Have you ever noticed that when you introduce a new idea to someone in a conversation, the other person has a difficult time accepting the new idea as true? The harder you push, the more the other person will resist, insisting on what they believe to be true. This sets up a positional fight, right verses wrong, and a win-lose scenario. This is the result of a particular thought process or bias that is ever-present in the brain.
Watch for Biases:
In our brains, there are thinking ‘programs’ that allow us to filter information and quickly make choices. Although these ‘programs’ can be useful in certain situations, they are also responsible for producing thinking errors and biases.
Attribution is the process that says, “I like people like me and I dislike and distrust anyone that is different.” This process also works for information that we are comfortable with and are more likely to integrate into our own thinking process if it matches previous information. We trust information from our group, especially if the information easily supports previously held beliefs. Although this type of information is easily absorbed, this type of judgement bias also causes us to distrust information we know to be true if it comes from a group we don’t trust.
The concept of attribution demonstrates that it’s very difficult to change our minds, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory information. In fact, we may end up clinging all the harder to our initially held beliefs. This compounds a large number of mistakes, such as missing the chance to integrate new information into our beliefs for better decision making in the future.
Encountering new, contradictory information will produce a discomfort within us, causing a resistance to the new information. This discomfort is from trying to carry two thoughts that cannot be reconciled. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. Depending on the strength of the previously held belief, the cognitive dissonance can be so strong and painful that it may cause us to ignore the new information. The discomfort can be physical, emotional, or psychological. It even has the potential to direct us back to the previously held belief which may be comforting in the short term.
In his book, The Road Less Travelled, Dr. Scott Peck writes about the effort and work it takes to constantly update our sense of reality. According to Dr. Peck, these ‘updates’ are one of four main pillars of good mental health. If we don’t continually update our sense of reality, we remain stuck with beliefs or in patterns of thought that may be incorrect.
A book closer to the mark for us here at ACHIEVE is Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. In this erudite, funny, and sometimes shocking book, Tavris and Aronson reflect on how we all have the capacity to fool ourselves by “[justifying] foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts.” This book is filled with many examples of how thinking errors occur and how we cannot see our part of the problem.
Attribution and judgement bias (i.e., believing that we make good judgements) will drive us to find information that is similar to what we already believe, rather than looking for facts that are true. English politician Lord Molson once stated, “I will look at any additional evidence to confirm that opinion to which I have already come.” A very famous example of this is the dispute between the Papacy and Galileo as to whether the sun or the earth was at the centre of the solar system. Galileo said the sun was at the centre of the solar system, which directly contradicted Papal belief at the time. This confrontation led to Galileo being sentenced to house arrest for life. Here the story has a number of different directions, but as Galileo was taken away, he supposedly said to the trier of fact, “Nonetheless, the earth still orbits the sun.”
What to do when faced with Cognitive Dissonance:
When faced with new information or evidence that conflicts with a belief that you hold, try to calm down, breathe, and ask yourself where this new information came from. Also ask yourself if the new information will change a previous pattern of behaviour or previously held beliefs. I have discovered that there is no threat in looking at new information. This is called bracketing, i.e., setting your beliefs aside and looking at new information objectively. By doing this, you have a choice to either integrate, accept, or ignore the new information.
There may be some discomfort in looking at new information, but as a friend of mine says, “The truth will set [you] free, but it might make [you] a little uncomfortable.” Unless we are capable of a cognitive recalibration we will be left behind, running the risk of remaining analogue in a digital world.