A2A on Quora: What is a person who changes his mind?
Someone who is open to considering new information and evidence and altering their opinion based on that. In other words, a critical thinker.
Changing one’s mind has a bad reputation. We ridicule politicians as “flip-floppers” for doing this. We over-value the idea that one should stick to their beliefs regardless. I’ve had students tell me that there are certain opinions they will believe no matter what. Presumably, that includes evidence that clearly shows their opinion to be wrong.
An interesting perspective on this is offered by Adam Grant in his book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, where he says:
“Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe. Values are your core principles in life–they might be excellence and generosity, freedom and fairness, or security and integrity. Basing your identity on these kinds of principles enables you to remain open-minded about the best ways to advance them. You want the doctor whose identity is protecting health, the teacher whose identity is helping students learn, and the police chief whose identity is promoting safety and justice. When they define themselves by values rather than opinion, they buy themselves the flexibility to update their practices in light of new evidence.”
We should encourage people to update their views and practices in light of new evidence. If someone is not doing this, it means they are not learning anything new.
Quora Question: Is modern society structured so that people don't have time to think critically of their life?
I’d like to take a contrarian position on this question and hopefully offer some useful insights.
I don’t think society is structured to work against people thinking critically. However, there are impediments to people engaging in more critical thinking.
I think the main impediments are several cognitive biases that prevent people from taking a critical look at their ideas and beliefs. Let me mention a few of these.
The knowledge illusion. The world around us is very complicated. But, while we tend to recognize this fact when prompted we routinely ignore it when it comes to expressing or examining our own opinions on the world. We tend to recognize the limits of other people’s knowledge while failing to recognize our limits. We all suffer from what Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach refer to in their book The Knowledge Illusion as the illusion of explanatory depth.
Consider the following example from their book:
This is the knowledge illusion. As they point out in the book, “Our point is not that people are ignorant. It’s that people are more ignorant than they think they are. We all suffer, to a greater or lesser extent, from an illusion of understanding, an illusion that we understand how things work when in fact our understanding is meager.”
Related to this is the bias we all tend to have of thinking that our beliefs are correct. This is well illustrated in Kathryn Schulz’s book Being Wrong. In her excellent TED talk on the book, she asks some people a seemingly easy question: What does it feel like to be wrong?
Their answers: “It feels bad.” “Embarrassing.” “Humiliating.” You’d probably agree. But, there’s a problem.
This is not what it feels like to be wrong. This is what it feels like to find out you’re wrong. What does it feel like to be wrong? Nothing. It feels just like being right.
So, we tend to think we know more about things than we do and we tend to believe that our beliefs are right. After all, they feel right. With those two things working against us, you can see why it might be difficult for people to engage in more critical thinking. What would be the point? Their knowledge and belief are already well justified and accurate.
Having said this, I will point out that several factors don’t help individuals to break out of this trap. We are constantly bombarded with news stories that are, in part, designed to polarize us and not require in-depth analysis on our part.
We are also inundated with several other life factors some of which are external and some of which are internal. These factors, such as the pressures of finding and keeping a job, raising children, etc., don’t always encourage critical thinking either.
The irony of this is that all of these other factors, which together you might interpret as society being structured to hinder critical thinking, would all greatly benefit from more critical thinking not less.
But, it will be difficult to see that because of the powerful effects of the biases I mentioned earlier. Overcoming those is the key to improving critical thinking.
Like most other things, people will make time for something if it is an important priority. The popularity of sports is a good example. No amount of societal influence will do much to diminish the drive to watch and participate in sports.
Until the motivation to examine your own beliefs and knowledge is as powerful as the motivation to watch your favorite sports team, critical thinking won’t improve much.
A good first step would be to read these books:
Steven Sloman The Knowledge Illusion
Michael Syed Black Box Thinking
Adam Grant Think Again
Julia Galef The Scout Mindset
Quora Question: How unique and similar are people?
If you’re like most people you don’t think you’re like most people. Even when people think they are different they usually think this for very similar reasons. Even when people do their own thing, they do so in remarkably similar ways.
