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COMMUNAL PRIORS

February 26th, 2021

 

While we’re often reluctant to change our mind about anything, it can still be a private affair.  Sitting, thinking quietly, and suddenly, a mind can decide that a new opinion on a topic makes more sense.  No fanfare necessary.  

 

A group on the other hand - a group of people cannot silently change their mind.   For a group to have a new opinion on a topic, a vast amount of communication has to take place, which wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that someone would have to share that new opinion.  Sharing an opinion that is different from the group is risky business.  There’s no telling how the group will react to the new idea, and because of this, the fear of being ostracized is at play.  This isn’t an issue when we silently change our own mind.  There is no prying eye of another that might judge our change in opinion.  But in a group the risk of harsh judgement creates a psychological pressure to keep unconventional opinions to yourself.

 

This fundamental difference in the psychology between solitary opinion change and opinion change on a group level means that one is fundamentally hindered.  An individual, with far less friction for updating understanding can figure out the truth of a matter far faster than a group.

 

We each function on a set of priors, or fundamental ideas about the world.  These are indivisible in their simplicity.  An easy example is gravity, and our priors about how gravity functions are so deeply embedded in our sense of space and motion that we barely ever think about the fact that some mysterious force is constantly pulling each of us toward the ground.  It’s easy to imagine the smile of a first-time astronaut when they finally experience zero-G.  There’s little doubt that people have to adjust to the absence of gravity in space.  And this adjustment is a sort of updating of one’s priors.

 

As a group, we have often relied on special sources of “truth” in order to calibrate opinion.  Needless to say these special sources have always been varied and, of course, often in conflict with one another.  Totalitarian governments try to accomplish the same through state propaganda.  When trust in such sources is lost, opinion fractures and wobbles, giving rise to mob mentalities.  These structures of thought are more than willing to turn on their own individuals, which perversely makes the opinion more stable.  That is, until the opinion as it informs behavior, leads to it’s own destruction by leading the group in an unwise direction.

 


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Podcast Ep. 1048: Communal Priors

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