Antiprocess is a powerful subconscious tactic that protects people from painful challenges to their beliefs.
I suspect that almost everyone’s had this experience. You think the other person (TOP) isn’t listening to you. TOP thinks you aren’t listening to them. The argument rages on as both of you keep trying to tell the other what they’re not understanding. Eventually, one or both of you give up in frustration. Why did TOP not listen to me? What was so hard to understand about my position? TOP kept saying I didn’t understand, but TOP was the one who didn’t understand! Meanwhile, nothing changes for anybody.
You both just experienced antiprocess.
Engaging meaningfully with new information is a process. Avoiding that engagement is called antiprocess. When it comes to people’s beliefs, antiprocess is how they avoid confronting challenges and contradictions, and still come out thinking that they totally nailed that fight.
Antiprocess is a different kind of safety measure
The human brain is a mind-blowing marvel of evolution. It’s also a very busy marvel. It has tens of thousands of decisions to deal with every day—as well as handling lots of tasks in the background. With that level of activity, our brains have had to develop a number of shortcuts. So they can ‘fill in’ blank spots in our memories (or in our eyesight and hearing). Or they can put us into autopilot while we drive home from work or perform routine housework.
That’s not even all our brains do. They also seek to keep us safe. After all, if a brain’s meat suit dies, it generally dies shortly afterward. So if the proverbial bushes rustle, the brain leaps to the assumption that a giant saber-toothed tiger lurks behind it—RUN! RUN NOW!
There are different kinds of risks, of course. Some take physical form, like that giant tiger. Others are risks to our happiness and our standing in our various social groups. And others still are risks to our most cherished beliefs.
For most people, antiprocess becomes an answer to those emotional risks. And because it’s not very well-known as a coping response, it can affect literally anybody on any side of any issue or topic. The more certain people are that they always engage thoughtfully and meaningfully with opposing viewpoints, the more careful they should be of getting caught up in antiprocess.
Process and antiprocess
Here’s how the process of engaging with new or different information usually works:
- You become aware of the information’s existence
- You compare the claim(s) to existing knowledge and consider the source
- If the information seems incorrect, you reject it
- If the information seems correct, you fit it into your current belief system
- You rework beliefs that relate to the new information so as to have a coherent, cohesive, consistent worldview
Generally speaking, this is exactly how most people process information—when the stakes are low.
If I think the library is open until 7pm tonight, but my better half thinks it closes at 5pm, then we have conflicting beliefs. But going to the library doesn’t exactly impact the fate of my world. We can ask Google for the library’s hours, or we can simply visit there before 5. Once we find out what the real hours are, then whoever was wrong can simply overwrite the incorrect information with the right answer.
Neither of us is going to blow up or get upset over being wrong about the library’s hours. Even people who would fight about such a thing are usually upset or angry about something else entirely.
That’s how processing information works.
Things work very differently when that new information challenges higher-stakes beliefs. That’s when our brains go into a completely different routine: antiprocess.
How antiprocess works (so we don’t have to)
The idea of antiprocess has been around for a couple of decades now, courtesy of Timothy Campbell. It hinges on two basic facts:
- Our brains are incredibly powerful and incredibly busy, so they’ll take whatever shortcuts they possibly can.
- We all have arsenals of learned techniques that we use subconsciously to protect ourselves from information that could bring us stress and discomfort.
The most amazing part of antiprocess is that people can use it all day long without being aware that it’s happening. They can get into constant arguments with people online or in real life and never realize they’re not actually engaging with the information those other people are trying to share with them.
They walk away from each negative encounter shaking their heads over how all those idiots refuse to listen to them—when they themselves weren’t listening. And indeed, perhaps neither of them were.
So if process corrects and fills in the gaps in our knowledge and senses, then antiprocess creates those gaps and preserves our errors.
Campbell provides a more technical definition of antiprocess:
Antiprocess is the preemptive recognition and marginalization of undesired information by the synergistic interplay of high-priority acquired mental defense mechanisms.“Introduction to Antiprocess,” Timothy Campbell
When antiprocess joins the party
Antiprocess shields us from information that might make us unhappy or stressed. As Upton Sinclair wrote almost a century ago:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked
The more someone treasures a particular belief as part of their identity—or the more that person fears being wrong about that belief—the more likely they are to defend against its undoing with antiprocess. That belief might be absolutely, provably false, even ridiculously false. But if it conveys some kind of reward to its holder, antiprocess will slam down like a citywide shield.
If you’ve ever tangled with religious zealots, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Indeed, Campbell notes that his first understanding of antiprocess came while he was mired deep in religious belief—and that most apologetics arguments draw upon antiprocess to work on believers:
Look over a list of rhetorical fallacies some day and note how many of them get used on a regular basis by people who don’t even know what they are. How did they pick them up? I believe they learned them by osmosis, because nobody is deliberately and willfully teaching them to think illogically.“Introduction to Antiprocess,” Timothy Campbell
I’m not 100% sure that his last statement is true, having audited an evangelical university’s apologetics lecture. But overall, yes, I’d agree.
Wherever they’ve learned the techniques, once someone begins to use antiprocess, they have shut down. They are now shielded. Nothing new is getting into them. Oh, sure, the conversation might continue for hours still, but antiprocess has taken over that person’s end of things. They’ve become like the android hosts of Westworld. What you have to share “doesn’t look like anything” to them.
A parade of Christian love to illustrate the idea
Recognizing antiprocess is very easy, once you know what you’re looking for. I’ll give some examples from some exchanges I had on Twixxer a few weeks ago. The OP threatened non-Christians with Hell. I replied that Hell isn’t real, so there’s nothing to fear. I also gave a link to a detailed series I wrote in 2021 about how Hell evolved as a concept—and why it works as a threat to ensnare so many people.
