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Open-Mindedness Essay

We are an amalgam of qualities. We refine them, change them, and moderate them, and we do it all on a daily basis. We bring certain ones to the forefront if the situation calls for it, and other times we hold back. Humanity is fluid in this way.

Sometimes, however, we get lost in ourselves. Our own personal worlds become so small and important that we forget what else is out there. We forget that there are 7 billion other people on this planet with 7 billion other combinations of personalities and experiences and upbringings. We become the center of our own personal universe and we define our own definitive truths. We form opinions and become steadfast in them. Who can blame us? We only know of one life, one perspective.

But what’s just as important as managing our own qualities and personality traits is the ability to understand someone else’s. What’s just as important as focusing on bettering ourselves is focusing on bettering our ability to connect with others. And that’s where open-mindedness comes in.

Open-mindedness is the single most important characteristic we have as human beings. To be open-minded means to remove your personal biases and prejudices from any situation and completely immerse yourself in another experience. But open-mindedness is a muscle. Since we have been indoctrinated since birth with everything we currently know, it involves practice. You must actively place yourself in another person’s head, allowing yourself to think their thoughts and see things from their point of view. And it may not come with age. Open-mindedness takes time, energy, and patience.

Open-mindedness is important. One day, you might (no – you likely will) enter a world that forces you to question many things you’ve come to know throughout your life. When I became a college freshman two and a half years ago, I experienced this very phenomenon. For the first time, not everyone around me shared my religious beliefs, my values, my political views, my definitions of capital-R Right and capital-W Wrong. It should have been natural to assume that I would be around people who were different from me, since obviously not every single person shared my upbringing in suburban New Jersey. But for some reason, this thought didn’t cross my mind. It shocked me that the people I met did things I disagreed with and believed in things that I didn’t understand. I became angry and pejorative, and it felt awful.

Despite it all, though, I loved these people. It confused me. In high school, I was always quick to separate people into “good” and “bad” categories, into these rigid and defiant classifications that determined if I was going to like them (“good”) or not (“bad”). I was so set in my beliefs. Then, once college rolled around, the people whom I considered “good” also possessed qualities of the “bad,” and I hated myself for continuing to judge the people I loved. I felt uncomfortable all the time, ripped from my little suburban bubble, always working to silence the disapproving words that kept enveloping my thoughts. Living in my own head became exhausting. Why couldn’t I be as carefree and accepting as everyone around me? Why did I care so much about what these people are doing, listening to, engaging in? Who was I to judge someone on how they live their life? Who was I to assume that everybody had been brought up under similar influences and values as I had? Who was I to create a rigid definition of Normal, and then classify people who obscured from my own personal definition as Abnormal? Who was I?

I’m tempted to say that “I’m nobody to do this,” but the reality of the situation is that I – like every one of these people that I have met and will meet in the future – am also a person with her own beliefs and values and truths. I am somebody with my own Normal. However, the difference between High School Me and College Me is that College Me has learned how to understand where people are coming from. College Me realizes that people have grown up under a wide variety of circumstances that have influenced their choices in entertainment, movies, music, beliefs, values, and more. College Me was tired of feeling horrible for thinking such negative thoughts about her loved ones, so she worked hard to sharpen her ability to truly understand other peoples’ perspectives. At this point, College Me has been exercising her open-mindedness muscle for the past two and a half years, and is confident that you can now probably talk to her about anything in the world and she will listen attentively and openly.

Being open-minded is relaxing. Your brain doesn’t race with judgmental thoughts that make you feel guilty ten times over, and you are not aggressively working to hide a gut reaction that has been programmed into you for so long. But you must remember that an unexercised open-mindedness muscle is not your fault. It is not naivety. It is not ignorance. We are a product of our environment and of the interactions we have with people around us, so growing up in the same kind of place for our entire lives would certainly put us around the same kind of people who would influence us similarly every day. This is why it takes practice.

Open-mindedness does not mean that you must change who you are. Open-mindedness is a level of understanding that goes beyond a simple “Oh, I see.” It involves the steadiness in your tone and the patience in your demeanor. It requires asking questions, being genuinely interested in peoples’ thoughts, and accepting people for exactly who they are, differences and all. Open-mindedness doesn’t even mean that you agree with something. It means you are willing to adjust your own conclusions and take someone else’s into consideration when creating a final verdict. And, sometimes, open-mindedness means that no final verdict can ever exist. The beauty of open-mindedness is that it allows you to find out so many new things and soak in so many new perspectives. It allows you to try on many definitions of Normal until you settle into one that feels right for you – and nobody else.

image – kevin dooley

People are very open-minded about new things…as long as they're exactly like the old ones! - Charles Kettering

This week’s featured strength is Open-Mindedness.

