How The Illusion of Us vs. Them is Making You Stupid

Dear reader, this one might piss you off. Please suspend your judgement for a few minutes and read the whole thing. Here we go. 😀

I’ll use a simple analogy to illustrate both a person’s belief system (how you think this reality works) and perceptual filters (what you can see and how you see it). To hideously oversimplify, this is a template of your brain. The nodes represent different parts dedicated to concepts like IQ, language, culture, morality, justice, interpersonal relationships etc.


When you are born, while growing up and learning, these concepts connect in certain patterns that represent your understanding of the world, how you think it works and how you think it should work.


Let’s say this pattern or structure represents the totality of your thoughts, values, attitudes, beliefs and experience as a bipedal mammal, walking around on a floating rock in cold, empty space, up until this point in your life. For the purpose of this article, I’ll just call it your filter. The way this pattern emerges is influenced by:

  1. Genetics
  2. Circumstances
  3. Experience

Once it is formed, it tends to remain stable unless a person is forced into wildly different experiences than before. Small changes happen, but the overall structure remains essentially the same. You have to put in a fair amount of conscious effort to examine it, analyse it and attempt to change it.

Genetics don’t necessarily represent something written in stone, but the potential within which you can evolve. By circumstances I mean your environment, where and how your were born (e.g. complications during birth can lead to severe mental impairment), the parents you had, the culture you were born in etc. Experience just means what happened to you during life and how you internalized it.

Taking this into account, people can grow drastically different filters.


Whenever you receive any input (like reading or hearing something), that input has to pass through your filter. (Colored space represents area through which input CAN pass.)

Filter i input.png

Whenever two individuals interact, it’s like their filters are passing through each other. And more often than not, the filters (and inputs) don’t align perfectly. Think square peg in a round hole. This causes friction, which is essentially manifested as emotions. It can be positive or negative, or anywhere in between.

Slight mismatches like different preferred foods, books, clothing, music or TV-shows cause a small amount of friction and can enrich an interaction and spark interesting conversation.

Dva (malo) razl filtra.png

Positive friction2.png
Huge overlap + Small friction = Positive emotion

Sometimes the mismatch can be drastic. Differences between ethnic or religious groups, left-wing and right-wing, meat-eaters and vegans, pro-life and pro-choice, Trump support and opposition, Mars and Snickers, all cause a LOT of friction (emotion).


Small overlap + Huge friction = Negative emotion

If a certain piece of info doesn’t fit through your filter, it’s going to cause some emotions. Don’t take this idea to literally. Sometimes people go crazy over small differences and people from totally different cultures benefit from their mutual exchange. Just keep the basic idea in mind.

Sometimes the two shapes can be so different that they miss each other completely. Consider meeting someone from an uncontacted Amazon tribe and showing him a smartphone. You try to explain that it can take photos, access the Internet and call someone from the other side of the world. But she doesn’t have a reference point for “photo”, “internet” and “someone from the other side of the world”. She’s never experienced it and the interaction only results in confusion.


No overlap – no common ground, trouble  understanding

Now for a more controversial example. The first person believes all life is sacred. The second person believes killing is OK if it’s the non-believers, in the name of his god. The third person believes we’re all a bunch of atoms anyway, and that one group of atoms dispersing another group of atoms is totally irrelevant, because none of it matters in an infinite universe.

The title says “illusion” because each person believes his/her perspective is the correct one and the other is deceiving himself. But from a totally unbiased point of view, you simply see two clumps of organic matter being angry at each other for viewing the same things and events through different filters.


It’s like one is wearing glasses with green lenses and tells the other that the world is green. But the other is wearing orange lenses and doesn’t believe the first person, because he can’t even see green.

All of them are operating from within their system, unable or unwilling to perceive anything that can’t pass their filter. From their perspective, they are “right” and the other person is “wrong”. “Good”, “bad”, “right” or “wrong” is just a result of friction between your filter and certain input (or someone else’s filter). Outrage and being offended is a result of friction between two filters.

