Learning to Love Ideas
Hello good people! I hope this email finds you well. Let’s get into this stuff.
ONE FROM THE AGES
“It is a mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
ONE FROM TODAY
Ryan Holiday on why minds are hard to change:
“Once the mind has accepted a plausible explanation for something, it becomes a framework for all the information that is perceived after it. We’re drawn, subconsciously, to fit and contort all the subsequent knowledge we receive into our framework, whether it fits or not. Psychologists call this “cognitive rigidity”. The facts that built an original premise are gone, but the conclusion remains—the general feeling of our opinion floats over the collapsed foundation that established it. Information overload, “busyness,” speed, and emotion all exacerbate this phenomenon. They make it even harder to update our beliefs or remain open-minded.”
Source: Trust Me I’m Lying, by Ryan Holiday
ONE FROM US
Everyone thinks their opinion is right. I’m sure you’ve noticed this while talking to those other people. Shall we call them wrongers? How do they not grasp the impeccable brilliance of your logic? But it isn’t just that everyone assumes their own worldview is correct. They are threatened by anyone who would tell them otherwise. By disagreeing, you initiate their wronger defenses. And by disagreeing with you, they initiate yours.
In his book, The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt gives the example of telling his three-year-old son that he must eat ice cream now. The boy balks, “But, I don’t want to.”
Seconds pass: “Max, you can have ice cream if you want.”
“I want some.”
According to Haidt, this natural aversion to taking orders lies at the root of our belief structures. When we want to believe something we ask ourselves, Can I believe it? Any justification will do. When we don’t want to believe something we ask ourselves, Must I believe it? We look for any possible evidence, however faulty, to dismiss it.
Arguments rarely change people’s minds. We are much more likely to change opinions because of new experiences, friendly conversations, and non-threatening exposure to new ideas. This is the beauty of reading and listening to podcasts. We are invited into someone else’s mind. They walk us through the best defense of their opinion and we are able to try on their arguments without feeling personally attacked. In fact, we often take pride in understanding an idea better after we have read something.
Schools don’t teach us much about communication and working with people. There is some public speaking, but not much focus on the psychology of human interaction, cognitive biases, or how to have a productive dialogue. In short, we have little experience confronting our own ignorance and little guidance to help us communicate with other people productively. In a time that allows infinite confirmation bias, it seems more important than ever for schools to extensively practice spotting basic logical fallacies and debating.
Schools tend to shy away from discussions that kids would naturally care about for fear of eliciting emotions, but these are exactly the type of conversations that students need to learn to have. They stoke interests while helping students learn to have a productive disagreement. Imagine if students grew up in an environment where they had a lot of practice discussing differences in beliefs and experiences. For best results we would want to promote the following norms:
Practice steel-manning in conversations. Rather than the pervasive straw-manning where we mischaracterize the other person’s position so it is easier to rebut, steel-manning is where both sides agree to restate the other’s opinion in the strongest possible manner before countering. In steel-manning, you try to make the other person’s argument even stronger and ask that they agree with your summary before moving on to your own opinion. It has the benefit of softening animosity, forcing both sides to listen, and keeping conversations from straying into unrelated distractions.
Create a culture that values honesty, exploration, grace, and nuance. People need to know it is safe to try ideas on. We often have to explore our own bad assumptions to discover their pitfalls. Even more, our greatest breakthroughs often come from exploring risky intuitions (heliocentric universe, evolutionary theory, “The Coddling of the American Mind”). If everyone felt empowered to be honest we would all come to realize how complex life really is. As it stands, most people struggle to handle nuance. There is a degree of comfort that comes with oversimplification. Discussions gravitate towards namecalling, categorizing, and binary good vs. evil simplifications. These fuel animosities and push people apart. When people fear failure then they will stop inquiring. If they feel attacked unfairly, they will fall back into a loop of confirmation seeking.
There has never been quite so much bullshit to sift through in order to form our beliefs. Amid the information overload, our tired brains often settle on a simple answer. We gravitate towards dogma and social justification. If we want to bring people together and open their minds to new ideas then we have to learn to hear dissent and dissent better. This may be the most important role of our schools.
Education must break from its static, tell me the right answer focus and become a marketplace of ideas again. If education committed to these norms, students would be intrinsically motivated to read, think, and explore. Each time their assumptions proved faulty, they’d naturally seek to fill in the gaps with better understandings. We’d create a thirst for learning and a population whose minds were always adapting. We’d create lifelong learners with the ability to solve hard problems.
With that in mind, this has been a year of great, assumption-shattering books in my life. Among the most impactful and currently relevant are:
If you are interested in going a bit deeper into today’s topic, check out my piece, Humanize Them, and this amazing comic on how the human mind interacts with new information.
Thanks for reading!
Life is too short to be normal,