Several years ago Thom and I attended a workshop where the speaker asked us the question, “How open-minded are you about closed- minded people?” It was asked in the context that here we all were, thinking we had the right and perfect solution to the world’s problems, and yet this simple question asked us, “so what makes you think you are so smart/spiritual/aware that you have the right/ true/correct answer to whatever is going on?” Huh?
SMART living requires that we are to take full responsibility for our lives if we want to live happy, and rewarding lives. But in order to be fully responsible for what’s going on, then we have to first be aware, and then second, realize that even when we think we know, there can always be a different or bigger perspective that we are clueless about. Even when we try to be as opened-minded as possible, we always have a blind spot here and there. And often, the more we fight something the more it “backfires.”
This idea is confirmed in a recent article I read on: http://youarenotsosmart.com/ The blog, written by author David McRaney is about something he calls “the backfire effect” which suggests that whenever “your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.” Whoa? In other words, research shows that even when a retraction in a newspaper comes out after a mistake, most people tend to believe the mistake even when the news source apologized and explained the error—most especially if it fit into their previously held world view. Yep, liberals believed a story that highlighted a widely-held liberal perspective even when it was flat-out wrong, while conservatives did the same when the error-ridden story tilted in a conservative direction.
As McRaney says in his article, “Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead. Over time, the backfire effect helps make you less skeptical of those things which allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.”
Much as I would like to believe I am open-minded and able to see the “big picture” in all situations, that is simply not true. The more attached I am to an idea, concept or circumstance, the more this bias occurs without my even being aware. Psychologists call this biased assimilation. This bias suggests that we all see life according to our attitudes and ideologies, or as wisdom teachings say, “we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.” And, as the original question asks, how can we be really open-minded with others when the very human tendency we all face is one of being closed minded from the get-go?
This morning Thom and I got into a short but vigorous discussion. I mentioned I had read in the paper that fees for a local solar project were delayed for future discussion. When Thom heard about it, he started expressing his disapproval for the amount of the fee in the first place, along with the belief that it was last minute negotiation, and a political move without merit. On the other side, I thought it raised good questions about whether the solar project was beneficial for the area or not, whether it could actually damage the environment rather than help, and whether the project was biased towards big-business at the expense of locals or the middle class. Clearly, we were seeing the topic from very different viewpoints. The more Thom argued for his position, the stronger I felt about mine. What became clear is how instinctually we defended our approaches and didn’t even hear what the other was saying. And we love one-another! What happens when the person we disagree with lives outside our understanding of “family?” All out war?
What can we do about it? As with many things related to SMART Living, just the focused awareness of the tendency can often help to shift both our thinking and actions. Knowing that we are all challenged to be open about other people’s opinions and actions based upon our own unconscious biases can go a long way towards helping. And perhaps the best awareness comes from understanding that the more we fight anything, different points of view as well as just about everything else, we reinforce it rather than dissipate it. Plus, as the backfire effect suggests, the more we argue, the more we unintentionally help others to simply reinforce what they already believe—true or not. In the end, in order to be sincerely open-minded, we need to acknowledge our own prejudices and keep our own mind wide open as much as possible.