In Pursuit of Mental Plasticity
Most are hard set against changing their beliefs. This stance impedes learning and growth—and threatens us as a species. What if the antidote is to reframe our beliefs as evolving? Although difficult to implement, this new perspective might change your life.
Humans like knowing where they stand. In one way, this is efficient. It helps us self-organize, find common ground, and avoid awkward social interactions. For example, when I learn that you like mountain biking, we have something to talk about. Or, when I realize that you’re of a particular faith, I’ll avoid talking about atheism—to avoid potential awkwardness.
Some key beliefs also inform how we interface with the world. My belief in not causing harm to other beings informs what I eat. My belief in family helps me prioritize how I allocate my time. My belief in not lying makes me a worse salesperson, but a better advisor/collaborator. These beliefs serve as a kind of filter for making decisions. Without them, I’d flail more than I already do.
The binary nature of beliefs
Beliefs vary from the sacred to the trivial. You choose to believe in a religion (or not). You do the same with sports teams, political parties, and even debates about flat or sculpted buttons. Did you like dinner? How was the movie? Would you go there again?
Run through any of the above topics/questions, and I bet your responses will be binary. You’re Catholic, love the Montreal Canadiens, and vote Conservative. You think flat design is a joke, liked dinner, hated the movie, and wouldn’t go there again. This is a checkbox approach to life that most accept. However, in most situations there are more than two possible states.
Sometimes those who wield power use our divisive beliefs against us. For example, Donald Trump crafted a binary illusion (left vs. right) to manipulate the public. He simplified all debate to “us” versus “them”—and everyone played into this plot. Some considered themselves the enlightened, forced to suffer a bunch of inbred rednecks. Others saw themselves as the very fabric of the nation. They were the neglected everyman, facing an army of terrorists, freeloaders, and left-wing commies.
“Humans also have a propensity to seek patterns, so we bend over backwards to connect unrelated facts…”
Trump later did the same to journalism. Think about this: until Trump, most appreciated that journalists are largely non-partisan, and in pursuit of the truth. By doggedly repeating his “fake media” rhetoric, though, Trump cast doubt on journalists (like my friend Michelle). Meanwhile, he legitimized con artists like Alex Jones, who essentially make stories up to further their own interests. In doing so, Trump crafted the illusion that there were two “sides” to journalism—a pursuit that’s actually predicated on truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability.
Trump’s demonization of media shows how beliefs are weaponized—and used to set us against one another. Tribalism is nothing new, but recently it seems as though the imperative to pick a side is greater. You’re in or you’re out. If you’re neither, you’re undecided. And if you change your mind, you’re accused of flip-flopping.
Our beliefs limit us
The limitations imposed by beliefs aren’t always external. They’re often self-imposed. Our environment (e.g., elders, peers, community) shape our beliefs. With time, we discover less familiar perspectives and evidence that might refute our beliefs. The logical response would be to weight our beliefs against this new information. If it seems credible/true we adjust our viewpoint accordingly.
I don’t think this happens most times, though. It seems like beliefs, don’t shift much. It’s as though once we choose a set of beliefs, we spend the rest of our lives only absorbing information that supports these viewpoints—even if facts clearly indicate otherwise.
This tendency to remain in stasis comes with huge ramifications. Marrying one belief halts learning. This diminishes our ability to understand matters. We start to rely on conjecture, instead of seeking out facts. This perpetuates common falsehoods. You’ve probably heard how a frog placed in boiling water will jump out—but, if placed in tepid water, slowly brought to a boil, the frog won’t notice. Well, it’s nonsense. (Here are some other common fallacies.)
Many commonly held beliefs are inaccurate. Nevertheless they lead us to make bad decisions. Some believe vaccines cause autism. (They don’t.) Some believe the bible describes the anti-Christ as Barack Obama. (It doesn’t.) Then of course, some still believe the earth is flat—so there’s that. Meanwhile, the president of the United States believes that climate change is a falsehood.
OK—but couldn’t it work?
Last winter, I wrote an article explaining why we, at smashLAB, make our files available to our clients. In it, I encouraged designers to stop holding their working files so closely. This approach runs contrary to most conventional practice in design. So, I understood why many responded with cynicism.
At the same time, the change-averse response was surprising. While I appreciate that I was going against convention, what did anyone have to lose by considering an alternative approach? This was bothersome for me, given how much success we’ve found through our more relaxed policy. (I should note that I have little to gain from anyone employing, or avoiding, our approach.)
“…our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions.”