The fact of the matter is that within a narrow range of possibilities we have far more in common than most people think. But, we are not wired up to see things in terms of what we share with others who are different than us but to focus on those differences. So, it’s difficult to overcome the cognitive bias towards seeing and emphasizing these differences.
But, if you can do so you will discover the underlying commonality. The key is not to get lost in the differences but to see those differences as variations in a fairly narrow range of possibilities.
To begin to see this examine a universal need such as eating. Yes, there is quite a bit of variation in what people eat across cultures and times. But, begin to look for common themes and practices and you will begin to see how alike we are.
Another way to begin to see similarities is to have a thoughtful discussion with someone who disagrees with you on some issue. it could be any issues: abortion, immigration, climate change.
Again, instead of focusing on the differences which are obvious look for the similarities which are sometimes below the surface. Look for fundamentals.
For example, even though you disagree do you understand how their reasons lead them to come to a different conclusion. In other words, if you believed their premises would you understand how they came to their different conclusion? If so, then you share a similar logic since you understand what they are thinking.
Often this is the case with disagreements about issues. We share the same ways of reasoning and the same biases. We come to different conclusions not because we fundamentally disagree but because we draw a conclusion from different starting points. Those are often due to accidents of circumstance, experience, and environment.
They are rarely due to fundamental differences.
At the biological level, the similarities become stronger, not weaker. Genetically we are virtually identical with only a small amount of difference accounting for the differences we see in observable variations.
So, why are there so many variations? Most of the differences can be attributed to differences in environment, culture, and upbringing.
Two groups of people with identical languages, religions, eating habits, and political beliefs can develop a wide range of variations just by being separated in space and time. In other words, given enough time and separation in geography, those two identical groups will develop in different ways and ultimately diverge in their cultural practices.
But, even after that divergence, there will be underlying and fundamental similarities that persist. We just have to look for them.
A few books that might provide more insight into some of these points include:
Leonard Mlodinow The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
Dan Ariely Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
Quora Question: Why am I supposed to respect someone's deeply held beliefs if these are not rooted in facts?
People need to be respected. Beliefs need to be examined and adapted to reality. Beliefs require facts to be validated. Of course, anyone can believe anything they like. But, for beliefs to be respected in any rational sense of that term they need to be examined in light of reason and evidence. A belief without investigation and not rooted in facts does not require respect.
The notion that there are different facts for different people is incoherent. While people may disagree about what the facts are, there is a way that the world is. There are things we know about how the world works. And, to the extent that our beliefs stray from this, they are inaccurate.
So, the ultimate question is how we go about evaluating beliefs, both our own and others. A good set of criteria is outlined in How to Think About Weird Things by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn. There are five elements to evaluate any belief or theory.
First, a theory or belief should be testable. If you cannot even figure out how to go about determining if your theory explains the evidence, you don't have a good theory. To be testable means your hypothesis "predicts something more than what is predicted by the background theory alone." In short, we need this criterion because if there's no way to tell whether a theory is true or false it's no good to us.
Second, a theory/belief should be fruitful. What this means is that a good theory should make novel predictions. It should not only account for the evidence at hand but be able to address evidence that comes in later and even predict such new evidence. Einstein's theory of relativity is a good example of a fruitful theory because it made the novel prediction that light would be visible from a star behind the sun. After all, the light would be bent by the gravitational field around the sun to be visible on earth. And, concerning criterion number one this was a testable claim. Once tested, it was verified.
Third, a theory should have a wide scope. That is, a good theory explains a wide field of evidence. One of the differences between theories and hypotheses is their scope. Hypotheses address specific questions whereas theories attempt to provide a broad explanatory device. Theories that can explain a wide array of things are preferred, other things being equal, to more narrow theories.
Fourth, a theory should be simple. This term should not be confused with simplistic. Many scientific theories are complex in terms of our ability to understand them but simple in the sense that they postulate fewer underlying entities or assumptions. A good example is the difference between Copernicus and Ptolemy. Ptolemy's geocentric theory could explain the orbits of the planets but it was quite complex whereas Copernicus' theory explained the same observable phenomena with less complexity. So, other things being equal, that theory was the better theory.
