Why do people spend hours upon hours arguing about the most asinine bullshit on the Internet? Why do they become personally offended when their pet beliefs are questioned and why do they ascribe an almost pathological importance to the minutiae of their lives? Believe it or not, most ridiculous arguments actually have a rather firm, if dysfunctional, psychological basis.
1. The Theory of Hedonism
Freud could occasionally be a rather direct guy. One of his theories is based on a pretty simple belief: we do shit because it feels good. This is known as the theory of hedonism, and it was revolutionary at a time when it was believed that there was some form of magical morality distilled into our hearts and mind upon birth.
But how does this lead to moral outrage? Well, to put it simply: outrage feels good. When you get angry, your adrenaline surges. And an adrenaline rush – though not to be confused with an endorphin rush — will give you a boost of energy and heightened focus. You’ll feel calmer and more alive: your fight-or-flight instinct will be fully engaged. Who doesn’t want that?
And there’s a darker part of this, too; it’s called the denial of reality. When things become too distressing or too difficult to manage, Freudian theory states that we just write it out of our world. It’s a literal version of “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” So while insignificant bullshit might be fun to get angry about, serious issues are so unpleasant that we ignore them altogether. And that’s when our priorities get thrown out the window.
2. The Just World Belief
Everyone wants to believe that the world is inherently just; bad people are punished and good people are rewarded. Unfortunately, something that starts off as a nice thought has a darker, more insidious side to it. When people believe, with their whole heart, that the world is just, they have to believe something else, too: that anything bad that happens is clearly the victim’s fault.
How does this contribute to getting angry about irrelevant bullshit? Because instead of getting angry about the original issue, we instead get angry with the victim. And we get angry about the situation that led up to the person becoming a victim. In fact, we get angry about pretty much everything except the actual event that occurred, because clearly the event itself must have made sense.
At its core, the just world belief is a selfish one. The reason people need to believe in a just world isn’t out of charity; it’s because they are afraid something bad could happen to them. If the world is just and they play by the rules, nothing bad can ever happen to them. And that would be a soothing thought, wouldn’t it? If it were remotely real.
3. The Echo-Chamber Effect
Ideological echo chambers are based, like the other items on this list, on a really simple and intuitive premise: we tend to listen to the people closest to us above all else. We are tribal animals. We would prefer listening to the people around us rather than strangers. And this holds true even if they’re batshit insane.
It really makes sense. People have an innate fear of exclusion. In the old days, being excluded could end up in being abandoned and left for dead. We have a vested interest in consensus. And it’s this interest in consensus that leads us astray. When a certain community reaches a tipping point and decides — against all reason — that something fallacious is true, everyone else gets pulled along for the ride. This creates the echo chamber.
An echo chamber is a situation in which an insular community develops a belief and each individual involved puts an active effort into supporting that belief. There is nothing that can challenge the beliefs of the group because it is self-reinforcing. Each individual knows an entire group of people who believe the same way they do, so they have no reason to question their beliefs. Even worse, they can quickly come to believe that their experience is a universal, shared experience.
This is also related to the availability cascade, in which a certain idea gains merit simply through repetition.
4. The Backfire Effect
Of all cognitive biases, the backfire effect is one of the most infuriating. The backfire effect describes a situation in which being proven wrong actually makes a person more certain that they are correct. Something that is only a passing thought can become a vehemently defended belief simply because it was questioned.
The backfire effect relates to attitude polarization. Essentially, if two people are already on the fence about something, but on opposing sides, being presented additional information about the situation will push them further towards extremes. At this point it’s no longer about whether their opinion is right, it is about whether they are right.
And once a person’s ego is on the line, all bets are off. They will react to their theory being questioned as though it is an indictment of their own character and being. Essentially, their opinion can no longer possibly be wrong. So when they are given evidence to the contrary, they aggressively double down.
5. The Projection Bias
We all do this to some extent. We assume that other people feel the same way as us about practically anything, without being conscious of the way that we feel about it. In an environment where tone can be vague and difficult to determine — such as the Internet — this leads to pointless escalation.
We get angry about something and then we assume that the other person is just as angry. It must be that person who is angry, because it clearly can’t be us. That makes us even angrier, which then makes us assume that they’re even angrier. At this stage, we start believing the person we are arguing with is a reactionary idiot. Which must obviously mean that they think we’re a reactionary idiot. Basically, all the negative emotions that we’re feeling are projected onto the other person and, suddenly, something that was a minor issue is a huge deal. And it’s all their fault!
If you’ve ever wondered why a seemingly mild debate turns into a name-calling disaster, this is often the issue that is to blame. Just like a puffed up kitten in front of a mirror, we’re really fighting with ourselves — we just don’t realize it.
6. The Naive Realism Effect
Naive realism sounds charming, but it really isn’t. It’s the belief that the reality we see is the objective truth and that, moreover, anyone should be able to see reality in the exact same way. And obviously, anyone who doesn’t see reality in that way is either an idiot or insane. You can see where this would become an issue.
Remember, an important component to cognitive bias is that you don’t realize you’re doing it. In the case of naive realism, you see the world as black and white –but you don’t realize that’s what you’re doing. People who have alternative opinions from you, regardless of how trivial and minor they are, are seeing reality the wrong way.
And this is infuriating. This is what leads to issues like that asinine “What color is this dress?” debate, with people screaming at each other “BLACK AND WHITE!” “BLUE AND GOLD!” “BURNT SIENNA!” It ‘s just a stupid dress. But it’s not. That dress encompasses an entire world view.
Does any of this help? Probably not. Our cognitive biases and psychological problems are here to stay, regardless of how conscious of them we are. And there’s always someone else on the other side of the screen who is even crazier than we are. But what we can do is try to limit the amount of time we personally spend arguing about bullshit things on the Internet. And that makes the world a better place.
An experienced freelance writer, Jenna specializes in the areas of technology, business and alcohol. She spends her spare time either with her dogs, playing video games or fighting crime as "The Lace-Strewn Battleship." (The name needs work.) She is survived by... wait, wrong draft.