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Why People Feel The Need To Be Right About The Atlanta Shooter’s Motivations

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man and woman arguing about who is right

There are several theories floating around to explain the reasons for the shootings that left 8 people dead, six of them Asian women, at three spas in the Atlanta area earlier this week.

The word “theory” might actually be too kind, since what they actually amount to are guesses, or even demands, i.e., “We demand the public recognize that he was simply having a bad day.”

From assumptions that the shooter is a sex addict, an incel, a psychopath, or just an angry racist and misogynist, there are a lot of strong opinions floating around before authorities have had time to conduct an investigation and present the public with a supporting backlog of facts.

Why do we all feel a need to be right about things none of us could really know the answer to for sure?

It could be because we’re wired to. People may have evolved a deep need to be right.

The prevailing explanation for the existence of arguing in human society comes from a study published by Cambridge University Press in 2011, written by Hugo Mercer and Dan Serber. They posit that arguing is the goal of reasoning, and the very reason that humans gained rational agency to begin with.

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Even back in 2011, before the Trump era, the topic of misinformation was being discussed in academic circles.

Because people are prone to believing in things that are demonstrably false, Mercer and Serber argued that reasoning was never meant to lead the human brain to possess “correct” information. To the contrary, reasoning evolved so that we could discover tricksy ways of convincing others to believe what we believe.

This also explains confirmation bias, or the act of leaning in to ideas that support our own beliefs and disregarding those that don’t.

The conclusion the pair came up with is that people are far more likely to look for arguments that support their previously held beliefs than they are to actually reason their way to the truth of a particular issue.

We see the evidence of this all around us. When something tragic happens, the need to explain it away results in as many contradictory ideas as there are media outlets to spin them.

Some of these opinions are held due to our evolutionary need to be right, and the past experience that’s molded our current stances. Other arguments are made in bad faith to take advantage of those who already agree, score political points, or generate buzz.

With so much hinging on the socio-political fallout of arguments in today’s climate, arguing in bad faith can have dangerous repercussions.

Newer research published in 2020 in the journal Springer Nature and authored by Fabian Seitz disagrees with the established narrative.

While he suggests that the theory is on the right track, Seitz outlines a detailed model of the cognition of early hominids, and how the need for arguments arose in the first place.

Seitz believes that arguing evolved out of the simple need for humans to collaborate and solve problems together. He further states that the ability didn’t emerge in response to a single specific need like being correct, but through a series of co-evolved traits. These traits begin with niche construction as a precursor, and go on to include reasoning, the drive to control behavior, and artifact entanglement.

Early human variants faced significant obstacles to survival. Simple things like “where should we look for food,” to “should we eat this funky looking plant?” were questions that posed significant risks to entire populations. Seitz reasons that after establishing a niche in the environment, early humans would reason through solutions to the problems they faced, work collaboratively with others, and attempt to control and bend external circumstances to their will.

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Rational Agency Today

However we evolved the capacity for reasoning and argument, our early ancestors would be absolutely flabbergasted at the ways in which we deploy these skills today.

Instead of working to solve problems like communal hunger, we actively engage in theatrics to prevent half of the population from receiving certain legal protections.

We also argue about who’s the best Batman, or which condiments to use on popular foods. So the pendulum swings both ways. It’s hard to imagine a frightened Australopithecine hiding from a predator, briefly pausing their involuntary shaking to gaze upward into a clear sky through dew-coated leaves and whisper, “I think it was Michael Keaton.”

Seitz points out that reasoning is an individual cognitive skill. Arguing, however, is socio-linguistic. It involves communicating in a society. Since humans have evolved the ability to fight with one another via words, and complex matters of survival aren’t on the table 24/7, our skills are aimed in other, less meaningful, directions.

Why It’s Important to Understand What’s at Play

We live in a world aflame. Irrational actors often take a scorched earth approach to arguments these days. The idea of interacting collaboratively with words to solve common problems may have died with our ancestors. Or, it may be waiting for us to better understand these dynamics that occur in the mind and in our communities as each of us make and hear arguments.

Is this latest shooter motivated by hate for a specific group of people? Is Donald Trump a good Christian? Do the lizard people really live at the center of the earth?

Humanity can do better than forming battle lines and heaving malicious verbal assaults from the trenches.

When people understand the mechanisms at work in their own minds, they can take control of them to create positive outcomes.

The knowledge that the majority of arguments are caused by a direct lack of empathetic understanding of another person can help us patiently listen and learn before engaging in tired talking points long gone stale. It’s important to wait for context and facts before jumping to conclusions.

Someday that practice could be as hardwired in our minds as the need to argue is now.

Maybe, a little patience and understanding can move us in the right direction.

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Kevin Lankes, MFA, is an editor and author who work has appeared in Here Comes Everyone, Pigeon Pages, Owl Hollow Press, The Huffington Post, The Riverdale Press, and more.