Last night I watched Piers Morgan interview famous lawyer Alan Dershowitz on the topic of waterboarding and how it might have contributed to finding Bin Laden. I love watching Dershowitz defend his opinions, even when I don’t agree, because he’s one of the best communicators on the planet. Keep that in mind when I make my oh-so-fascinating point that has nothing to do with waterboarding.
First, some context: My hypothesis is that we humans automatically sort topics into two opposing viewpoints, or buckets. In the rare cases when we encounter a third opinion, we can’t easily process it because our brains don’t have a third bucket.
For example, on the topic of using waterboarding to get useful information from terrorists, the two opinion buckets are:
1. Waterboarding works and we should do it.
2. Waterboarding doesn’t work and we should not do it.
Dershowitz expressed a third view that I had never heard until last night: Waterboarding works, but we shouldn’t do it.
I stopped what I was doing when I heard Dershowitz’ opinion, and waited to see if my Two-Bucket hypothesis would hold true. My prediction was that Piers wouldn’t be able to process this third view. I can’t find the transcript, but paraphrasing, Piers said something along the lines of “I’m confused. What side are you on?”
To be fair, Piers might have fully understood Dershowitz but assumed that viewers would be confused. It’s an interviewer’s job to ask what he imagines the audience would want him to ask. Piers is smart enough to know that his viewers are two-bucket thinkers. Dershowitz went on to explain his opinion with his usual clarity. But I’ll bet if you did a survey today on people who watched the interview, 80% would say Dershowitz supported one of the two standard opinions on waterboarding, and respondents would be split down the middle as to which one it was.
I came up with the two-bucket hypothesis by observing how some people react to this blog. When I float an idea that doesn’t fit into one of the two standard buckets for a given topic, people assume I am an enemy from the other bucket and post comments to that effect. Notice how often the commenters here argue against what I write as if my posts must be supporting one of the two existing buckets. That’s the two-bucket phenomenon in action.
I wonder if our brains are natural two-bucket processors or if we have been trained that way by our adversarial political system. In the United States, every issue seems to get sorted into two buckets, with Democrats generally favoring one bucket and Republicans generally favoring the other. I wonder if our political system is making citizens dumber by encouraging us to think that there are only two valid opinions for every topic.