GEORGE: Why it's so hard to change our minds

 


OPINION


"Each of us tends to think we see things as they are, that we are objective. But this is not the case. We see the world, not as it is, but as we are — or, as we are conditioned to see it. When we open our mouths to describe what we see, we in effect describe ourselves, our perceptions, our paradigms."

— Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Why is it so hard to change our minds?

I spend a lot of time on social media, Facebook mainly. In the early days, back in 2007 or so, I used it as a way to keep in touch with family and to connect with old friends. I slowly began to use the platform to engage with others based more on ideas rather than existing relationships, people who shared some of my interests and some of my political views. These people tended to be far more engaging than my friends and family, but they were also nowhere near as diverse in their outlooks on the world.

I found myself, much as many other people did, in an echo chamber. My own ideas and biases were reflected back to me and there was very little disagreement to be had.

I am a curious person. I learn best through discussion and argument; by sharing ideas and working through the thinking that supports them. I knew that I was unlikely to run across new ideas or new facts about the world if I spent all of my time in that echo chamber. I also suspected the shallowness of my own thinking and wasn't arrogant enough to think that I could possibly be "right" about everything.

So I stepped back from Facebook for a couple of years and instead dove head first into Google+. Google+ allowed me to populate my social media feed using interests instead of individuals. I added groups from as broad a cross section of society as possible. Americans abound on social media, so I populated my feed with Democrats, Republicans, pro-war, anti-war, NRA supporters, communists, environmentalists, nationalists, anarchists, authoritarians and even Randian libertarians.

It took me three years or so to work my way through the morass, putting my ideas out there for examination and testing them against other people's perspectives. I even spent a bit of time on the CBC comment threads, back before they began shutting down the overt racism and down right nasty attitudes that became prevalent on stories pertaining to First Nations in Canada.

Along the way, I picked up a number of solid justifications for things I already believed, but didn't really find much to challenge my existing positions. I did make some adjustments to those positions when the facts were contrary to my previous thoughts, but nothing earthshaking. I asked myself how that could possibly be, given that there were so many people who didn't share my well justified beliefs. Were they wrong? Was I? If it was them, why wouldn't they accept the facts that I kept pointing out to them and make adjustments to their thinking? I mean, I had tried to do the same and found that I wasn't really that far off to begin with, hadn't I? And if I could do it, what was wrong with them? What was it about them that allowed them to ignore reality?

It turns out that there are a number of psychological factors that come into play when it comes to challenging and justifying our beliefs. The most compelling research is around the idea of confirmation bias.

Simply put, we tend to seek out information that supports our point of view and give that information greater weight in our thinking than information that may contradict our preexisting beliefs. Interestingly, we seem to have no problem spotting other people's biases and pointing out the shortcomings in how they process facts, but just can't quite come to terms with our own biases and shortcomings.

So this provides one answer as to why it is so hard to change our minds.

Does this then give us a free pass to simply stop seeking to understand the world around us? No, I don't think it does. Knowing that such impediments to rational thought exist simply makes it easier for us to work on countering them.

Looking at all sides of any argument is hard work, but if we are to have any success in addressing the myriad social, economic and environmental problems before us, it is going to take all hands on deck, including many people who do not share our own beliefs.

Consensus will only come when everyone can agree on the reality that surrounds us. Access to that reality is only available to people who can look beyond their own preconceptions, biases and beliefs and incorporate new information into their thinking, even when that new information runs counter to their opinions.

We must keep an open mind and work hard to challenge all beliefs. Especially our own.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.


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