From a testing standpoint, this mistrust of a different option didn’t make any sense. A rational approach wouldn’t be to outright dismiss it. One would benefit more by asking questions and demanding proof. They might even test the approach, and evaluate its viability, for themselves. Again, most didn’t seem willing to do so. This is particularly telling. Designers tend to consider themselves progressive and objective. Yet, their responses didn’t reflect such values.
Turns out this isn’t uncommon. A study by David Gal and Derek Rucker from Northwestern University found that when people’s confidence in their beliefs is shaken, they become stronger advocates for those beliefs. The article points to a behavior pattern in which people evangelize as a way to bolster their own wavering beliefs.
How brittle ideas become unyielding beliefs
You could attribute the inertness of belief to individual laziness. I don’t think it’s that cut-and-dried. Sometimes the information we possess is incomplete. A flawed belief might underpin a whole other set of personal values. Additionally, beliefs that contradict popular ones can bring intense social pressure. Let’s explore each each of these points:
Limited research diminishes understanding
Many Canadians are angry about Prime Minister Trudeau paying Omar Khadr, $10.5 million as an apology for wrongful imprisonment. Khadr was affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and alleged to have thrown the grenade that killed U.S. Army Sergeant Christopher Speer. At first read, this situation does seem perversely wrong. Some immediately take this viewpoint, and stop asking questions. These same folks often note how, “Trudeau has his head up his ass.”
Further investigation challenges this viewpoint. At 9 years old, Canadian-born Khadr was taken to Afghanistan by his father. At 15, following a firefight, he was found in critical condition. He was subsequently held in detention in Guantanamo Bay prison and tortured—for nearly 10 years. Khardr was denied access to a lawyer and no charges were filed against him for several years. Eventually, Khadr was given the option of admitting guilt and serving 1 year in a Canadian prison. Alternatively, he could refuse to admit guilt. If he did, his trial would be denied indefinitely.
“The fact that you are utterly convinced that you know the truth does not mean that you do.”
How do you feel about a child not having the right to a fair trial? To me, it seems illegal (and distinctly un-Canadian). The Supreme Court of Canada shares this sentiment. In a civil suit against the Canadian government, they found in favor of Khadr. (I’m omitting a lot of detail in this summary. This post outlines the situation more wholly than I have.)
We’re barraged by so many headlines, and don’t always have the time to read further. Nevertheless, we often feel pressure to “take a position”—even when our knowledge of a situation is incomplete. Once we have, confirmation bias commonly occurs—and our inaccurate beliefs are cemented.
Fear of removing pivotal Jenga blocks
My next story takes us back ~25 years. A friend and I used to run together. He studied science and is Christian. During our runs, we’d often debate political and environmental issues. One issue we commonly returned to was same-sex marriage. (Today, such a discussion seem almost passé; in the early ’90s many were divided on the topic.)
My friend wasn’t homophobic. That said, his faith prohibited same-sex marriage. Therefore, he followed what he believed to be the word of God—which he considered irrefutable. He and I sparred on this matter at some length. I argued that his belief in science and his faith were at odds, and that he had to choose one or the other. He disagreed.
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
These debates stayed with me—in part due to the thought-provoking collision of logic and faith. In time, I came to realize that my friend’s situation was far more layered than I understood. For him, this wasn’t just about human rights. It underpinned his very existence. If he were willing to consider this aspect of his faith flawed, what other aspects of it might also be?
My hunch is that my friend never reconciled this conflict. Admitting what I’m sure he knew to be morally right would bring his entire spiritual belief system into jeopardy. It represented a Jenga block that could tumble the whole tower. No matter how decent you are, risking your eternal salvation isn’t a trivial decision.
The steep social cost of opposing the herd
I find hockey culture confounding. Fans display a religious zeal for “their” team, yet, the players aren’t even from that city. They come from around the world—and are commonly traded. So, what exactly are those fans cheering for? The team’s history? Their spirit? The logo? My bet is that it’s none of these. Instead, it’s about belonging to a tribe.
This community offers belonging, shared history, and friendships. As I’m not a fan, I can’t say for certain, but, I suspect one’s belief in a team is in no way rational. Rather, team sports seem to give their congregants the opportunity to feel like they are a part of something.
I suspect the warmth of a tribe’s embrace is powerful—and that separation from it would be unpleasant. While some can get by without inclusion, few want to be banished from a community due to their beliefs. So, we sometimes toe-the-line, even when our thinking leads us to different conclusions.
A colleague and I had lunch a few days after the 2011 Canadian federal election. He ran a business in Vancouver’s pseudo-cool Yaletown area, in which voters lean Liberal/NDP. Part way through, he came in closer and whispered, “I know you won’t judge me for it, but I voted Conservative. Around here, though, I don’t want anyone to know.” He felt that publicly admitting his legitimate, yet unpopular, choice would make him a pariah.
