#5: 💭 Active Open-Mindedness
Sense-making in the age of digital narrative warfare
Artist: Kinjal Gorakh
Welcome to the fifth edition of the Samadhi City - a series of articles to help you cultivate a sense of inner stillness amidst the chaos of everyday life. Check out this post to learn more about its goals and what you can expect from the series.
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In a world filled with polarized narratives, it is becoming harder to make sense of what’s going on. News and social media have a way of tugging at our emotions with salient narratives that follow us everywhere we go online. Algorithms that optimize for engagement keep us entrenched in cozy information bubbles that reduce complex issues to binary, us-vs-them debates. How do we navigate this information frenzy?
One of the mental skills that can help us separate signals from noise is active open-mindedness. Or what psychologists refer to as active open-minded thinking (AOT).
More than just being receptive to new information, active open-mindedness involves seeking out evidence that tells us our existing beliefs are wrong.
People who practice active open-mindedness:
Are open to consider new and possibly conflicting information.
Understand the reasons for believing what they do, and what evidence it would take to change their mind.
Actively look for evidence that disconfirms their beliefs. Usually by engaging with people who disagree with their position or consuming media that presents evidence against their position.
How do we become more actively open-minded?
AOT involves a conscious effort to get around our own adaptive cognitive processes. Beyond integrating new information into our existing worldviews, we have to spend time critically evaluating how we come to believe what we believe, lest our sense of what’s real - and what’s meaningful - fall under the mercy of algorithms and daily soundbites.
In this edition I will explore ways we can practice active open-minded thinking, namely:
Being aware of your own heuristics
Catching yourself in Refutation Mode
Evaluating your sources
Keeping your identity small
Practicing the dialectical method
1. Be aware of your heuristics
Heuristics are mental shortcuts that help us tune into what’s relevant about an event or situation. These shortcuts save us time and cognitive resources by pre-specifying where we should search for information when we make decisions.
Heuristics necessarily get us to prejudge what to pay attention to, and are useful in our day-to-day lives. If I’m trying to decide which headphones to buy, I will pay more attention to their sound quality rather than the manufacturer’s stock price or color of the store’s floor tiles. Without my heuristics about what makes a good pair of headphones, I would be overwhelmed in trying to consider all the information available to me.
Because heuristics get us to prejudge situations, they are also a source of bias. Left unchecked, the bias can distort incoming information to fit what we expect to hear.
In her TED Talk, Cassie Jaye describes her experience interviewing Men’s Rights Activists as a documentary filmmaker and feminist. When listening to the recordings, she noticed that she had, in the moment, automatically attached sexist connotations to what were neutral statements:
A men’s rights activist would say to me: “There are over 2000 domestic violence shelters for women in the United States, but only one for men. Yet, multiple reputable studies show that men are just as likely to be abused.”
I would hear them say: “We don’t need 2000 shelters for women. They’re all lying about being abused. It’s all a scam.”
The mind looks for easy solutions to resolve disharmony by rejecting information outright or rationalizing it away. Here we see that her bias was so strong that she subconsciously retrofitted reality into her existing views.
In being too quick to dismiss evidence that contradicts our beliefs, we lose valuable opportunities to engage in discussions that can help us grow. Notice when you have a strong reaction to something you read or hear. Did this reaction arise because the words are outright objectionable? Or because it goes against how your biases assumed the world to be?
2. Catch yourself in Refutation Mode, and Give it 5 Minutes
Refutation Mode is the state we enter when we hear something we disagree with and immediately begin to refute every point rather than listen to the other person. Once we stop listening, we stop reflecting.
You may have experienced this when you disagree with something you hear in a meeting and have the urge to speak up — your attention narrows to the thing that you want to say, and you are no longer engaged in the conversation that is still going on.
… we should probably reflect on the ways that our informational habits – the means (mostly online means) by which we acquire and pass on and respond to information – strongly discourage us from taking even that much time. No social-media service I know of enforces a waiting period before responding.
In the heat of the moment, we substitute emotions for thoughts. The more passionate we are about a topic, the faster we tend to enter Refutation Mode when presented with something that goes against our views on that topic. We become quick to react instead of giving it time to sink in.
Jason Fried in Give it 5 Minutes
There’s also a difference between asking questions and pushing back. Pushing back means you already think you know. Asking questions means you want to know. Ask more questions.
Learning to think first rather than react quickly is a lifelong pursuit.
Instant communication is here to stay, so the onus is on us to slow down. We might very well disagree with a view even after giving it time. But the difference is that we would have thought deeply about the issue. Our points of disagreement will be more nuanced and specific. Our response will contain more signal, instead of adding to the noise.
