Are we REALLY open-minded?

Are we REALLY open-minded?


Or would we rather believe our beliefs are 'the right ones'?

One of the biggest viral YouTubes of the last few years is Tim Minchin’s address to graduates of the University of Western Australia, in which he exhorts them to “be hard on (their) beliefs.  Take them out onto the verandah and hit them with a cricket bat.  Be intellectually rigorous…”

This is of course wonderful.  In theory.  Until it comes to it.  When it’s not so great.  We don’t like it. 

Some of the cleverest and most powerful people in the world are as resistant to having their beliefs contradicted as some of the stupidest… which of course brings into question what is meant by ‘clever’ and ‘stupid’.

Most of us tolerate minor alterations of thought, and limited arguments that don’t shake our beliefs too hard.  But when confronted with facts that really contradict our current paradigm (however concrete those facts may be), we respond as though being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger.

Look up the ‘backfire effect’.  It’s a bizarre but major problem to which, no matter how open-minded we think we are, we’re all susceptible.  The backfire effect is this: though you’d think that when confronted with new information that contradicts your current beliefs, you would change your mind accordingly; what actually happens is that you dig in - your current beliefs get even stronger!

This accounts for a lot, doesn’t it?  One could point to flat earth theory, creationism or global-warming denial as obvious examples - or are they?!!

Pretty scary stuff.  So, are we doomed?  No.  We just need to make repeated decisions to be more courageous and to have greater tolerance of other beliefs. 

It takes great courage to admit we’re wrong.  It takes mental discipline to not allow ourselves to just ‘backfire’, and instead to truly consider the potential veracity of other points of view. I have the utmost admiration for people who I’ve witnessed being prepared to change their views. 

I don’t know why we seem to have developed such a dread of being wrong, because it can’t be as bad as... sailing off the edge of the earth and into oblivion, can it?

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