Think of it this way. Suppose I come up with a theory to explain how the lights in my housework but it involves little gremlins running inside the light bulbs. Someone else can explain the same phenomenon but without postulating gremlins. So, their theory is simpler than mine. It should also be pointed out that my gremlin theory may fail on other criteria as well such as being testable.
Finally, a theory should be conservative. Not in the political sense of the word. Rather, it should fit in with other things we know. If we have an explanation for something that we think is fairly certain and accurate then a new theory should fit in with that prior explanation. If it doesn't fit that may indicate our prior knowledge is flawed. We have to be open to that possibility but the burden of proof is on the new theory. An interesting examination of how this process works is offered in Thomas Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Many people will be inclined to lodge the following criticism at this point: But, that’s "just a theory." The criticism here is supposed to be that any given theory is not a fact. But, this misunderstands the relationship between fact and theory. No theory is a fact because facts and theories are two different things entirely. The facts are what we observe about the world around us. But, these facts need an explanation. This is what a theory is designed to do. It is a well-formulated attempt to explain the facts we observe.
So, we observe the motion of the planets and the fact that an apple falls to the ground when we drop it. The theory of relativity attempts to explain these things. We observe different species and varieties of animals in the natural world and the theory of evolution attempts to explain how these varieties arose. We observe the motion of subatomic particles and the theory of quantum mechanics attempts to explain these observations. In each case, we begin with observations and construct an explanation to account for them. In each case, it makes little sense to criticize the theory by saying it's not a fact. Of course not! Theories are not facts and do not attempt to be. Theories can be correct or incorrect and the criteria outlined above are the best way to determine this. But, you must also understand what a theory is attempting to do.
Going through this process with one’s beliefs is to be respected. Coming up with a belief without doing the hard work of understanding it, the evidence relevant to it, and evaluating the belief in light of what we know does not deserve respect.
However, the person, in any case, deserves respect as a person. We can disagree and discuss ideas, beliefs, and theories in a context of mutual respect, not for the beliefs (which are simply tools) but for each other.
A2A on Quora: What do the greatest thinkers think about the most?
I think this sums it up very nicely. Great thinkers think about ideas. What kind of ideas?
A good place to being is with the kinds of questions Socrates liked to ask:
What is virtue? What is justice? What is the good?
Each of these questions provides an opportunity to think about a big idea.
Most everything around us is either the product of a big idea or is deeply connected to one or more great ideas:
Think about how often you encounter something that relates to such ideas as:
time, equality, beauty, friendship, love, courage, freedom, democracy.
These ideas are fundamental to our lives and they are the kinds of ideas that the greatest thinkers think about.
But, they are not the sole property of great thinkers. Anyone can participate in the discussion of great ideas. Indeed, everyone should participate in the activity of thinking about great ideas. It is an important part of what makes us all human beings.
Quora Question: How can we improve critical thinking skills in our students/kids?
We have to teach these skills in a way that allows for continuous practice and application in specific contexts. One of the most difficult things about teaching critical thinking is that there is not as much skill transfer from one context to another as we might think. So, students might be good at critical thinking in one area but seem to completely lack the skill in another area.
Part of this is due to interest in the context versus lack of interest. But, another important aspect is that too often critical thinking is taught in a way that seems to define specific contexts where it is applied and thus it is not obvious how it can apply in other areas.
We also need to recognize that some aspects of critical thinking may not be developmentally appropriate to teach at an early age as the child’s brain is not yet wired to comprehend these concepts. But, that doesn’t mean that some aspects of critical thinking can’t be taught. We just have to develop and deepen the skills as appropriate for the child’s development.
As strange as it might sound, one of the major impediments to teaching critical thinking is the way critical thinking courses are taught. The emphasis is often not on deep critical thinking skills but on surface-level skills which are easier to measure. Watch out for critical thinking courses where the learning outcomes are very low on Bloom’s taxonomy. While these are crucial at first, one cannot develop really good critical thinking skills unless you dig deeper.
A key factor to critical thinking is knowing to think critically about. Too often we are not teaching children enough facts about history, science, and other areas to give them fuel for their thinking. Critical thinking does not occur in a vacuum. Unless you have some information about which to think you cannot think critically.
Finally, adults need to model these skills. And, in cases where the adults do not have critical thinking skills they need to learn them and apply them. That means work for the adults as well as the children!
