The human brain tends to prefer coherence over truth. This is particularly true of the brain’s left hemisphere, which is characteristically reductionist, simplistic, and excessively confident in its own opinions. This quirk of our mental wiring can make it very difficult for us to change our minds, because if we change our mind about one thing, we may have to change our mind about a whole raft of other things too, or run slap bang into cognitive dissonance.
Our minds like consistency, and dislike ambiguity. This goes to the core of us, to our sense of identity. We tend to define ourselves by our opinions. Once we’ve made up our mind about who we are, it can be hard to change. Psychologists call this self-perception theory.
Foot in the Door
Consider the Foot in the Door technique (FITD), which even has its own Wikipedia page, which says:
“A common example undertaken in research studies uses this foot-in-the-door technique: two groups are asked to place a large, very unsightly sign in their front yard reading “Drive Carefully”. The members of one group have previously been approached to put a small sign in their front window reading “Be a Safe Driver”, and almost all agreed. In one study, in response to the “Drive Carefully” request 76 percent of those who were initially asked to display the small sign complied, in comparison with only 17 percent of those in the other group not exposed to the earlier, less onerous, request.”
76% versus 17% is a dramatic difference. The point is that the people who accepted the small sign now identify as public-spirited, so it’s less of a stretch to accept the big ugly sign. I’d like to know how far the researchers managed to push this. Just how big and/or ugly a sign were people willing to accept? Once the thin end of the wedge was in their front garden, how far in would the wedge go?
Membership of the Tribe
The Yale Panel on Climate Change Communication recognised that people tend to buy into a raft of associated beliefs, rather than considering each one on its own merits. The Six Americas report is now unfortunately based on only 4 questions. Earlier versions of the survey had 36 questions, which I found much more interesting. (Maybe a victim of simplistic left-brain reductionism?)
They found that there is not a continuous spectrum of attitudes to global warming, but rather, 6 discreet populations, and that there was a strong correlation between attitude and news media preferences, which implies also a correlation with political perspectives, which in turn implies correlation with views on gun control, abortion, healthcare, and gay rights.
It seems that the tribe we identify with will determine a great deal of what we believe. We want to appear consistent and we don’t want to appear self-contradictory – even though there may be no logical connection between how we feel about gay marriage and our opinion on a woman’s right to choose. We especially don’t want to jeopardise acceptance within our chosen tribe.
The Two-Step Test
In Liminal Thinking, Dave Gray suggests that we subconsciously go through a two-step test when confronted with new information (see this previous blog post for more about Liminal Thinking, which I recommend). The test is:
- Is this new data consistent with what I already “know” about the world?
- If this data does happen to be true, does the world make more sense?
Unfortunately, we rarely get to Step 2 if the incoming data doesn’t get through Step 1. Consistency is valued over truth. Most people seem to have an innate inability to hold two seemingly contradictory beliefs at the same time, holding them in ambiguous juxtaposition pending further information.
Ideas as Identity
In our conversation for my podcast last year, Rich Bartlett – in my view – nailed why we are so reluctant to abandon our opinions, once formed.
“It is the fear of death that keeps people from changing their mind a lot of time. If you’re so attached to your identity, if your identity is so strongly fused to your ideas, of course, you’re not going to change your ideas, because it feels like dying.”
He highlighted what we sacrifice by being unwilling to consider opposing views:
“Sometimes it’s necessary to draw a boundary and say, this is right and this is wrong. But it’s not always the right thing to do when a polarity comes along. Sometimes there’s a lot of insight to be gained from considering, from really visiting each side of the polarity and inquiring with open-hearted compassion, what value is there? what have I got to learn? And usually what you find is there’s value on both sides.”
Unfortunately social media can often be the enemy of nuanced thinking:
“On social media, you’ll see that everyone is mostly just patrolling the boundaries of their tribe, and pretending to have an argument about facts, pretending to talk about the vaccine or the latest political scandal. But really, what we’re doing is just saying, are you in or are you out? Are you on Team Red? Or Team Blue? Are you on my team, or not? Are you us or are you them? And a lot of the emotional intensity that you always see on social media, is because people’s sense of collective identity is being threatened… it’s because their belonging is at stake. So I’ve had that lens for the last few years – I just assume that basically, that micro-nationalistic sort of tribalism is what is motivating most people’s participation in social media. And then I intentionally seek out many tribes and to always notice: which tribe am I in?”
Many of the big current questions facing the world may require us to hold apparently contradictory beliefs if we are to make wise, ethical and responsible decisions. Rather than this belief OR that belief, we may need to hold this AND that. For example, we can believe that technology is generally a good thing, while also recognising that too much or the wrong sort of a good thing becomes a bad thing. At some point it is appropriate to draw a line and say that’s enough. Let’s maybe not technologise every aspect of our lives. Walking in a virtual forest (hello, Metaverse) is not going to give us the same sense of connection and nourishment as walking in a real forest.
The Billboard Blocking our own View
Circling back to the sign on the front lawn in FITD, I can easily imagine the point at which the sign becomes simply too big, a huge billboard that proclaims to the world what we believe in, but at the same time blocking out the entire view, overshadowing the house, overshadowing our lives.
Today’s meditation from the wonderful Richard Rohr relates this to his own Christian faith, quoting minister and activist William Sloane Coffin Jr. (1924–2006), who urges readers to rely on the integrity of love rather than our own limited and limiting judgments:
“[There] are those who prefer certainty to truth, those in church who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. And what a distortion of the gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse, to have limited certainties but unlimited sympathies, is not only more tolerant but far more Christian.”
[William Sloane Coffin, “Liberty to the Captives and Good Tidings to the Afflicted,” in Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches, ed. Walter Wink (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999), 106–107.]
I’m taking these questions with me today: where is my sympathy too small? Where is my certainty too great? Where do I opt for simplistic opinion over subtle fact? Where am I so busy proclaiming my opinions that I stop listening to those of others, especially those who disagree with me?