The most important thing on the journey of personal growth is that there should be progress. So long as you keep moving forward you will reach your destination; but if you stop moving you will never reach it. Not every change is an improvement — but every improvement is a change.
For instance, you can’t become stronger by holding on to the same beliefs you started out with.
Unfortunately, each of us thinks that on any given subject our thinking habits are already quite good. Our views are the product of a dispassionate,realistic accounting of the world. They are objective.
This is a thing, psychologists call it ‘naïve realism,’ and it’s a problem you have whether you know it or not.
It’s significantly slowing you down in your quest for a better you.
Being that confident in your own opinions stops you from replacing bad thinking habits with more effective ones. If they are already objective and realistic, how can they be wrong?
Specifically, your naïve realism limits your ability to learn from (a) experiences and (b) others.
In this essay, I’d like to share a few techniques I use to get better at (a) truth-seeking and (b) constructive disagreement.
1. Watch out for “surely”
In a nutshell, your mission for today is this. Your gut feelings want to make you believe that your impressions are the result of a neutral accounting of reality. You must learn to distrust these appraisals.
In doing so, the first step is to internalize one hard truth. While your way of thinking seems intuitive and blatantly clear to you, these intuitions areoverselling your opinions. What pretends to be inspired by reality actually stems from your personal idiosyncrasies. What seem like unquestionabledeliverances from your senses and faculty of reason are often entirely optional assumptions.
Your gut is tricking you into mistaking opinion for fact.
Eliezer Yudkowsky points out: “If in your heart you believe you already know, or if in your heart you do not wish to know, then your questioning will be purposeless and your skills without direction.”
Fortunately, you can recognize when your brain is playing this trick on you.If some assertion you find yourself inclined to make starts with a word like “surely,” it’s time to take action.
Doing so often means you’re desperate to shield your belief from the confrontation with the real facts of the outside world. It’s a defensive, protective move. You’re uncertain about the arguments for whatever it is you’ve been taking for granted your entire life.
- “Clearly, I’m a failure if I never marry.”
- “Obviously, everyone should have the right to carry a gun.”
- “Surely, a top marginal tax rate is unjust.”
- “It’s self-evident that someone who isn’t fulfilling his potential is making a mistake.”
To be an effective truth-seeker, you need to seek out the most painful spots, not the arguments that are most reassuring to consider. That is exactly what your brain wants to prevent you from doing by weaponizing the “surely” prefix.
You deal with this by becoming conscious of it:
- Make an effort to become aware of your line of reasoning.
- Then immediately ring the alarm bells whenever you spot thoughts with the “surely…” structure.
- Now go down to the assumption level and assume something is wrong there.
- Fix it. Pull off the mask of one of your beliefs. What’s the thought you do not allow yourself to think?
And obviously, asking questions rather than making assumptions will pay off in your relationships (😉).
2. Realize you‘re probably wrong
The second mental shift you need to make is to understand you often suck as truth-seeker. It’s not just that our viewpoints aren’t objective. They’re not likely to be accurate either.
- Scientists are amassing more and more evidence that we are specifically designed by mother nature to delude ourselves. Your own intuitions about what’s true are likely to be way more off-track than you think.
- Central processing is an exception. We do not think when making choices. We use heuristics. Our inferences frequently violate principles of statistics, economics, logic, and basic scientific methodology.
- We have bad motives. We feel that we have to defend a view, because it’s what we’ve said in the past.
- We lack knowledge (especially empirical evidence) relevant to our beliefs, when that awareness is outside the narrow confines of our discipline.
- We often just ignore objections to our position.
- We’re never going to understand how everything is connected. You might think you understand cause and effect, but most likely you’re mistaken.
That you can’t spot your own biases doesn’t mean you don’t have them. That you can’t discern the crack in your lens as a crack doesn’t stop the crack from distorting your view.
This unfortunate fact has important consequences for how you should interpret disagreements.
As a result, namely, the situation between you and the person with the different take is often far more symmetrical than your intuition would have you believe. In many cases, it’s questionable whether you’re the one with the objectivity bragging rights. You both have some biases. And some interests. And some gaps in your knowledge. And a particular personal history.
