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How always being right makes you dumber

Dorian Minors • September 23, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

It takes a particularly strong person to admit being wrong about something. Not just because it's hard to admit you were wrong but because our brain literally fights against it. Thucydides once wrote of the allies of Athens who foolishly hoped to switch sides in the Peloponnesian War;

for it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy

Almost two-thousand years later, Dante is given (and in turn gives us) the saintly advice;

affection for one's own opinion binds, confines the mind

In the 1960's, almost 1000 years after that, psychology caught up, finding that people do indeed tend to try to make the evidence fit the theory instead of testing the theory against the evidence. That researcher's name was Peter Wason, and he named the phenomenon 'confirmation bias' to honour the fact that people prefer to 'confirm' a theory. Wason began something of a flurry of research that resulted in quite a depth of understanding about the topic. Essentially, we are all apt to use information in a manner that will confirm our own beliefs and expectations of the world. We do this in three ways:

This muppet, Jim Inhofe, might be the most hilarious example of this bias in action I've ever seen. This muppet, Jim Inhofe, might be the most amusing example of this bias in action I've ever seen.

Now, you aren't a jackass (although you may come across as one). It's just your brain trying to shake off any cognitive dissonance, otherwise known as mental conflict, that it comes across (your brain hates that stuff). We tend to do this particularly if the subject touches on our emotions (i.e. is very important to us and feeds our beliefs about the world). These kinds of beliefs are very volatile when challenged because they form part of who we are, and we protect them enthusiastically. So how can we fight it?

Finally, take everything with a grain of salt. Even this! Because as E.B. White wrote:

I have yet to see a piece of writing, political or non-political, that does not have a slant. All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular

Besides no one wants to come across as one of those old, hilariously intolerant assholes. Having trouble with friends who won't change their mind? Learn the one sentence that will double your persuasion. Or learn how you aren't as happy as you could be (again, because of your bloody brain's phobia of mental conflict). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.