Antiprocess shields are the explanation for why you sometimes feel like you’re talking to a brick wall when you tell someone stuff they don’t want to know. Antiprocess is an ingenious brain-designed shortcut for avoiding the processing of challenging information. Almost all of us use it to some extent, though some folks use it a lot more than others. We’re going to explore this concept and see it working in the wild. Then, we’re going to find ways to slip past it.
Internet Archive, which hosted previous archives of this information, was down when I began writing today. I suspect the reason involves their current court battle. In case that downtime happens again, I’m going to present the idea here, so we always have it. Welcome, friends, to an installment of the Codex Disbelievium!
(Archives still exist on Archive.today, thankfully, but they’re incomplete and much harder to read there due to that site not automatically capturing outlinks. Thank you, whoever archived this info a second time on Archive.today, back in 2013.)
(This post first appeared on Patreon on 3/21/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too! Both should be available to anybody by the time you see this.)
Antiprocess shields: A definition
Process describes how we absorb, organize, and integrate new information. So antiprocess is how we avoid doing exactly that. Way back in 2004, during those wild and woolly early days of Internet 2.0, Timothy Campbell provided a great writeup of antiprocess on his personal site.
Campbell’s goal was simple. He wanted to explain why it is that we can absolutely have all the facts on our side of a debate or argument, but the other person refuses to change their mind. To start, he gave three explanations in descending order of formality:
The Formal Explanation: Antiprocess is the preemptive recognition and marginalization of undesired information by the synergistic interplay of high-priority acquired mental defense mechanisms.
An Informal Explanation: People can very cleverly defend their beliefs without having to fully understand the arguments against them.
A Very Informal Explanation: They’re not being annoying on purpose.
In short, antiprocess allows people to maintain their beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they don’t have the facts on their side. It allows them to filter out challenges to their beliefs, often without even realizing they’re doing it—and often, while they’re loudly proclaiming their willingness to change their minds if presented with facts that contradict their opinions.
As you might imagine, this idea really resonated with anybody who tangled with evangelical keyboard warriors in the 2010s.
Sidebar: What the formal explanation means, according to the concept’s creator
The formal explanation uses a bucketload of 25-cent words, doesn’t it? But Campbell gives us an excellent breakdown in his conclusion to his series of posts:
Let’s take that definition apart…
… the preemptive recognition … means that antiprocess filters information before it reaches conscious awareness.
… marginalization of undesired information … means that antiprocess doesn’t have to destroy information for it to be effective. All it has to do is dispense with it somehow. The information is “undesired” because it threatens one’s state of comfort.
… synergistic interplay … means that antiprocess can call on one’s entire set of skills. The smarter you are, the smarter your antiprocess is. Listen to a debate involving one of the primary proponents of Young-Earth Creationism if you want to see this in action.
… high-priority acquired mental defense mechanisms means that the mental “shields” are given primacy over other concerns (such as the search for truth). I included the word “acquired” because I believe that most (and possibly all) of our wrong-headed mental defense mechanisms are either reinforced, taught to us, or picked up by osmosis throughout our lives.
This is completely accurate. I’ve seen all of this description on display in evangelical keyboard warriors, but also in other people who are locked in similarly-toxic, tribalistic groups.
This is why even really smart people can get caught up in those sorts of groups. It might even be easier for these groups’ leaders and recruiters to capture smart people, because they’ll be convinced that nobody could ever snooker them. Once captured, smart people’s antiprocess shields become both sophisticated and layered with multiple deflection and negating techniques.
Our brains operate 24/7, and they don’t really wanna
Ironically perhaps, even people who very much want to build their opinions only on facts can fall prey to antiprocess. That’s because it operates at a level well below our conscious recognition. It’s something our brains do to avoid hard work and unpleasant realizations.
Our brains are busy little bees. They never rest, not even when we ourselves sleep. They’re always having to absorb, integrate, and then organize the information we take in all the time. That brain accounts for about 20% of our daily energy intake, too, and our brains still think energy input doesn’t grow on trees. So to save time and all-important, totally-limited energy, our brains evolved all kinds of shortcuts to do its many tasks.
Scientists call these shortcuts heuristics. (If you sorta are reminded of the word hermeneutics, you’re ahead of the game. Hermeneutics are the mindsets people have when reading or studying the Bible. One hermeneutic is literalism.)
