely different than shift our beliefs or reject a group identity.

This explains why pro-Palestinian advocates see Hamas’s attack as a (actually, I can’t bring myself to write the words – you know what I’m referring to).

Engaging with them on facts, photos, or personal testimony is a waste of time. Those will be reinterpreted and rationalised and ultimately inverted. They will not change their minds – indeed they will likely become even more defensive.

A very small number of people from the political left have started to rebel against this binary politics of victimhood. They seen its deep flaws when it comes to issues like Middle East politics (and affirmative action, gender politics, systemic racism, etc). That doesn’t mean they have shifted to the political right. Rather, they have been able to develop a view that is less trapped in simplistic and polarised thinking.

Such people are able to see Hamas for the terrorists they are, acknowledge the Israeli imperative to totally destroy Hamas, agree that Israel should have no obligation to send supplies to Gaza, and still advocate for the welfare of civilians in Gaza. Destroying Hamas will result in civilian casualties. That is the calculus of war, and one that Israel takes seriously.

This terrible war has come, and it too will pass. I hope that when it does, Hamas will truly be wiped out. But it’s far easier to defeat an army than an ideology. The haters will still be out there.

So what to do? Become more aware of the biases that affect you and others, and train yourself to keep an open mind and learn new things. Listen to others and ask them to listen to you (because that goes both ways). While we won’t suddenly all sit together and sing Kumbaya, learning to understand each other and our differences will make us better individually and collectively. This war is being fought on multiple fronts, and the war of beliefs and opinions is a challenging one. If we allow our cognitive biases to win, we are all lost.

This is also posted at [The Times of Israel].

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