On Islam, irrationality and interfaith dialogue

My wife often looks at the paper, hears a story on the news or learns of an event involving people doing something stupid, turns to me and says, “What the heck were they thinking?” I remind her that if people were rational all the time, I’d be out of a job. I’m a college dean – and I’m a psychologist. Neither job would be necessary if everybody always thought and acted in a rational manner.

But they don’t. And I’m not talking about those exceptionally disturbed individuals whose insanity is as obvious as it is sad. I’m talking about people who have positive and productive lives, raise families, hold jobs and contribute to their communities. In other words, I’m talking about us. Even the best of us succumb to irrational beliefs, and even worse act on them.

The world is complicated, and thinking our way through complexity is hard. Deep thinking requires the sustained commitment of very limited cognitive resources. So, even those of us blessed with the education and insight to work through complex problems take shortcuts. Those shortcuts are what psychologists call heuristics; they reduce the demand on our attention and mental energy. Sometimes those shortcuts work well. Other times, they lead us to irrational beliefs and actions.

One of the most common shortcuts we use is what we psychologists call the availability heuristic. In this shortcut, the things that are most available to us – that is, what we experience often or what we remember most – drive our thoughts and actions. For example, most people believe that car crashes account for more deaths than stomach cancer, even though the opposite is true. Why? Because traffic fatalities appear every day on the local news; the quiet passing of a victim of stomach cancer does not. The pervasive availability of car crash stories on the news leads us to wrongly believe they are more common than cancer deaths not covered.

The primary means by which most Americans see people who are clearly identified as Muslims is in the media, and the most likely reason those Muslims are in the media is because they have done something catastrophic. A Muslim who rides in a plane isn’t the subject of a story; a Muslim who hijacks a plane will be shown on media around the world. I don’t blame the media for not covering the cooperative Muslim passenger, or the modest self-effacing Islamic business woman, or the successful student – they are simply not stories in the same way that ISIS is. The problem isn’t with the media; the problem is that most people don’t have other experiences with Muslims available to counter the ubiquitous availability of violent media images with captions like “Muslim terrorists” or “Muslim extremists.”

Because images and experiences of violent Muslims are more available than peaceful images and experiences, we assume that Muslims are more dangerous to us than Christians, or Jews, or nonbelievers. Although we have plenty of examples of Christians deliberately killing innocent victims (Timothy McVeigh, Dylann Roof), most Americans don’t view Christians as posing as great a threat to their safety as they do Muslims. Rationally speaking, Americans are far more likely to be harmed or killed by a Christian than by an adherent of Islam – but because we have many more positive personal experiences with Christians, we don’t equate Christianity with danger.

So, what’s the solution? It’s unlikely the media will change their view of news. As Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” famously quipped, “Why don’t we report about all the cars that don’t blow up in Iraq?” Instead, we will have to make the effort to avoid the easy – but irrational – shortcut offered by the availability heuristic. We must take it upon ourselves to seek out opportunities to meet Muslim members of our own communities through interfaith events; we must counter the rhetorical lie contained in, “Where are the moderate Muslim voices to condemn these acts?” by noting that Muslim organizations across America and the planet condemn violence; and we must remind ourselves to skip the easy shortcut of availability and engage in the harder work of rationality.

Most importantly, those of us who have had deeply welcoming, personal experiences with members of the Muslim community must make those experiences available to others. Eldridge Cleaver wrote: “You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” This is one psychologist’s effort to be part of the solution.

Jeffery P. Braden, Ph.D., is dean of N.C. State’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. This piece is adapted from an address he gave at the Divan Center’s annual Friendship Dialogue Dinner. The Divan Center is a North Carolina-based nonprofit intercultural and interfaith dialogue organization.