The results: A glorious antiprocess parade down Main Street.
One guy called me a “baphomite.” However, he did not engage with me at all. He was so afraid of engaging with anything I had to say that he just quote-tweeted me to insult me. (Very loving! Jesus is so very lucky to have him!)
(Related: All about that so-called ‘Christian love‘.)
Another dismissed me instead of examining the information I provided:
Nope, but this bit of cold reading sure allowed that person to ignore my information.
Several other Christians drilled down on threats as a way to avoid engagement with my information:
(I’ve no clue what a “GSW” might be.)
Notably, one Christian woman deployed threats as well. But compare the tone of her threat against those first two. She avoids engaging with my information by threatening me with Hell just like those other two did, but she decides to be simpering and sweetsy-syrupy about it:
And one person avoided engaging with me by reframing his threats to make his god sound slightly less monstrous and evil:
Funny how that still sounds exactly like a threat, eh?
The thing to know about this entire exchange is that the people who deployed antiprocess shields did it reflexively and immediately. Their Dear Leaders carefully trained them in the use of baffles and invalidation tools, and they learned these lessons well. As a result, none of them were in any danger whatsoever of engaging with my information even for a millisecond.
All of these Christians accomplished the all-important goal of avoiding all engagement with challenging information.
Tools and tactics
These particular Christians aren’t on social media to engage with other human beings on any meaningful scale. That would, of necessity, involve give-and-take conversation with other human beings. Alas, most human beings disagree with at least some if not all of their beliefs—and are therefore their sworn enemies.
No, they’re there to jerk off with other people’s hands, then congratulate themselves on being an evil god’s best li’l sycophants ever—all in hopes of him not torturing them forever and ever.
Here are some antiprocess tools that we all learn at some point in our lives, whether we use them or not:
- Simply avoiding sources of challenging information
- Invalidating the bearer of challenging tidings somehow
- Nodding and smiling to escape the encounter
- Offering up counter-examples and rebuttals that don’t actually relate to the challenging information (“Yes, but what about…?”)
In that Twixxer exchange above, nobody even approached the Hail Mary antiprocess tactic of stopping thought. That’s what those Westworld androids are doing when they declare that something “doesn’t look like anything” to them. Nothing I said even came close to tripping these Christians’ perimeter alarms.
I had a similar experience many years ago on Facebook when I said that the myth of Jesus cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season (Mark 11:12-14) made him sound like a Grade-A jerk. A guy in the group began sneering at me for taking the Bible’s myths literally. No matter how often I told him that I know the Bible’s myths are not in any way literally true, he was enjoying the smell of his own farts so much that he couldn’t absorb my reasoning.
To him, this exchange was just another opportunity to revel in his perceived superiority over those poor widdle literalist fundamentalists. That I was neither a literalist nor even a Christian didn’t matter. His “salary” consisted of those feelings of superiority. To get that “salary,” he couldn’t accept what I had to say.
Shooing antiprocess out of the party
Most liberal-leaning people already know that it’s next to impossible to correct a conservative’s false beliefs—be those beliefs about Hell or gods, or about how the government works, or even about the host of conspiracy theories that conservatives embrace.
About ten years ago, Peter Boghossian began teaching a method of conversation and discourse called “street epistemology.” This approach is designed to slip past people’s antiprocess shields.
And approaches like street epistemology work because they don’t take any traditional head-on, confrontational approaches that we’re used to seeing in discussions about potentially controversial subjects. These techniques are markedly different. They ask practitioners to actively listen to the other person, summarize what the other person has said, and ask probing questions to ascertain the source and firmness of the other person’s perspective.
Now to really boil our noodles: This thing doesn’t just affect conservatives
All this time, I’ve been talking about right-wing people: conservatives, evangelicals, conspiracy theorists, etc.
But antiprocess hits every one of us. Even if we really want to think of ourselves as people who engage meaningfully with all information, then assess it carefully, and finally only accept as true what actually is true in reality, there are times when antiprocess shuts down everyone’s ability to engage with information.
Liberals get hit by multi-level marketing scheme pitches too. They get skittish about vaccinations too. They probably don’t buy into QAnon, which is almost entirely the province of hardline evangelicals, but liberals can certainly fall into conspiracy-theory styles of thinking. Although the belief that 9/11 was an inside job is held across the political spectrum, for example, it was and remains strong on the left.
In essence, someone firmly on what you think of as “your side” can make you cringe to the very moon, and nothing you say to that person will dissuade them if they think they’re getting a “salary” out of acting or talking that way.
How to minimize antiprocess in your life
Antiprocess can be quite subtle, but if we’re to make our way forward in this life then it’s a good idea to minimize it wherever you can. There are entirely too many con artists and would-be cult leaders out there who capitalize on antiprocess techniques to grift and abuse others.
If you encounter a claim that paints you or your side in a very flattering light, investigate it even more carefully than you would one that does the square opposite. As Thomas Huxley put it, “[Science] warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my preconceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile.” Be open to something you don’t like being true.
Don’t be afraid of being proven wrong. Every one of us will be wrong at some point in our lives. Being wrong is an inescapable part of being human. When we fear being exposed in our wrongness, our minds will capitalize on antiprocess to protect us from that pain.
(Related: How I stopped fearing the botch.)
Learn to recognize thought stoppers, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies. The more quickly and easily you can recognize these three things, the easier it’ll be to recognize antiprocess—in both yourself and others.