Regularly, people’s opinions that result from their unique experiences and inclinations make sense when you consider them from their perspective.
They aren’t disagreeing with you because they’re obstinate, they’re disagreeing because the world feels different to them — even if the two of you are in fact embedded in the same reality.
If can you internalize this key insight, your discussions will skyrocket in terms of productiveness. And you search for truth can only really begin after you’ve accepted that the thinking machine inside your skull has biases.
3. See the other person as ‘coming from somewhere’
The third technique is related: recall how you actually ended up holding the theory you prefer, and then realize that someone else has a similar story to tell.
An example. I happen to be an atheist. Had I been socialized in, for instance, Yemen, I would probably have very different ideas regarding the correct metaphysical description of our universe. And the same ‘what if’ holds for my beliefs about more earthly matters such as gun possession, immigration, what makes for a good life, and so on.
Even the uber-reasoners of academic philosophy can’t escape this: Oxford graduates tend to believe in the analytic/synthetic distinction (don’t ask, doesn’t matter), while Harvard graduates do not.
Of course those on either side can argue vigorously for their own view, are aware of arguments on the other side, and can explain why they are not persuaded. But — and this is the point — there is something unsettling about the thought that your convictions can be traced back to an arbitrary factor of where you grew up or went to school.
Why is this unsettling?
Because it suggests that often social and cultural causes, rather intellectually apprehended reasons are what catapults us into adopting a set of beliefs.
This, too, has weighty implications for how you should think about your and other people’s (clashing) opinions.
Unless you really want to defend the position that all these people Over There are plain stupid you have to learn to say “I think there are two sides to every story” and “I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that.”
Here’s my golden tip. Next time you find yourself vehemently disagreeing with someone, say to yourself:
He seemed like such a normal dude. And he IS a normal guy, he is just what you’d expect a baseline person to be like if he had the life experience he’s had.
4. See your own beliefs as the result of a fluky process
The last trick is the most difficult one: it requires you to suck up your pride and combat some of your deepest intuitions.
Your naive realism is constantly trying to seduce you to search for ways to interpret every fact to confirm your pre-existing beliefs, like securing a citadel against every possible line of attack. This you cannot do.
In training myself to resist this urge, I’ve benefited greatly from stepping back from all the moving parts in my head and realize they are contingent beliefs.
They’re the product of an accidental causal history rather than of contact with fundamental truths or pristine reasoning.
They could be wrong.
Trying to see your own principles ‘from the outside’, makes you better at trick #3. It makes it easier for you to see someone who you think is wrong as a fellow human being on his own quest to make sense of it all — given the worldview he has been trained to have.
You should try and see both your own and the other person’s convictions as the result of such a history, rather than stemming from his pure evilness or immeasurable stupidity. (But don’t think you can get good information about a technical issue just by psychoanalyzing the personalities involved.)
In a nutshell, if you want to become better at constructive disagreements, it’s essential to learn to detach. Look at your own experience of objective reality from the outside. Categorize it as one way of looking at things that needn’t be standard even though it’s what you’ve been trained to see. And adjust your confidence accordingly.
All you need to know
To summarize, we’ve seen that we mistake our subjective viewpoint for an objective appraisal of the world.
This stops us from finding the truth and hurts our relationships with others. Holding on to false beliefs is often the bottleneck in self-improvement.
If you want to grow, you are obligated to question your opinions and to aim to understand rather than to persuade.
To reprogram your thinking habits, it’s not enough to confess that you too are biased. The whole point is to do better, to keep moving ahead, to take one more step forward. This requires careful attention to and cultivation of your cognitive life — something most of us instinctively avoid.
Be on guard for “surely” words. Which thought are they preventing you from entertaining?
Realize there is a high probability you’re not an all-knowing being. Disagreements are more symmetrical than you think.
See others as coming from somewhere. Seek to understand.
See yourself as coming from somewhere. Learn to detach. Assume you don’t know.