About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to Want to Change Your Mind

Out of all the cognitive biases and logical fallacies, I think the most pernicious of all is a kind of meta-bias, one underlying tendency that makes us more susceptible to all of the others: simply not wanting to be wrong. It's so automatic that it's hard to notice it coloring your judgment unless you really pay attention, but once you do, you realize how frequently it makes you grasp for a fallacious argument just so you don't have to admit to yourself that you were wrong. I'm definitely no exception -- I can't count the number of times I've caught myself reacting to an argument by asking myself, "OK, why is that false?" rather than "Is that false?"

Eventually, I was struck with one of the fundamental ironies of rationalism: that if I want to be actually right as much as possible, in general, then I have to stop caring about being right in any particular disagreement. Otherwise, I'm not going to be able to update my beliefs when the evidence calls for it. Below, six tricks I've picked up during my ongoing project of becoming fine with being wrong:

- Divorce your belief from your self. We get so attached to ideas that we think of them as part of ourselves, so that when someone attacks a belief we hold, it feels like an attack on us personally, and we automatically jump into defensive mode. To prevent that from happening, I try thinking of my belief as no longer being my belief, just a belief that I'm examining alongside other alternatives. (In fact, I find it useful to visualize this figuratively, imagining the belief under discussion as being located somewhere a few feet away from my body. Weird, but you'd be surprised how much it can help lessen your sense of identification with the idea.)

- Think of disagreements as collaborative, not adversarial. When I'm disagreeing with someone, I try re-framing the conversation in my mind as, "We're working together to try to figure out the truth about X" instead of "we're debating X." That helps me think of my goal as simply getting the correct answer, as opposed to winning. (Relatedly, I hate the practice of playing devil's advocate. I think it just gets us more in the habit of figuring out how to win, as opposed to figuring out the truth.)

- Visualize being wrong. This tip's from Eliezer Yudkowsky, of Less Wrong; he suggests that before you pass judgment on a claim you find unpalatable, that you first visualize how you would react and cope if it did turn out to be true. "The hope is that it takes less courage to visualize an uncomfortable state of affairs as a thought experiment, than to consider how likely it is to be true. But then after you do the former, it becomes easier to do the latter," Yudkowsky says.

- Take the long view. Acknowledging you're wrong seems less distasteful when you consider the long-term benefits: If people learn that you're willing to concede a point if it's warranted, then on those occasions when you don't concede, they'll be more likely to take your objections seriously rather than dismissing them as obstinacy. So I try to think of conceding a point as an investment in my future power to convince people of things.

- Congratulate yourself on being objective, not on being right. Part of the reason it's so hard to change our minds is that our self-image is bound up in being right. When we're right we feel proud; when we're wrong we feel disappointed or ashamed. Pride and disappointment can be useful motivating tools, so I'm not suggesting you try to shed them altogether, but they're being put towards a bad end here. Instead, I've been trying to re-train myself to feel pride whenever I consider an issue as objectively and fair-mindedly as possible, rather than whenever my initial belief about an issue happens to be correct.

- If you can't overcome your competitive instinct, re-direct it. Sometimes I really can't shake my desire to be right, to win. Ultimately, I hope I'll overcome that desire, but in the meantime I can at least channel it towards more productive ends: When I'm finding myself reluctant to admit that someone's points are stronger than mine, I remind myself that if I adopt those new beliefs, I can use them to win a future argument with someone else who holds my current beliefs. (Hey, I didn't say I was proud of this one -- but it works, so I'm sharing!)

Any recommendations for techniques you use to get yourself to be more comfortable with being wrong? I'd love to hear 'em.


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  2. Weigh the pros and cons of of admitting you're wrong but realizing you are vs. continuing to believe you're right when you're not. I find that quite sobering. But then, as a scientist it is something that is essential to deal with at work. It carries over to real life, too, though.

    Oh, and stop taken yourself so bloody serious. Why do people do that?

    Roy, what is that only truth we can rely on? I can think of several.