3. Evaluate your sources
In addition to how we evaluate our own thinking, active open-mindedness involves how effective we are in evaluating other people’s thinking. We as individuals do not have the time nor expertise to delve deeply into every topic, so we necessarily proxy (delegate) our sense-making to others: journalists, leaders, professionals, peers, and politicians.
We need to have standards to evaluate other people's thinking and be able to distinguish relatively trustworthy sources. If you find yourself agreeing with everything you read or hear, it's a sign you might be sitting too comfortably in a bubble.
How often do you consume information from a source whose views you disagree with compared to those with whom you find yourself nodding along to?
Jonathan Baron, a psychologist who has published extensive work on AOT, writes
If you have not looked for reasons why your favored belief might be incorrect, you should not have so much confidence that it is correct.
We tend to stay within the echo chambers of media channels that support our given ideology because they shelter us from any possible challenge to our beliefs. You can set yourself apart by rebalancing your sources of information.
Look for independent journalists, YouTube channels, or podcasts that you find yourself disagreeing with more often than you agree. Ones that are articulate and present appropriate evidence for their arguments. Eventually, you will become familiar with the premises behind multiple perspectives and formulate opinions you can have more confidence in.
Because there is so much information out there, “think for yourself” is advice that only takes us so far. We also shouldn’t delegate all our sense-making and opinion formulation to the same group of people. We can find the balance by thinking with different people.
4. “Keep Your Identity Small”
Humans have evolved to be social creatures because individuals are more likely to survive in the African savanna if they are part of a tribe. Tribe membership gets us to adopt the beliefs and traditions that bond the group together. The tribe and its associated worldviews become a part of our identity. “I am an American”, “I am a Buddhist”, “I am a Democrat”.
Our worldviews are shaped by the modern “tribes” we belong to, which in turn influence our career choices, relationships, and sense of meaning in life. We find it difficult to change our beliefs because we tie our identities to them.
The tighter the entanglement between our identity and our beliefs, the greater the cognitive dissonance we feel when confronted with new information that challenges them.
To counteract this, Paul Graham proposes you can work to “Keep Your Identity Small”
The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.
Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.
It’s one thing to change your mind on the periphery and have strong opinions that you hold loosely. It’s another to challenge the assumptions that make up your sense of who you are. If you built your whole career and sense of identity on a geocentric world view (that Earth was the center of the universe), it will be hard to swallow any evidence of the contrary.
Perhaps one belief that active open-minded thinkers can let into their identity is a belief in progress. The potential to learn and grow. That way, you can treat new knowledge as helping you fulfill this potential whether it contradicts your existing view or not.
5. Practice the dialectical method
A dialectic is a dialogue between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject in search of truth through reasoned arguments. It is a method of discourse in which participants seek criticism against their held beliefs.
This is different from a debate, in which debaters are committed to their points of view and have an objective to win. Debates make things more polarized because you are trying to win for “your side” either by persuading the opponent, proving your own argument correct, or proving the opponent's argument incorrect, as opposed to trying to collectively make sense of things. When you engage in conversation to win, you almost can’t help but enter Refutation Mode because it’s in your interest to counteract what the other person is saying through rhetoric or narrative devices that have more persuasive power.
One form of dialectic is the Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis model. At the basic level, the thesis and antithesis contradict each other, giving the illusion that the solution is one OR the other. Dialectical analysis recognizes that both sides contain some truth, and synthesizes a higher-level idea out of both of them. Synthesis requires a novel insight that transcends the original arguments and resolves the contradiction between them.
We can make an example out of this essay itself. If a person who only relies on heuristics and rhetoric never thinks critically enough to change their mind, does that imply that a radically open-minded person never makes up their mind because there are too many perspectives to consider?
The synthesis might look something like this:
Active open-mindedness is the cognitive flexibility to update our worldviews in light of new information. It isn’t that an actively open-minded person holds no beliefs at all, instead they treat their existing beliefs as placeholders until new knowledge comes along that warrants its replacement. The updated worldviews can then inform the heuristics they need in order to navigate their day-to-day lives.
To believe in progress is to accept that the current knowledge is either insufficient or wrong. Active open-mindedness leaves you with the liberty to explore the wider intellectual landscape with a commitment to progress rather than a static worldview. Seek out the best independent thinkers who disagree with you. Who knows, maybe you will come to enjoy discarding old beliefs after being proven wrong. Because once the initial sting to your ego dissipates, you are left with the joy of having learned something.
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You can also find me at nichanank.com and on Twitter 👋🏼
Until next time,
Big thanks to Bea Trinidad, Kushaan Shah, Meeta Sharma, Nivi Jayasekar, Rahim Adatia, and Shiying He for reading drafts of this and giving invaluable feedback.