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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

O'Reilly: Let's pierce our comfort zones

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There isn’t a lot I recall from the college classroom. My visits therein were appallingly rare.

But Kelly’s Construct Theory cries out from some foggy psychology lecture hall memory, demanding fresh reflection in a digital age.

George Kelly’s approximate idea — I’m certain to butcher this — is that individuals view the world as scientists. We gather data points based on personal experiences with which we then frame out our basic worldviews. Prof. So-and-So drew a circle around a collection of dots on a chalkboard to illustrate Kelly’s point, with each dot representing a defining life experience — a stinging loss, the singe from a hot stove, a mother’s unconditional love. Then, with dramatic flair, he marked a fat new chalk mark outside the construct circle. What does one do with that?

Kelly, a social scientist, said we have two choices: Expand our circle of understanding to incorporate the outlier or suffer anxiety in finding our carefully constructed worldview blown up.

Kelly’s Theory was forced to mind by my neighbor Dan Guyder, a sharp bankruptcy attorney who has been dutifully walking the neighborhood throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each morning as I sat on my porch atrophying, Dan, glowing with health, would bound up my driveway to commiserate on our shared disquiet with the Trump-led Republican Party. It’s what similar-minded people do; we seek out one another to reinforce our belief that they — not we — are the crazy ones.

What most perplexed us was the disparity of opinion we held with friends with whom we were once so ideologically simpatico. What happened to them? How could they not see what we saw?

The piecemeal conversation led to modern information technology, how readers are now fed a steady diet of material that simply reinforces their outlooks, Dan’s and mine included. Twenty years ago, we leafed through newspapers, acquiring knowledge about a cornucopia of issues on our march to the sports or opinion page. Today, we’re algorithmically spoon-fed what the supercomputers know we want, and little else. These "filter bubbles" are dividing us, perhaps as never before. Kellyites might suggest they’re driving our national anxiety.

So here’s the brilliant idea Dan came up with on a recent porch visit, one that may make Kelly smile from his heavenly perch. Why not use filter bubbles to challenge assumptions rather than reinforce them? What would be the harm?

Think Amazon. Click on any product and you’re instantly offered competing brands. Dove introduces you to Lever 2000; Colgate to Crest. Why not do that with political opinion? Like Nietzsche? Try Kierkegaard — the exact opposite of how algorithms feed us today. It would broaden, not narrow, our outlooks.

Liberals and conservatives should have no problem with this if they’re truly confident in their opinions. More information is always better than less information — no?

One can, of course, voluntarily force oneself to consume competing outlooks. But let’s be real. Most of us have fallen into the trap of reading whatever Google News prescribes or what Fox or CNN have to say, rarely both.

Congress is grappling with emerging societal challenges emanating from modern-day content disseminators. It’s sure to overreact. Maybe one of those companies could consider a prophylactic experiment along Kelly’s and Guyder’s lines.

I’m happy to serve as a guinea pig.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.