A heuristic is how our brains quickly make difficult decisions or judgment calls. And it helps brains conserve energy, as well as helping us move on to other activities we need to perform to get more energy for our huge, hungry brains.
How one heuristic works
“Somebody sees lights flashing in the sky. They never seen it before. They don’t understand what it is. They say: A UFO! The ‘U’ stands for unidentified. So they say: ‘I don’t know what it is. It must be aliens from outer space visiting from another plan[e]t.'”
Neil Tyson quotes the person’s spontaneous thoughts on the “lights flashing in the sky” almost in a stream of consciousness manner. Their judgment is riddled with quick and intuitive assessments and full of free associations with other familiar concepts such as aliens. It’s a good example of a mental shotgun, a spontaneous extrapolation from lights in the sky to the presence of a spacefaring civilisation within seconds. [. . .]
But our mind just likes to shoot first and then ask questions. The misapplication happens when the quick and easy answer to an obviously complex problem is not caught in time and used to make far-reaching decisions.
But heuristics are not the only explanation for how easy it is to avoid dealing with information we don’t like.
Antiprocess as a filter our brains use
As I mentioned, we’re bombarded with information 24/7 as we go about our days. Even if we’re just staying home and not doing much, we’re still bombarded. Ever seen a movie or read a book in which someone suddenly develops telepathic powers, and they get completely overwhelmed by the sudden influx of information? That’s us, all the time, just as we go around being regular people.
To deal with that influx, our lazy brains develop filters to slide past information that they don’t think is worth spending precious resources on absorbing, organizing, and integrating. As Campbell puts it, it’s like being in a crowded room, hearing conversations going all around us, but we only perk up when we hear our names. Our brains recognize the sound of it, and they bring it right to our attention.
Those filters also keep the brain from spending precious resources on dealing with information that will potentially hurt our feelings or seriously challenge our worldview. Nobody likes to feel bad, after all.
And in particular, authoritarians don’t like to feel wrong. Their entire sense of safety relies on them picking the right options all the time. They must remain in the good graces of their tribe and those more powerful than themselves, or they risk becoming the next targets of both.
People want to feel right. But they also want to feel like all of the facts are on their side. They’re right, and they’re right for the right reasons.
Antiprocess in the wild
That’s why Preston Sprinkle, in his anti-gay book People to Be Loved, spends a good deal of time in Chapter One describing his incredible bravery in publicly announcing his pacifism. Evangelicals tend to be gun nuts and eager for war and conflict. However, Sprinkle came out against all of that.
He tells us this story because he thinks it’s a great example of how amenable he is to changing his mind. On page 17, he even tells us, “I’ve always been eager to test my traditional beliefs by Scripture.”
His antiprocess shield is showing.
You see, evangelicals don’t consider pacifism a dealbreaker. It represents a tolerable difference of opinion. They’re willing to let an evangelical go there. After all, that evangelical is unlikely to change the opinion of the tribe as a whole. If that becomes too likely, then they put the brakes on that person.
That’s exactly what happened to beloved Christian author Eugene Peterson. Evangelicals are not willing to tolerate any other evangelical publicly supporting gay and bi people’s absolute right to a full life of romantic love with anyone of the same sex. Even hinting at that opinion almost got Peterson’s entire life burned to the ground.
So no way was Sprinkle gonna tell evangelicals to stay out of other people’s private lives. No way was his antiprocess allowing him to move from understanding the devastating impact of anti-gay bigotry (which he definitely does, let’s be clear) to realizing he needs to quit trying to change and control gay and bi people.
Instead, antiprocess allowed him to move from that understanding to the delusional belief that it’s possible for evangelicals to find a nicer way to express their bigotry and control others’ lives. It helped him find Bible verses that support that delusional belief. And it even allows him to feel like he’s found the magical way to express bigotry that won’t lead to vulnerable gay people, as he puts it himself, “wanting to kill themselves” (p. 15).
Reality itself can’t change his mind.
He’s got antiprocess filters going at full force.
How antiprocess deflects challenging information
When it comes to our opinions, antiprocess can deflect challenging information before we’re even consciously aware of it happening. It’s like the “lightning field” around Emperor Ming’s palace in Flash Gordon. It repels anything challenging from getting too close.