  3. I've always thought that implacability is born of not wanting to appear to be wrong. My deep hatred and fear of actually being wrong helps me shed bad beliefs. Where my BS detector arouses my fighting instinct, a whiff of solid argument puts that fear to work, spurring me toward truth's safety.

    My general advice is for people to work on generating counterexamples. Not for argumentation, but to get in the habit of parsing out the constituent parts of large ideas. Be as specific as possible about why you disagree. When I hate X which contains {a b c}, it helps to know that I hate X because of b. It's the implacable jerk that rejects X' {a c d} because he's committed himself to rejecting all Xs.

  4. I try to remember that I'm ignorant of most things and will always be so. After all, it's just not possible to know everything. Sometimes that brings in a bit of humility.

    I find a problem I have with internet 'arguments' is that you don't often get people treating your points with the principle of charity. You set out your point (probably unclearly, but still), it's returned to you mangled, you try to explain how that really wasn't what you meant, but it's returned to you as if it were your argument, and so on...that brings on a case of the irates and of course, once you're angry, you're no longer very rational or objective. I'm guilty too of mangling someone else's argument just because it's easier to win an argument against a strawman. Damn pride.

    Also, because I'm quite ignorant of argument reconstruction/critical thinking and it frustrates me a lot that I can't seem to pluck the gist of an argument, ignoring the rhetoric and red-herrings, noticing the logic or lack thereof, like smarties/philosophers do. These things often help me to get on the irrational train....

    Still, I know I'm ignorant and am reading critical thinking books and trying to argue better. :)

  5. With regard to long term benefits, I find that conceding a point can sometimes encourage my fellow debater to be more dismissive of future beliefs based on my admittedly fallacious perspective on the issue at hand. Thus it can be difficult to strike a balance between conceding a point when you have realized it is wrong, and maintaining legitimacy in contributing further valid points.

  6. Great post. These are the basic ideas that are told to you when you first start studying philosophy. It is also quite uncomfortable and difficult for many students to accept.

  7. Great post, thanks.

    Two of my favorite quotes:
    "You will never understand what others are saying until you humble yourself to the idea that the truth is more important than your desire to be right." (This was from an anonymous Wikipedia user).


    "It is an excellent rule to be observed in all disputes, that men should give soft words and hard arguments; that they should not so much strive to vex as to convince each other." (John Wilkins)

  8. Great post! Even as a school pupil, I noticed that you could, in debate club-like situations, only ever convince the listeners. But as soon as somebody had publicly argued in favor of one side, pride forbade them to ever concede that they may have erred. Feeling proud of being able to change your mind would be the obvious solution, especially if the "winner" does not ridicule the "convert" for having been wrong...

  9. Learn to enjoy being wrong, I do.

    Some 'in' here, wherever here is, have had the opportunity to go to school in the typical way. I haven't.

    So for me, whether accidentally or purposefully, coming up against a better honed intellect is truly a privilege. Which isn't necessarily your point, they can be wrong too.

    But in the main, I've found this type of encounter enjoyable (even if its emotionally stressful); and that's helped me to think of each argument, debate, what have you, as an opportunity for happiness.

    Yeah, it's kind of odd, but I don't care. I hadn't properly used my mind for so long, Plato's cave allegory holds significant emotional weight for me.

  10. Thanks for this post Julia. I will try to re-read it regularly and take on-board the excellent advice you offer, but I fear I am a lost cause. Some horrible finger pointing, teeth baring monster takes over my body whenever I get into a heated discussion. It's shameful.

  11. Julia,

    Good and significant post. I like your concept of “meta-bias” from which all others emerge. However, I’d like to suggest that it’s even deeper than wanting to be right. The reason that we always want to be right is that we are, across the broad spectrum of our lives, always trying to prove and justify ourselves and to establish our significance. You may call it self-righteousness. However, I don’t think that the cure is that easy.

  12. ...lots of practice (works for me!)

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  14. Thank you for posting these ideas; I just fell into this trap last night in a discussion and hurt a friends feelings; had to apologize, take a deep breath, slow down, and reconsider my arguements and we did reach a better understanding.

  15. I can't remember the last time I found a piece of advice that was simultaneously as insightful and as implementable. Thank you.