Start with reading some good books about critical thinking. Continue by reading good non-fiction books to add to your store of knowledge.
Here are some good books to start on critical thinking:
Dan Ariely Predictably Irrational
Michael Shermer Why People Believe Weird Things
Theodore Schick How to Think About Weird Things
For me the best books make connections. Connections to other good books, ideas, and people. And, the best of these books also make me want to take action of some sort. In some cases, just the simple act of writing a review like this one. Mónica Guzmán’s book titled I Never Thought of it That Way is just such a book. It’s at times like this that I wish I had a larger platform on which to share the ideas she discusses in this book. It is the exact message we all need to hear right now and the insights and concrete steps we can use to begin talking to each other instead of talking at each other.
Part of what makes talking to each other so difficult is that we have become isolated from the very people we’d most benefit from engaging with through what she refers to as sorting, othering, and siloing. We have become very good at sorting ourselves into groups according to our beliefs and social media makes this even easier. We view those who differ from us as some mysterious “other” who are so different from us that there is virtually no point in engaging with them. This sorting and othering lead us further into our own enclaves where we get all our information from those who already agree with us. These silos are more than simply echo chambers as they suck us down further into a hole that gets more and more difficult to get out of.
For the remainder of this review, I’m going to share some quotes from the book which I find most compelling but really it is worth it to read the entire book. What I provide here is just a snapshot.
“Harvard scholar Cass Sunstein found that on issues as diverse as gun control, the minimum wage, and environmental policy, people who talk to folks who share their positions both intensify those positions and want to take bigger, bolder steps to address them.”
This very nicely explains why we continue to become more polarized. There’s a vicious cycle at work where our propensity to only listen to those who already agree with us makes our own views that much more extreme. This makes it less likely that we will listen to alternatives or consider views that differ from our own increasingly extreme views.
“In her book The Happiness Hack my friend and neuroscience educator Ellen Petry Leanse explains what happens to your brain when you spend a lot of time with folks who reflect your own beliefs back to you. Basically, you stop thinking about those beliefs at all.”
Once you stop thinking about your beliefs you stop thinking that they need to be examined. You no longer consider the possibility that those beliefs are not accurate representations of the world around you but simply filters through which you perceive reality. You no longer realize that any belief, no matter how well-founded is going to distort reality in some ways.
“In one study of how federal judges make their calls in the courtroom, liberal judges'’ opinions moved to the left when they worked with other liberal judges, and conservative judges’ opinions moved to the right when they worked with other conservative judges. But when liberal and conservative judges worked together, that dampened their ideological tendencies. In both cases, what made the difference wasn’t exposure to information or education, but people.”
This relates to the Sunstein point made above. While many liberals and conservatives might not see a problem with this, in reality when we don’t work with people who differ from us, our “solutions” become both more extreme and less viable. For most of our problems, the solutions will have to take some input from all sides in order to really work.
Another key point here is what we can do to move closer together with people who differ from us. Exposure to information and arguments won’t do it. Those memes you share on social media won’t either. What can make the difference is simply spending time with people and learning about them.
When you are faced with a claim that you disagree with, don’t rush in to refute it. Instead, ask questions like “What am I missing?”
“As the legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow once quipped ‘Anyone who isn’t confused doesn’t really understand the situation.’”
“The problem isn’t the partial answers we’re always collecting from a variety of sources in our busy lives. It’s the questions we stop asking because we think we’ve learned enough.”
If you believe you already understand the issue and know what to do, it probably means that there is something you’re missing. It’s time to get curious and learn more than you think you need to know. What experiences have others lived through that brought them to a different perspective on this issue than me?
“People are mysteries, not puzzles. This means we can never be sure about them. But we can always be curious.”
Guzmán discusses Ian Leslie’s useful distinction between puzzles and mysteries. As Leslie points out in his book titled Curious, ”Mysteries are murkier; less neat. They pose questions that can't be answered definitively because the answers often depend on a highly complex and interrelated set of factors, both known and unknown.” There’s more to learn about people and their lives that can not only help us connect with them but understand where they are coming from on any given issue.