Definition

Open-mindedness is the willingness to search actively for evidence against one’s favored beliefs, plans, or goals, and to weigh such evidence fairly when it is available.

Being open-minded does not imply that one is indecisive, wishy-washy, or incapable of thinking for one’s self. After considering various alternatives, an open-minded person can take a firm stand on a position and act accordingly.

The opposite of open-mindedness is what is called the myside bias which refers to the pervasive tendency to search for evidence and evaluate evidence in a way that favors your initial beliefs. Most people show myside bias, but some are more biased than others.

Benefits of Open-Mindedness

Research suggests the following benefits of open-mindedness:

  • Open-minded, cognitively complex individuals are less swayed by singular events and are more resistant to suggestion and manipulation.
  • Open-minded individuals are better able to predict how others will behave and are less prone to projection.
  • Open-minded individuals tend to score better on tests of general cognitive ability like the SAT or an IQ test. (Of course we don’t know whether being open-minded makes one smarter or vice versa.)

Open-Mindedness as a “Corrective Virtue”

Social and cognitive psychologists have noted widespread errors in judgment/thinking to which we are all vulnerable. In order to be open-minded, we have to work against these basic tendencies, leading virtue ethicists to call open-mindedness a corrective virtue.

In addition to the myside bias described above, here are three other cognitive tendencies that work against open-minded thinking:

1) Selective Exposure

We maintain our beliefs by selectively exposing ourselves to information that we already know is likely to support those beliefs. Liberals tend to read liberal newspapers, and Conservatives tend to read conservative newspapers.

2) Primacy Effects

The evidence that comes first matters more than evidence presented later. Trial lawyers are very aware of this phenomenon. Once jurors form a belief, that belief becomes resistant to counterevidence.

3) Polarization

We tend to be less critical of evidence that supports our beliefs than evidence that runs counter to our beliefs. In an interesting experiment that demonstrates this phenomenon Anchor[1], researchers presented individuals with mixed evidence on the effectiveness of capital punishment on reducing crime. Even though the evidence on both sides of the issue was perfectly balanced, individuals became stronger in their initial position for or against capital punishment. They rated evidence that supported their initial belief as more convincing, and they found flaws more easily in the evidence that countered their initial beliefs.

What Encourages Open-Mindedness?

Research suggests that people are more likely to be open-minded when they are not under time pressure. (Our gut reactions aren’t always the most accurate.)

Individuals are more likely to be open-minded when they believe they are making an important decision. (This is when we start making lists of pros and cons, seeking the perspectives of others, etc.)

Some research suggests that the way in which an idea is presented can affect how open-minded someone is when considering it. For example, a typical method of assessing open-mindedness in the laboratory is to ask a participant to list arguments on both sides of a complicated issue (e.g., the death penalty, abortion, animal testing). What typically happens is that individuals are able to list far more arguments on their favored side. However, if the researcher then encourages the participant to come up with more arguments on the opposing side, most people are able to do so without too much difficulty. It seems that individuals have these counter-arguments stored in memory but they don’t draw on them when first asked.

Exercises to Build Open-Mindedness

In my readings, I did not uncover any open-mindedness interventions. But in the spirit of creativity/originality (the featured strength 2 newsletters ago), I consulted Catherine Freemire, LCSW [Catherine Freemire, LCSW, Balanced Life Coaching, coachcat@jps.net], a clinical therapist and professional coach renowned for her creative thinking. She came up with three exercises for building open-mindedness which I think are definitely worth trying:

  1. Select an emotionally charged, debatable topic (e.g., abortion, prayer in school, healthcare reform, the current war in Iraq) and take the opposite side from your own. Write five valid reasons to support this view. (While typing Catherine’s idea, I had a related one of my own: If you are conservative in your political beliefs, listen to Al Frankin’s radio show; if you are liberal, listen to Rush Limbaugh! While you are listening, try to avoid the cognitive error of polarization described above.)
  2. Remember a time when you were wronged by someone in the past. Generate three plausible reasons why this person inadvertently or intentionally wronged you.
  3. This one is for parents: Think of a topic that you consistently argue about with your teen or grown child. Now, take their position and think of 3 substantial reasons why their point of view is valid. (This could also be done with spouses or any family members for that matter!)

I hope you enjoyed this newsletter! See you in two weeks when we discuss the character strength, Love of Learning.

Recommended Readings

Baron, J. (2000). Thinking and deciding (3rd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kuhn, D. (1991). The skills of argument. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Peterson, C. and Seligman, M. E. P. (Eds.). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stanovich, K. E. (1999). Who is rational? Studies of individual differences in reasoning. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

© 2004 Authentic Happiness Coaching. All rights reserved.

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