  16. One of the cool things about being able to admit you're wrong is that it gives you an opportunity to BS your way into a place that doesn't quite concede your old stand, accepts just enough of the other argument and to answer those in advance who will use the 'waffle' word, well its just another form of creativity.

  17. Great post, thanks!. One to pin up where one can read it many times a day.

  18. At first I was thinking "very good points" but then I tried to apply them to my own experience and realized they don't quite fit me. Why? Because if I'm not sure of a point, I don't argue for it to begin with. And if I am sure of a point (the Washington Monument is in Washington D.C. not Moscow) then I present it as fact and if the fact is not accepted then I drop the topic. I don't see it as my obligation to beat the truth into someone. Maybe I've internalized Julia's points enough that I just avoid debates where I have the possibility of being wrong.

    Related quote for today: "When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity,
    the truth does not necessarily lie exactly half way between.
    It is possible for one side simply to be wrong."

  19. I disagree with this, pretty strongly. The human desire to be right and defend a point is part of the reason humans have accomplished so much.

    There is a corollary, though, that is critical for this: even when strongly backing a point in an argument, grant your opponent the same humanity you grant yourself, and be willing to concede the point.

    The genius of humanity is that we can harness social levels of cognition, and we do this much more effectively by strongly arguing a point. These things you're saying can definitely improve your own personality and attitude and health, but if they weaken your ability to argue your point, then they are counterproductive.

  20. As I understood it there is no contradiction in realizing you are wrong about something and being a strong arguer for your point. As someone said here before, realizing it can make you a stronger arguer and earn more respect.
    On the other hand it is hard, as many others here pointed out. There is so strong a social pressure on not being wrong. It takes honest and humble counter debaters so to say, to earn that respect of admitting you are wrong. Many people just use the situation of having "combated" someone, in different ways.

  21. Don't really know any techniques to cope with being wrong - must be because I'm always right!

  22. thinking a little more about this, hmmmm I don't know

    Socially, its a very very good idea to be flexible and imagine you are someone else examining your 'problematic' view, opening up the way to change your belief.
    as per Julia.

    But I don't think the post was about pandering, modifying your beliefs to be socially acceptable. I think the post was about right and wrong as regards truth.

    This stuff just does not exist in a vacuum, never did never will. Its all relative and requires context. 2+2=4 is right and true for 99.99999546% of us who are living in a world bound by these forms of mathematics. For a few busy imagining that 2+2 must = 1 because all things must merge, so 2+2 is equivalent to 1+1 is equivalent to 1, then they are right and the others are wrong. Otherwise they could not continue to tackle this math.

    So maybe this belief modification is more about how to survive this world and be more rewarded by others in the world by agreeing with them. It is not necessarily pandering. It is seeing their point of view. and identifying enough with the proponents of the alternate belief so that the differences in beliefs become weaker as the identification grows.

    Put differently, you have no reason to modify your belief that luge is one bizarre sport until you start hanging out with a luge team.

  23. Remember that what is "right" and what is "wrong" is decided by the winner. Arriving at the winning position does not necessarily require you to be right.

  24. Learn to be comfortable with being wrong? What do you mean, "being wrong"!? :-P

    Good post indeed, something to think about. If we could also learn to be graceful when "winning" the arguments, that would make everything much easier...

  25. Being conscientious over the motive instead of the premises is a must. Whether or not one has fallible premises in their need to be correct, being a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion can be extremely serpentine. You loose a flexibility and ability to concede and adapt accordingly.
    In debate or argument, focus instead on "what is it that I am doing and what am I propagating" instead of "mine is right, and yours is wrong" whilst being in the process of striving for the dividends of a won debate.

    -What is most important, expressing truth or winning?

  26. Why can't I follow this blog in Facebook?

  27. Jari,

    you can, you need to install the NetworkedBlogs application on FaceBook.

