Memes dominate online discourse as a medium, especially in the forums meant for political topics, with one of the most popular of them being the NPC meme. An NPC is a “non-player character” in a video game that is scripted to act in a certain way. It’s meant to mock those who automatically believe the popular consensus and who acts like a Non-Player Character in real life.
Individuals who categorized others into the NPC archetype would describe themselves as “independent thinkers,” antithetical to their opponents who accept the mainstream narrative like “robots.”
I could be taking a meme too seriously. However, the reality is far more nuanced, and perhaps no one can truly be an “independent thinker.”
Before anything, we need to define an independent thinker. One definition states an “independent thinker analyzes information through their own judgment rather than blindly conform to popular sentiments.” The issue with that definition is that “the thinker” can be “free of others’ influence” but not entirely independent of their own prejudices.
Alongside individual biases, everyone has cognitive biases influenced by personal experiences. These biases function subconsciously, so it’s hard for a person to detect them on their own. Sure, one can find ways to work around them, but biases cannot be lost entirely. Alongside cognitive biases, there are also logical fallacies. And the thing is, the vast majority of people aren’t aware of all of them.
Besides individual flaws, we also must consider the effects of social conditioning. Everyone is influenced by society to varying degrees. The dependency on society goes beyond just material dependency and includes psychological attachment. Alongside that, people’s aspirations often align with goals considered worthy by society. Many of those who fall into the trap of “Hustle Culture” do so under work-addicted societies that view copious amounts of wealth as the end goal.
So this brings me to my primary point: We are neither “NPCs” nor wholly independent thinkers. We all fall on the spectrum between the two. Of course, there are people more prone to groupthink vs. others who are not as much. And another thing to note is that a person may also have differing degrees of independent thinking varying by subject. For example, a respected astrophysicist may be bold in his astronomical hypotheses. Still, in the field of climate science, they may be more likely to hold mainstream opinions and not with as much conviction. When it comes to non-polarizing issues, the average person is expected to defer to authority as it saves a lot of effort from needing to research things themselves.
But conversely, people aren’t complete products of the environment and have some agency over themselves. On the flip side, dismissing someone as a NPC, in itself, is somewhat dehumanizing, assuming one has little agency over their thoughts. That’s precisely why it’s important to understand someone’s reason for believing certain things. Not only does this combat misinformation, but it helps reduce friction between opposing groups.
This brings me to my final point: “doing your own research” and its benefits. Independent research helps an individual question beliefs and authorities to seek an understanding of certain institutions instead of always settling for the contrarian’s POV. Questioning ideas help strengthen the trust and integrity of institutions by reinforcing the knowledge of why we need them. This is opposed to the alternative usage of “questioning” to let less credible institutions take their place, creating a market for subjective truths where one can find “evidence” for just about anything they believe.
Painting oneself as a free thinker is undoubtedly appealing, especially in our current social climate. But it’s important not to fall into that trap. We should try and understand our limitations as humans. And perhaps our way forward starts when we work on them, together, in good faith.