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The way you’re thinking is probably wrong. If you just felt a twinge of frustration reading that sentence, you’re not alone: It’s perfectly common to wholeheartedly believe that you’re right all the time—even when you’re wrong.
“Humans are, by default, in what I call the ‘soldier mindset,’ in which your motivation is to defend your ideas and your beliefs against any evidence that might threaten them,” says rationality expert Julia Galef, author of The Scout Mindset, on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. As a result, we tend to band with others who regurgitate our same beliefs; we follow social media accounts that reinforce our ideas; we subscribe to news outlets that confirm our biases with grabby headlines.
All that to say: We’re all not as open-minded as we think. So how can we escape the echo chamber (even if, deep down, we don’t really want to)? Allow Galef to explain.
Why is it so hard to think beyond your own bias?
There are a number of reasons, says Galef. First up: It’s simply less cognitive effort to listen to what you already agree with. “Having to do the work of reaching for a charitable interpretation of what they’re saying and not strawmanning them, that does take more cognitive effort,” she notes. Meaning, sidling up to what you already agree with is, frankly, easier on the mind.
Next, humans are inherently social beings—so it only makes sense we want to band with others we wholeheartedly agree with. “We automatically sort ourselves into [groups],” says Galef. “Sometimes they are just demographic, like your country or your race, but often they are about your beliefs.” She adds: “So when someone plays to your side, it’s like, they’re cheering for the [group] you share with them, and it feels really good.” Consequently, when someone speaks against your crowd, it can feel insulting.
Finally, there’s an emotional side to your beliefs—people typically attach what they believe in to their identity at large. And according to Galef, overcoming that natural instinct takes some emotional effort.
We may have defaulted to this way of thinking for so long, but it’s not impossible to overcome.
1. Recognize when bias is distorting your thinking.
The first step, says Galef, is to notice when your passion is clouding your judgement. Of course, passion isn’t inherently bad—there’s no problem with being excited about a cause and wanting to spread the word!
However, there’s a fine line between being passionate about something and fusing it to your identity. As we mentioned above, associating the two together can make it very difficult to engage with dissent. How do you know when you’ve crossed this threshold? “When any criticism of the belief or lifestyle choice that you’re passionate about feels like a personal attack on you,” says Galef. When this happens, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on why you associate your beliefs with your being.
2. Look at your track record.
It seems counterintuitive: If you’re trying to become more open-minded, why should you remember the times you were feeling defensive?
Actually, she says, it’s a crucial step towards shifting your thinking. “If you don’t notice yourself being in soldier mindset, that probably isn’t because you’re an exception to humanity. It’s probably because you are not very self-aware.” If you can’t muster the humility to say to yourself, “I’m feeling defensive,” or “I’m just reaching for rebuttals,” how can you expect to engage with others in an intellectually honest way?
Galef continues, “An important part of self-awareness is paying attention to your actual track record. How do you actually behave?”
After you reflect on the times you were a “soldier,” she says you can then recognize when you have acted like a “scout,” or when you have recognized that someone else was right and had an open mind. Can you think of an example when you proved yourself wrong—a political opinion, a lifestyle choice, or even at work? “Looking for examples in which you demonstrated scout mindset is a much clearer sign than feeling like [you’re] the kind of person who would have an open mind,” she says. “That’s what separates the wheat from the chaff.”
3. Seek out different perspectives with those who have common ground.
You’ve probably heard this point before: Make sure to engage with different perspectives. However, says Galef, you don’t want to just meander on over to the completely other side of the spectrum—that can do way more harm than good, as arguing with an irrational person typically only reinforces that what you’re thinking is correct.
“Engage with criticism, but try to prioritize listening to people with whom you have at least a little bit of common ground,” says Galef. Find people you disagree with on fundamental issues, perhaps religion or politics, but have enough overlap so that you feel comfortable to communicate.
“I advocate trying to talk to people who strike you as unusually thoughtful or reasonable, or they strike you as nice people,” adds Galef. “Those are the people who you should be listening to and asking, ‘What do you think I’m missing here?’ or, ‘What do you think I’m wrong about?,’ or, ‘Which points from your side do you think have merit and why?’ Those are the conversations that actually sometimes do produce a shift in your perspective.”
Becoming truly open-minded is harder than it looks, especially because there are so many ways to confirm your own biases in society. It takes work to overcome, but the intention pays off in the long-term. Take it from Galef: “It is harder and less immediately rewarding, but I believe it’s worth it.”