None of this represents my point of view regarding any specific issue. I only want to point out how something can fit Person A’s filters but causes a lot of friction in Person B (or doesn’t register at all). I’m not trying to justify any behavior whatsoever, nor devalue anyone’s beliefs. Nor take any imaginary moral high ground. After Star Wars: Episode III, the mere words “higher ground” are a trigger for me. XD

Do you feel some friction between these ideas and your filters yet? Did this text piss you off? Are you aware of any triggers it activated? I’m certain you can think of at least three social, political, scientific or environmental issues that make your blood boil. Now, if you want to discuss this topic, please don’t prove Godwin’s law. I know there are extreme cases where it’s too painful for people to apply this perspective.

So what if you’re in conflict with a person with radically different opinions on a subject you’re discussing?

You don’t have to passively accept someones behavior, just try to realize how someone could have acquired (through genetics, exposure to circumstances and experiences) a filter/belief system that makes them behave a certain way. Also, you don’t have to understand someones point of view. In a way it could be impossible because you have never had that filter yourself. But you can understand that someone evolved with a different combination of genetics, circumstances and experience, right?

More importantly, try to understand your own triggers and why they happen. How is your filter shaped to cause friction with certain input?

You can’t change anyone’s filter by force. Nor can you (hopefully) eliminate everyone who doesn’t agree with you. At some point you have to cooperate and make compromises. Accept that certain changes, however beneficial they may be, could take a while.

The problem with the classic Us vs. Them duality is that you always think it’s Us OR Them. Could a scenario exist where both could have their way? Again, I’m not suggesting, but I do want you to open up a bit and start thinking in different directions. Maybe you can think of a third point of view?

I see this happen in every facet of modern life. Climate change, vaccines, animal rights, feminism, LGBTQ rights etc. These are all typical Us vs. Them mentalities and they’re causing a lot of harm. “Us vs. them” is an illusion. We’re all people, working to the best of our abilities within our own belief system.

Some of your filters and triggers might be in place to serve someone else’s best interest, not your own. If two countries go to war, it often happens because the politicians of those countries cause problems, not the citizens. And then you have young people dying to serve old people’s interests. The young people who survive develop filters that get triggered by the people from the “opposing” country. That’s a dangerous situation to be in.

This is especially effective in combination with fear. Whenever an authority figure tries to sell you something by getting you scared first, it’s time to stop and think. Are those laws really necessary? Do I really need that product? Fact checking first, reactions later.

What can you do to become aware of your filter?

Practice mindfulness and vigilance. Next time something rustles your jimmies, try taking a step back and really look at why you’re reacting. What, exactly, caused the emotion?

Realized that getting pissed, sad or scared isn’t helping anyone. Strong emotions cloud your judgement. You’re not operating at 100% and you’re making mistakes. Essentially, you’re being stupid. Be aware of what’s in your control and what isn’t. Your thoughts, attitudes and actions are within your control. Everything else simply isn’t. So work on what’s in your control.

Imagine you’re sitting in a cinema located in the back of your head. You’re looking at the screen, which is projecting what your eyes are looking seeing at that moment. What is your body doing? Is it tense? Are you breathing hard? Take a deep breath, slow down, and really think. How does the issue look through your filter? Through the other person’s filter? What does the issue look like for a third, unbiased person, with no filter at all? Just hard, cold facts. What does the government see regarding the issue, through their filter? How about poor people? Rich people? Aliens checking humanity out?

Over time you’ll get a sense of how your mind really works. How it reacts and makes automatic associations. It’s biased and jumps to conclusions. Take a look at the most common cognitive distortions and cognitive dissonance. Every time you catch and stop yourself at one of these, it’s like you’re lifting another veil in front of your eyes and mind. It’s a powerful feeling. 🙂

Keep working on yourself and never assume you’re totally free of bias. If you still prefer Snickers over Mars, something is definitely wrong. 😛

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