Tribalism is a cognitive shortcut. Addressing it requires better shortcuts.

Beautiful essay this week by Zeynep on Politico, six paragraphs you should read to become a smarter human. But I just want to point to something in paragraph three very relevant to media literacy:

Deluged by apparent facts, arguments and counterarguments, our brains resort to the most obvious filter, the easiest cognitive shortcut for a social animal: We look to our peers, see what they believe and cheer along.

There’s a nugget in here I wish more people would dig into, and that’s that tribalism is a filter. In many cases, it’s not a bad one. In a perfect world, you’d want to hear from experts who also share the values of your tribe, because decisions sit at the intersection of values, expertise, and experience. Expertise alone, uninformed by relevant values, can be very thin gruel.

In our current situation, of course,  that’s not what’s happening. In a variety of domains, tribalism has become a reality distortion field that prevents us from drawing on relevant expertise at all. But instead of seeing tribalism as an insurmountable force of nature, the better view is to see it as a useful heuristic that has ceased to work in certain situations.

The question is not “can media literacy strategies overcome tribalism?” It can’t be that because tribalism is a media literacy strategy. The question, then, is whether we can provide any strategies quick and efficient enough that they compare favorably to tribalism.

Don’t get me wrong — tribalism is easy and fun, emotionally and socially rewarding. I don’t think you’ll  find a strategy faster than it. Zeynep’s point that it’s the “easiest shortcut for a social animal” is right on target.

But if you want to replace it, you have to give students digital literacy strategies that compare favorably to it: ones that are designed to meet this need for quick filtering and evaluation of what reaches us through the stream. It has to be speedy, and it has to be low cognitive effort. It has to be focused less on “Is what I’m reading good?” and more on “Should I give this my attention at all?”

Focus on what tribalism provides people, and we have a chance. Bring a twenty minute checklist to a fast and frugal heuristic fight and the battle is already lost.

P. S. In case people from outside my usual circle read this and say “Oh, but what would such strategies look like?” This is a blog. Go to the main blog page and read appx 100 articles written on this exact topic over the past two years.

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