“It would take trust. It would take struggle. And more than anything, it would take rejecting the certainty that any one of them has all the information they need.”
We need the people who are different from us to really get at the truth about these issues. There are experiences we haven’t had that inform their outlook and we can benefit from learning about them.
More reasoning doesn’t work to resolve conflict. Researched Jonathan Haidt and others have deduced “a funny little quirk in how we approach different kinds of ideas. When we encounter ideas that line up with our existing beliefs, we silently ask ourselves Can I believe it? We look at the evidence presented to us, consider it on the merits, and see if the points add up to a belief we can feel good about. When we encounter ideas that challenge our beliefs, though, we ask ourselves something else: Must I believe it? And when we ask Must I believe it? it means our intuition is resisting. “ We start to look for “one good reason–just one will do it– to dismiss the entire offending concept.”
“When you feel you’ve won online, you’ve rarely changed anyone’s mind. Instead, you stand as the triumphant king of a lonely land smoldering with the ashes of people you’ve decimated with your words who are less likely than ever to ever listen to your side again.”
This quote from Elizabeth Saunders illustrates an important point. As you prepare to post that perfect meme on social media which will really slam the other side ask yourself a question. Will doing this really build a bridge for communication or will it slowly chip away at another opportunity for listening?
Social psychologist Shalom Schwartz studies human values. His research indicates that “there aren’t an infinite number of human values out there. There are only ten: stimulation, hedonism, achievement, power, benevolence, universalism, security, conformity, and self-direction.” Conflicts are often cast in terms of one side accusing the other of having no values at all. But, in reality conflicts usually arise as a result of different sides ordering theses values differently.
“Neither is likely to see that the other is motivated by a different set of top-ranked values. And that’s how each of them will miss truly seeing the other: they will mistake a different ordering of values for an absence of the ones that they think matter most.” This gives rise to a common but mistaken belief that “If you’re not motivated by this thing I consider good, you must be against it.”
“Every tough issue that divides and exhausts us–abortion, immigration, gun regulation, you name it–divides and exhausts us precisely because it puts some fundamentally good values into tension with one another. That tension reveals the most confounding thing of all-trade-offs. "
What’s more is what she calls “the sucky part” which is that for most intractable issues, “we can’t neatly resolve this tension between values or the trade-offs they reveal.” The best we can do is to find a balance that works for now. Inevitably that balance will have to be re-examined many times in the future. That’s just the nature of how trade-offs among values work.
“We all want to solve our problems for good. I meant who wouldn't? Seeing things from our own individual point of view, it can seem so darn possible. But as long as those problems sit on a fault line between fundamental values in tension with each other, and we live among people who (a) walk different paths, and (b) apply their values to problems in a different order (spoiler alert: both are always the case!), good solutions are going to be a lot more elusive than we think.
We may each come up with a solution where the trade-offs seem perfectly acceptable…to us.
But what about everyone else?”
Ultimately, we have to be willing to reach out and really communicate with people. We need to become more curious about individuals not as representatives of a set of beliefs or political groups but as people who have their own set of life experiences that have led them to the outlook they currently have. Doing so means we will discover points of contact where we share values in common. We will also discover points where we differ in how we order those values that we share.
We need to remember that we share values even though we might order them differently. And we need to recognize that these differences will always be there requiring us to make trade-offs if we’re ever going to address issues and problems in an effective way. This also means that we will never be done addressing these issues. We will always have to revisit them and continue making trade-offs to accommodate changes in the world we share and the values we share.
As Guzmán puts it, when it comes to communicating with others we have to build bridges and maintain them even if we don’t always cross them. What counts is that the bridges are there and available when we’re ready to use them.
This image is useful when it comes to posting on social media. Are those comments or memes you’re posting building bridges or tearing them down? You might not see an immediate benefit to bridge building but it is there and can make a difference.
We have to stay curious as well which includes rejecting easy answers to difficult questions and embracing complexity.
When we do these things we open ourselves to experiencing what she refers to as an INTOIT moment. These are the moments when we can bridge the gap between people who differ from us. We can really listen to them and learn from them. If we’re lucky we can experience a revelation of sorts and say “I never thought of it that way!”
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator
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