I refuse to be a prisoner of my own beliefs
It’s one thing for me to point out my friend’s backward views on same-sex marriage, and pretend I’m a better person. Truth is, I once self-identified as a “homophobe”. I don’t like to admit this—and I’m ashamed of it—but it’s true.
I heard the term “homo” when a kid shouted it at me as a put-down. (At the time, I thought he was referring to homogenized milk. This confused me.) Few gay people were “out” in my home town. Therefore, my only inklings regarding gay people came from Police Academy movies. I never felt any malice to anyone who was gay. I was just plain ignorant. So, when I said I was a homophobe, I meant it quite literally. My fear was that some big guy in leather would force me to do the tango… at The Blue Oyster.
Laugh all you want. You should. I deserve it. Well, 17-year-old me deserves it. It only took a few months of living in a bigger city and meeting people who were gay, for my beliefs to change. I then moved back to my home town, where guys at the bar wanted to fight me—because they thought I was gay. (As a corollary, you should read this article.)
“If people get new information that is in contrast to what they believe then they tend to neglect this new information for as long as possible.”
Although this is an embarrassing example, it’s far from the only flawed belief I’ve held over the years. In recent months, I’ve questioned a disproportionate number of beliefs. This forced some discomfort—almost paralysis in my work—and is part of the reason I wrote so little in the past months.
Nevertheless, in challenging my beliefs, I started to see how I often mistake how I wish things were for how they actually are. Similarly, I witnessed how my lack of knowledge/experience often leads me to repeat bad habits. I also kept coming back to the conclusion that most situations are complicated—and defy simple answers.
Thoughts on how one might encourage mental plasticity
If I can contort my viewpoint to understand others, my perspectives should expand. This could leave me less susceptible to propaganda. It would help me recognize opportunities others ignore. It might even stave off curmudgeonly perspectives that are easy to fall prey to. That said, it isn’t easily achieved. The more invested I am in a position, the more severely I seem to resist different ideas.
The willingness to sacrifice any belief, affords you a kind of freedom. However, there’s a gap between willingness and action—and, I’m ill equipped to tell you what they are. (Sorry.) What I can share are the few approach I’ve noodled with that seem promising.
Treating belief as temporal
No one builds a house on quicksand. I’m changing every day, as is the world around me. So, I work with the information I have—and recognize it as incomplete. When I come upon new findings that point elsewhere, I accept that my beliefs will (and should) evolve. This isn’t weakness, or flip-flopping, it’s simply the nature of learning.
Asking more questions
I’m bad at asking questions. When I do, though, I realize that few matters are either one way or another—instead, most tend to be multi-dimensional. So, when I see a headline/post that I respond to emotionally, I try to take pause—and read more about it. This helps avoid motivated reasoning—a notion which suggests we’re more likely to arrive at conclusions we want to arrive at.
Embracing a learner’s mindset
Many settle as they hit mid-career/midlife. This concerns me personally, as I see it as a path to obsolescence. So, I’m forcing myself to use unfamiliar tools, test weird-seeming approaches, and accept that my way might not be the best one. Additionally, I’m getting comfortable with the idea that I don’t need to know everything—even if I’m supposed to be an expert on the matter.
Arguing a contradictory position
Many of my friends share opinions similar to mine—which can result in the creation of an echo chamber. Our online communities make this worse. A fun experiment is to take the position you disagree with, and argue it as compellingly as you can. I do this in my head, while walking. It’s curious how quickly this exercise leads you to rethink your initial take.
Fighting our nature
Part of the problem we humans have with unwanted weight gain is rooted in our evolution. When food was scarce, our fat stores were critical to our survival. Now that food is plentiful, this biological mechanism is outmoded. Sadly, human firmware upgrades aren’t keeping pace. Therefore, the very mechanism that once kept us alive now works against us.
The same argument could be made for our reasoning. Primitive humans needed to react quickly to their environment. As such, fight-or-flight reflexes were key to our survival. Today, this outmoded mechanism leads us to treat information as a predator. “We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close.”
If this analogy holds, it suggests we must individually attempt to override our biology. A body that stores unnecessary fat should be countered with diet and exercise. Similarly, a mind that is swayed by instinct should be remedied by pausing—especially when discussions become emotional—and applying reason. This is doubly important given how emotions spread online. For me, this all begins with the an understanding that every belief I hold is mutable.
Do you have questions, suggestions, or comments? I welcome you to discuss this post on Officehours.