And often, antiprocess repels that information before it even rises in our awareness to the level of our names spoken in a crowded room.
I can guarantee you that evangelicals like Preston Sprinkle don’t ever truly engage with challenging ideas. The moment we remind them that vulnerable gay people suffer enormously under their persecution no matter how simperingly and dishonestly they present their bigotry, they have an arsenal of deflections and counter-accusations to offer in turn. And I’ve personally heard every one of these:
- Those evangelicals didn’t believe the right things.
- They misinterpreted something the Bible clearly says.
- Once they’re properly educated in what the Bible clearly says, evangelicals’ bigotry loses all its harmfulness. (As the night follows the day.)
- Christian love, presented correctly in their idealized way, would never lead anyone to feel that way.
- Thus, all evangelicals everywhere just need to change who they are and how they operate as an entire group. When that happens, nobody will ever feel hopelessly devastated. (That’ll never happen, so Sprinkle and his ilk can feel perfectly safe in making this demand and prediction.)
- If any bigotry was presented their way, by someone holding their exact beliefs, then obviously the evangelical who did it had the wrong intentions or motivations. That messes up the magic spell that leads to gay/bi people feeling loved, then changing their entire lives to suit their new masters.
- Non-Christians don’t ever understand real love like TRUE CHRISTIANS™ do. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ can’t drop bigotry because that wouldn’t be real love! GYAAAAH! You want TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to stop being loving? Yikes, what kind of monster are you?
And then, the evangelical using this antiprocess will go on their merry way with their beliefs unchanged and unchallenged.
How antiprocess shields get activated
We’ve actually learned a lot about how antiprocess shields get activated.
First and foremost, if someone feels challenged about a belief that is very important to them, then those shields go right up. That’s why anyone involved in a multi-level marketing scheme (MLM) instantly starts parroting thought stoppers whenever anybody suggests that these are scams meant to fleece the unwary and those who can’t think critically about money-making schemes. The victims of these scams see them as their lucky golden ticket to the chocolate factory in that Willy Wonka movie.
Just as Charlie’s family perceived his lucky golden ticket as their salvation, MLM victims view their new scam as the only way to fix their current financial situation. But more than that, it’s their route to a level of financial freedom that they’d previously considered impossible to attain. Those challenging the veracity of the victim’s cult-like programming are challenging their victims’ entire basis for hope.
Instead of directly asserting that MLMs are scams and that the victim has been hoodwinked, those wishing to help victims must go another route.
They must bypass the antiprocess shield.
How that works for MLMs and cults
One person suggests asking the victim to keep scrupulous track of expenditures versus incoming sales. Because that’s a recognized, well-known, and sensible business practice, and MLMs teach their victims to think of themselves as legitimate business owners, this advice might slip right through the edges of the shield.
Rick Ross, a cult deprogrammer and analyst, suggests a carefully-outlined intervention.
When asked if the process used to extract someone from an MLM was the same as the one he uses on victims of cults like Scientology, Ross laughed. “It is. It’s exactly the same process.”
Though an intervention is effective only half the time, it sounds like, it can still jar an MLM victim out of their misplaced faith in their scheme, its often-idolized founder, and their likelihood of making real money by participating in it.
Evangelicals, particularly white ones, tend to surround themselves with like-minded people. So interventions might not be an option. Evangelical groups tend to quickly isolate their members from anyone who might burst their faith bubble.
However, the other method might look like suggesting a prayer journal to keep track of prayer requests. That way, the evangelical can plainly see that their prayer requests never result in verifiable miracles. They might also see that their requests tend to start very bombastic and huge, like “peace in the Middle East,” but dwindle in scope rapidly over the evangelical’s time in the tribe.
(BTW, that actually happened to me! I didn’t keep a prayer journal, though. If I had, I think I’d have noticed it while it was happening. When I finally did notice it, that dwindling effect had already happened long ago. That moment of noticing, in and of itself, formed a devastating blow to my faith.)
And sometimes, people just need time
If someone feels put on the spot about their beliefs, or like they’ve been pushed against a wall, those antiprocess shields go straight up in those cases as well. Nobody wants to feel forced to do anything. Antiprocess here becomes a defense mechanism.