  28. {I posted this to FB on 2/11, but it ended up on one of your friend's wall. So I'm reposting it here.}

    You are absolutely wrong. (Just kidding, lol.)
    I think what you have written is a great start to dealing with this subject.
    That's my 1st suggestion: "Recognize that even after you reach a conclusion, it only begins to answer your questions."
    My 2nd suggestion is something you did, but didn't list as a suggestion: "Identify what personal (emotional, psychological, political, ideological, economic, etc.) stake you have in taking the position you have taken and express it."
    My 3rd suggestion is also something you did: "Tell other people (including those you suspect you won't agree with) that you really want to hear their opinions."

  29. Eh, I'm not so sure about this. Generally speaking these are good things to remember in seeking the truth, but sometimes it's worthwhile to put the blinders on and fully immerse yourself in an idea, staving off nay-sayers who might stop you on the rabbit trail (yay for terrible mixed metaphors).

    If I stopped to fully consider every seemingly decent counterexample, I'd never get anywhere with an idea.

    Nobody wants to be a zealot, but the world sure would be boring without them.

  30. In university I joined a competitive debating club. We did impromptu debate (we only learned the topic 10 minutes before the debate started)and that taught us quickly to evaluate arguments and be able to argue from different points of view.

    This was nearly as valuable a learning experience as the rest of grad school. It taught me how to see issues clearly, to spot the location of disagreement, and also to spot dishonest tactics.

    When you consciously understand why you support a particular position it is easy to change it if you find one of reasons for the support is wrong.

  31. This entire post is just silly: Massimo Pigliucci is no more of an accomodationist than is Richard Dawkins. And to claim that somehow he is, as I said, just silly. Massimo, in his new guise as a philosopher, would like us to respect some philosophical nuances that we, as scientists, frequently, in his opinion, gloss. Except we don't. He has provided no evidence for this claim, and even a superficial reading of Dawkins (as if he were the spokesperson for all atheists scientists) would reveal that even Dawkins doesn't.

    But, I don't want to rail on Massimo here. I read his blog because I respect and agree with most of what he writes. On this point, though, he has missed it entirely. The debate is NOT about his preferred characterization---not even close.

  32. I recall learning back in school that when people have a hard time changing beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence that there is usually survival value attached to that belief. So ultimately their attachment to the belief is a survival mechanism -- nothing to be poo-pooed.

    It would seem like a good idea to ask oneself then how one thinks one's survival is dependent upon this belief -- and to then examine the truthfulness of that.

  33. In some ways this is great, but I find myself still completely befuddled by the rationalist sentiments that lie behind it. Hmmmm: how do I put this in the most diplomatic way possible? One of the most "verbally violent" arguments I have ever experienced was when I tried to calmly explain a subtle but widely-accepted psychological concept to a person who did not understand it (his background did not include the requisite technical expertise in cognitive psychology, so he missed the point from the outset and became enraged for no reason). By itself, this would be of little interest... except that the argument was with someone who prides himself as being an ultra-rationalist (a person you actually quote in your article). What to conclude from this? People who give advice about being "rational" can continue to be wrong without ever retracting, and defame an innocent opponent in perpetuity, while at the same time delivering more and more advice to others about how to be rational. If you ask me, there is something profoundly wrong with this picture!

  34. I applaud efforts such as these. We know doubt is not a pleasant condiditon, and constant doubt would not usually lead to inceased knowledge/action, but I see most problems as thinking problems. If we could change how we think, we would have fewer problems (granting there will be disagreements and resource competition) and the greatest obstacle to changing thinking are various cognitive biases. I suggest looking at the wikipedia entry which lists the 40+ ways we fool ourselves.
    Out of Julia's list I think one of the most important is to see a conversation as a discussion more than a debate, and as an exploration to learn things with the person you are talking to. It is better for both parties (assuming the other party is amendable to such discourse)

  35. I think your idea about a Meta-bias poisoning discussions and debates on big issues is exactly what happens so much of the time. Socrates nailed it more than 2000 years ago. He taught Plato, and Plato taught Aristotle; so I think that's not a bad pedigree. Even people who seem to be accomplished professionals can develop and defend nutty propositions (e.g. Arthur Conan Doyle and his preoccupation with ferries). I'm interested to know the truth. Truth trumps triumph in debate every time, bar none. In that regard, I'm happy to be wrong.