What Happens When Our Sense of a Shared Reality Erodes?

As humans, one of our core motivations is to share our inner experiences with others. Starting in infancy we learn to shift our inner states to attune with those around us, and throughout our lives, we rely on others to help us regulate our emotions. We are biologically primed to be moved by the emotional states of others and to seek the resonance that comes from shared emotional experiences.

As adults, checking our emotional state with that of others can come in the form of a “reality check.” How often have you asked a friend to check your assumptions, help ease your possibly irrational fears, or tell you if you are overreacting? We ask for these opinions because we know that our view of reality can get twisted by our emotions, fears, and conditioning. We are aware that sometimes a shared understanding of reality can bring us closer to the truth than our own individual experience can.

So what happens when our sense of shared reality dissolves?

On an interpersonal level, a lack of shared reality leads to conflict and ultimately can end a relationship. You might go as far as to say that a lack of shared reality is the reason for most divorces. That is because without a shared reality two people can’t really connect. They don’t feel seen or heard, and their arguments are fruitless because they can’t understand each other’s perspectives. A shared reality doesn’t require agreement, it just requires the willingness to see how two opposing perspectives can arise from the same experience, and the ability to hold that both of these perspectives can co-exist inside the same reality.

Even if two people can’t agree, a perceived commonality of inner states (ex. we both feel frustrated, and misunderstood and want connection), can shift an interaction in a profound way. Trying to make someone agree with you, instead of finding your common ground actually erodes a shared reality because persuasion pulls us away from it. We feel that instead of finding the reality we share, the other person is discounting our reality and trying to pull us into theirs.

If a lack of shared reality spells interpersonal doom, what are the consequences of a lack of a collective shared reality?

When we can no longer make sense of the world together, a collective psychosis of sorts ensues. Just like a person experiencing a bout of paranoid psychosis, we don’t trust anyone, and we think everyone is out to manipulate us. We think our delusions are real.

We are on this path now. Our shared reality is steadily being destroyed. Fortunately, the causes are known and we can start moving in the other direction.

It is not just that our shared reality is being eroded, it is being actively manipulated.

That thought may sound like a paranoid delusion itself, but it’s not. There really are forces out there trying to manipulate us, and they are the biggest reason we can’t make collective sense of our world. When underlying everything is the supreme motivation of profit, there is very little reality checking being done. When the goal of shifting the public’s attention and perspectives in whatever way will increase profits, supersedes the desire to find truth and connection, our shared reality erodes.

Social media is the slayer of our shared reality

In the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam writes about the decline in participation in clubs, social activities, worship services, and time spent with our families. Instead of creating a shared reality in person, with people we feel emotionally resonate with, we have created that reality online, often with strangers. We now create a shared reality in a place where manipulation for profit benefits from distorting the truth and our sense of reality.

The algorithms that are used to keep us engaged and buying things from advertisers are showing each of us a different slice of reality. The slice we are shown confirms what we already believe and stokes our fears to the point that uncertainty is too uncomfortable to explore, and compassion for others’ views feels like a dangerous luxury.

Because one of our core drives is to seek resonance with others, it’s no wonder we are so polarized. Perceived commonality makes us feel safe, seen, and understood, and who doesn’t want that? Understanding our core needs and drives as humans can help untangle this mess.

How to move towards a shared reality

Organizations that are successful are usually intentional. They understand human psychology and motivation and they use that to suit their purposes. We need to become intentional too. We need to understand our own psychology so that we aren’t easy targets for forces that use human nature to their advantage to the detriment of our well-being. Protecting, directing, and reality-checking our own minds is just the first step in re-building a shared reality.

To create a shared reality as a nation, we need shared facts, shared values, and shared purpose.
Shared facts

In an era of disinformation, fact-checking all information is critical. Don’t believe anything you read/hear without fact-checking. Be the gatekeeper of your own mind by creating a routine for checking information before you let it shape your reality. Here is a guide to assist with fact-checking.

Find trusted media sources, and resist the temptation to give your attention to those that you know are biased or use sensationalism. Stop using sites like Facebook and Twitter to obtain factual information. AllSides is one balanced news site recommend by the Center for Humane Technology, and they aim to provide world news from a cross-partisan perspective. Here are some tips on identifying credible news sources.

Learn about confirmation bias and notice when this might be popping up in your own mind. None of us are immune to this psychological tendency and we all need to be aware of how it shapes our reality. Here is an article from Psychology Today that further explains the concept.

Shared values

First, get clear about what your own personal values are. So many of us don’t take the time to do this, and it really is an exercise that can help you make decisions and act in ways that more closely align with the person you strive to be. Here is an article that can guide you through the process.

Look at your personal list of values and think about how they shape your views and priorities. When you’re aware of how your values shape your views you can also begin to see how other’s values shape theirs. Notice how many of our values are shared; I guarantee it is more than you’d think!

For example, we ALL value freedom, but a person who leads with freedom as a core value may have different political views than someone who ranks it further down the list. Regardless, most of us do share that value, and we can connect with the belief that freedom is vital. That connection allows us to better understand why another person might have certain views, and it allows us to talk in ways that highlight our shared values rather than highlight where our views diverge.

Shared purpose

Looking again at organizational leadership, it’s easy to see that successful organizations know how to create a shared reality and inspired collective action. They use a mission, vision, and values statement to set the framework for this action. Organizational leaders know that without a shared vision and purpose, along with guiding values, divergent players focused on their own desires make it very difficult to collectively accomplish anything.

Shared reality creates a common situational awareness that enables collective action. How can we act when we don’t collectively know where we are, or where we want to go? If we don’t have a sense of shared reality, none of our disagreements will end in compromise or understanding. We could end up a nation full of people who may as well be in the throes of a bout of paranoid psychosis.

As a nation, our purpose and values are in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. How can we uphold these values while also expanding our shared purpose to find solutions to the problems we face?

What are we working towards? If we are not working toward the same thing, where do our purposes overlap? What can we all get behind? There are more questions than answers here, but organizations like Visioning a Better America are exploring how we can create a shared purpose and inspire collective action. Just imagine what we could accomplish if our citizens and institutions were collaborating to achieve a common purpose instead of fighting for their own best interests?

One more thing: Compassion

A shared reality is not possible without compassion. The literal meaning of compassion is “suffer together.” It is the feeling that arises when you feel compelled to ease another’s suffering. There is evidence to support the idea that we are wired to care, at the neurochemical level. Not only are we driven to “feel” for others, but relieving others’ distress sets off biological reactions in our own brains that make us feel better. Compassion is also contagious! We are wired to connect and we are wired for a shared reality.

Compassion is an essential part of our evolutionary history. It defines who we are as a species. Without compassion, a shared reality is not possible, and without a shared reality, I fear we may become a nation full of citizens who slip into paranoid psychosis. If you think that sounds like an exaggeration, read more about the features of such a diagnosis, and see what you think. You just might become determined to work towards expanding our shared reality.

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Aimee O'Neil LLMSW

Aimee O'Neil LLMSW

Founder of Wisdom Cultivators

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