You will never change someone’s mind if they feel defensive or attacked. Ever. It won’t happen. It’s never happened. At most, you might buy their seeming compliance. But deep down, they will resent having to make even that show of compliance. Their beliefs will remain unchanged, though, and those beliefs may even intensify and solidify in greater depth.
When an otherwise well-meaning person seems very resistant to challenging facts, that may be what’s happening there. They might just need a little time to think over the information or to engage with those facts. When they stop feeling defensive, they may come to new conclusions based on the information provided. It won’t happen right then, so don’t demand it happen right then.
Instead, present your information. After that, step away from the discussion. Table it for a few days out, if the other person agrees to such an idea—and if it’s very important that consensus be reached, like if the information involves a couple’s parenting guidelines or a manager’s changing job requirements. If it’s that necessary, then most folks will figure out a way to make peace with it—or they won’t, which will lead to a shakeup of its own.
If consensus isn’t absolutely necessary, then you will need to decide if the disagreement is a dealbreaker or not. I don’t think most disagreements are, and I tend to regard with suspicion any group that thinks that about any and all disagreements.
Antiprocess keeps us from reality and the truth
Ultimately, antiprocess keeps us away from reality. It prevents us from building our opinions out of facts. But it also prevents those using it from even realizing they came close to engaging with any challenging facts in the first place!
That’s why Campbell’s writeup of antiprocess concludes:
Antiprocess doesn’t help Bob get any closer to truth, but his mind has already assessed the information in advance and perceived a threat. Thus, the last thing it wants is understanding, even if that means turning away from truth. That’s because at a level below Bob’s awareness, his mind has decided that there is a threat to his mental equilibrium.
To state the key point once again: he is not aware that this is happening. As far as he can tell, he really is debating in good faith.
Of course, as far as the other person is concerned, Bob seems incredibly dense.
Though we might not like to consider this idea, we have all been on both sides of that experience.
Recognizing antiprocess in ourselves
That means that the hardest antiprocess to recognize is the antiprocess that we ourselves are utilizing right then.
If we really do want to build our opinions on facts, though, then I’d gently suggest that we not use our human foibles as an excuse. Instead, we can learn to distinguish between antiprocess and actively-engaged disagreement.
I’d suggest examining yourself carefully if you:
- Are convinced that everyone in the world is an idiot regarding a particular opinion or political stance, or that only stupid or malicious people could possibly disagree with your opinion/stance
- Immediately reject a new or contradictory claim out of hand, especially if the other person hasn’t even finished saying the words of it yet
- Ever notice that one set of facts can produce two or more wildly different opinions (see also: doctrinal yardstick); one or more opinion might well be antiprocess-driven
- Get criticized for not listening to the other person, or not understanding their reasons for holding their opinion/stance
- Worry or ruminate on certain ideas without achieving resolution on them; they may be part of an antiprocess defense against something else that’d bother you a lot more if you thought about it
- Notice you’re using thought stoppers and logical fallacies to respond to information, especially information you don’t like: these include whataboutism, “yes, but” protests, and outright dismissals, along with many more besides
- Really don’t want to sit with the information; you prefer to reject it out of hand
- Find that your facts are less reliable than you thought
Likewise, if you notice someone acting this way, then they aren’t ready to engage meaningfully right then with what you have to say. It’s best to disengage. If you like, leave the door open for future engagement.
But only if you like. It’s always okay to walk away.
As well, you’re not obligated to humor anyone, especially not people you think are acting in bad faith. I present this list only as a proposed guideline for encounters you want to have, as well as those you consider done in good faith.
Antiprocess is part of being human
Remember, our lazy brains pursue antiprocess filtering and shielding precisely because it means less work for those brains and less discomfort for their meatsacks on a personal level. If we fall prey to antiprocess, then, it’s not an indictment of our virtue or intelligence. That’s just part of being human.
As a great bard once said, Welcome to Earth. As an even greater one once said:
Being wrong is also part of being human. So is refusing to accept that we’re wrong, or refusing to change to align better with the known facts of a matter.
And likewise, so is growing past being wrong, recognizing it, owning it, and moving forward again. It hurts a bit more in the short run, yes. However—in my very humble opinion as one of billions of meatsacks filling this round, wet, crowded planet—it sure feels a lot better in the long run.
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Just in case anyone needs/wants them, here are the archive.today links for all of the pages of the antiprocess writeup by Timothy Campbell: