By Dr. Mark Reinecke
America is politically as divided as ever. Many have noted that acrimony is at levels not seen since before the Civil War. The tone of the conversation nowadays feels different as well. It’s not simply that others are misguided or misinformed. Rather, political opponents are uncaring, immoral, misanthropic, even emotionally disturbed. More and more, we tend to dislike and distrust those from the other party. We are less and less willing to socialize across party lines. How did we come to this? How can half of America have become so alien? So wrong?
We all like to think we’re reasonable, that our beliefs and attitudes are sensible, and that we’re open-minded. Each of us genuinely believes that our ideas are correct. As noted by the ancients, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs,16, 2.) Many of our ideas become “cherished beliefs.” They are tightly held and are taken as givens. It’s not simply that we have confidence in our beliefs, we’re sure we are right. We come to hold our political beliefs tightly, with two fists, and we defend them vigorously.
But what if we are wrong? Have you ever changed your mind about something? Do you hold the same views you did when you were a child? Have your perspectives and views changed over the years? Has your thinking evolved? Of course it has–thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and values are not immutable. We’ve all made bad decisions and said or done things which, while sensible at the time, we later regret. Our lives are littered with things that we would have, could have, or should have done differently. Things seem right at the time. With new information, we come to see with greater clarity. Our judgment improves. We see our errors. Thoughts, then, are human constructions. As Jerome Bruner, an eminent psychologist, once quipped, “Man is the meaning maker.” Our thoughts are simply constructions—attempts to make sense of ourselves and our lives. We quest for order, meaning, and purpose. As our cognitions are based on experience, they are, at the same time, personal and change over time.
However confident we are in our beliefs and our ability to think clearly, it’s more evident now than ever how irrational humans are. The limits of human rationality have been a focus of inquiry since the time of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. From the Skeptics and Stoics of Greece and Rome to enlightenment era philosophers and contemporary cognitive psychologists, all have recognized the fallibility of human thought. We’re biased. Our thinking is biased in fundamental ways. As Francis Bacon observed, “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion …draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises…sets aside and rejects.” Written in 1621, this seems to characterize political debate today. Simon and Garfunkel, however, captured the idea more succinctly, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
The question arises, why should we do this? Why should we hold on to ideas so strongly, even when there is “a greater number and weight of instances on the other side?” Dismissing evidence is maladaptive. It can easily get us into trouble. One possible reason is that ideas have value to us. Much like objects we own, we invest in them and they serve a function. They have costs and benefits, and there are pros and cons to maintaining them. We might think, then, of having an “economy of ideas.”
Nobody likes to have bought a bad car or to be caught making a mistake. The problem arises, however, when we don’t admit the error. Faced with new facts, new information, we should update our opinions. This would allow us to make better decisions, better choices, in the future. Yet we don’t. We invest time in developing our beliefs and attitudes, and we tend to affiliate with others who share these beliefs. It’s reinforcing. We like to hear we’re right. At the same time, holding specific beliefs can make you feel good. It feels good to be a conservationist, to advocate generous support for the disadvantaged, or to adopt attitudes that lead to healthy behavior. Beyond this, these attitudes can become part of one’s identity. You’ll hear “I’m a vegan,” not “I eat vegetables.” These identities mark as part of larger, often very supportive, groups. It’s difficult, then, to disavow the group and the beliefs. It’s difficult to say “I got it wrong… I’ve changed my mind.” Beliefs and attitudes, like objects in our lives, become treasured. Information that challenges them is disputed and people who challenge them are dismissed. We come to rationalize away contradictory evidence and develop ever more creative models for why our views are right. Conspiracies, fake news, and truthiness prevail. We each have our opinion, and we’ll hold tightly to it. Mark Twain was on to something when he remarked, “Get your facts first, then you can distort ‘em as you please.”
Troubles multiply when groups come to hold strongly held, but irrational, beliefs. Market “exuberance” can lead to bubbles and crashes. Misinformation about vaccines can lead to public health crises. Dismissal of scientific evidence can lead to the worsening of climate change. The difficulty, of course, is that breaking from a group often comes at a cost. Think, for a moment, of the political costs to “conscientious Republicans” who have challenged Trump, or moderate Democrats who have challenged the Progressives. Groups are often motivated to disavow or criticize independent voices. Compliance with “accepted” beliefs is demanded. Unfortunately, this is the foundation of dogma and is antithetical to critically-minded, creative thought. Homogeneity of views by a group is difficult to challenge until a crisis develops.
What can be done?
Each of us can start by admitting we’ve been wrong. Is there anyone who hasn’t made a mistake or changed their mind? Say it out loud. Tell a friend. Then, be open to changing your opinion.
Second, acknowledge that none of us owns the truth. Each of us has our own perceptions, our own hypotheses, our own models. None of us, though, has pure and unbiased access to truth. We just have our opinions.
Third, challenge your most strongly held beliefs. Hold them up to the light and examine them carefully. As William James remarked, “We should examine our assumptions closely and make them give good account of themselves before we let them pass.”
Finally, be open and generous to friends, colleagues, and opponents who have different views. They’re just trying to figure it out, too. Perhaps they have some ideas you’ll like. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, “I’d hate to die for my beliefs, I might be wrong.” Smart man.
To be sure, admitting we’ve been wrong or that we’ve changed our opinion can be tricky. This is ever more true in our polarized society. It can provide ammunition for opponents, and colleagues may feel abandoned. Maintaining errant views in the face of mounting evidence, however, also comes at a cost. Errors multiply, failures cascade, others’ confidence in your judgment declines, and a reputation for dogmatic thinking can develop.
With this in mind, it’s best to hold our beliefs gently. A touch of humility with regard to our beliefs can go a long way. Creativity, flexibility, critical-mindedness, and wisdom are of greater value in a challenging and ever-changing world than rigid acceptance of accepted wisdom. Nothing great, beautiful, or true was ever discovered without creativity and the courage to challenge the accepted. Think of individuals you’ve admired—teachers, writers, leaders. Invariably they’ve shown an ability to pivot and adapt, and have amazed us with the insight and elegance of their thinking. They challenge us to think differently. Even if you are quite sure you are right, you may wish to acknowledge you might be wrong.
Dr. Mark Reinecke is former Professor and Chief Psychologist at Northwestern University, and a member of Braver Angels.