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I'm going to start this post in the same way I've started a few previous posts which is by sharing what motivated me to write it.
It all started around age 12, when I began questioning religion. I wanted to find out whether there really was a god or not. So I watched debates between the religious and the non-religious, performed my own research on the arguments and, thanks largely to the New Atheists, I concluded that religion was not only false, but an extremely harmful mind virus that ought to be eradicated.
When I outed myself as an atheist, some people I knew became concerned that I might be depressed based on nothing other than the fact that I had become an atheist. At the time, I thought that was a strange conclusion to arrive at. But as time went on, I noticed a few things that helped me understand why some people reacted this way.
There was a lady who insisted to me that her dead parent communicated with her through wind chimes. People who had never gone to church a day in their life suddenly started going when they were close to death. They started becoming much more concerned with religion. I watched grief-stricken relatives of the deceased lose faith. People who personally had a run of bad luck told me they didn't believe in a god any longer.
Through those observations, I realized that sometimes people form beliefs based on factors other than evidence. They believe what is comforting rather than what the facts bear out. They believe what others around them believe. They believe what is personally convenient for them to believe.
It dawned on me that the reason people thought I was depressed was because they assumed that my belief in a god was related to how I felt emotionally at that time. And the reason I did not understand why their beliefs could change without any new information was I assumed that their belief formation process was based purely in evidence.
To be clear I'm not saying I never have biases or I never make mistakes. Everybody does. I'm only saying that on the topic of religion, I was able to evaluate the evidence rationally without falling for superstitious thinking.
Why was I able to think clearly about the evidence while others were biased toward comforting religious superstitions? Over the years I've developed an interest in what causes people to not be able to think clearly about evidence. I've become curious about reasons people are close-minded and what the best ways of dealing with close-mindedness are. I've picked up a few causes of close-mindedness and ways to deal with it that I'd like to share.
Keep in mind I'm talking about close-mindedness in the context of beliefs, not in the context of willingness to try new things. So let's dive into the principal causes of close-mindedness as I seem them.
Religion is a perfect example of people closing off their minds due to fear. People are afraid to die. So they tell themselves a comforting story that most of society approves of. If religion is true, they never really have to die. There's the aspect of other people believing it which makes the myth more credible. There's a system of terrible punishments and great rewards for believing in it. The anecdotes I gave earlier about people becoming suddenly concerned about religion when they near death really give the show away. Religion is a myth people use to cope with death-anxiety.
Another reason people are close-minded is because changing your mind takes mental effort, especially if you're changing your mind about one of your core beliefs. If you believe for instance that people have free will, as the US justice system is based on, then you'd have to rearrange your entire internal moral framework if you learned people do not have free will. That's a lot of mental effort. Wouldn't it be so much easier to go on believing that people do have free will since your entire understanding of ethics is based on that?
It's not as if you can just change your mind only about free will and leave every other peripheral belief intact. You'd feel cognitive dissonance that would demand to be addressed. Holding beliefs that you know to be mutually incompatible is unpleasant. Therefore you're forced to either suffer psychologically or invest mental energy into correcting your other beliefs built on the foundation of free will.
There's also the fear that you might not know what to believe any more. What if you can't figure out how to justify holding people responsible for their actions without free will? There's the worry that any time you change one of your beliefs, you don't exactly know how that might affect the others. You don't know how it might cause you to change your behavior. And that can be scary.
People also avoid being open to new ideas because they've invested considerable time and energy into opposing ideas. If you spend 10 years of your life promoting a cause, and someone tries to convince you that the cause is immoral, they're not just arguing against a belief. They're arguing against what you've spent 10 years of your life on. By then, it's probably part of your identity as a person.
You're now so invested in this cause that any criticism, even if it's valid, is going to be really hard to listen to. You may feel personally attacked when someone attacks the cause you fight for. They're basically saying "You not only wasted 10 years of your life, but you spent it doing something that is harmful".
Besides, what kind of person would you be if you invested 10 years of your life doing harm to the world by promoting bad ideas? That could be a major blow to your self-esteem. It would be very painful to find out you were wrong that whole time. So there's the fear of psychic pain. You might even feel obligated to try to undo the damage you've done to society through promoting bad ideas which comes back to more mental effort.
The final reason I want to offer for close-mindedness is social security. What I mean by that is your existing beliefs are probably integrated with your social environment. If you change your mind about those beliefs, you become incompatible with the segment of society in which you socialize.
So for example, if you lean conservative, your close friends probably lean conservative. You might work somewhere where conservative values are promoted. You might share the same beliefs as your family if they're conservative too. In general, your social environment supports your beliefs. If your beliefs become incompatible with the segment of society you socialize in, that could cause you problems.
If you're open about the changes in your belief system, then you might lose your job. You might find yourself in frequent, unwanted conflicts with people you normally socialize with. You might have to look for new people to socialize with. So you might instead decide to keep your mouth shut about your new beliefs to continue fitting into your social circle. As it turns out, that's not easy either.
Cognitive dissonance shows up again as you mislead your social circle into thinking you still align with them. You have to pretend to believe in things that now seem absurd to you. There's the element of mental effort showing up again. Pretending to be someone you're not is very mentally taxing. There's also the element of sunk costs. You've put a lot of effort into the relationships you've built over the years. So maybe it would just be easier to pretend instead of facing the fact that your friends no longer like the real you. If you're not in an environment where it's easy to meet new people, then you risk losing your social life altogether for who knows how long. That's a scary and painful prospect.
I hope you're starting to see how all these causes each play into one another. All of them boil down to fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of not knowing how your life is going to change, fear of losing your social standing with others, fear of not knowing what to believe during the transition period of changing your mind, fear that your self-image will be damaged from learning you supported a bad cause, etc.
But we have to get over fear, put aside our ego and be honest with ourselves when it comes to what we believe. We have to be open to hearing new evidence and to changing our minds. That's the essence of open-mindedness and that's how we advance the public conversation.
So let's assume you yourself are open-minded. Provided the right evidence to the contrary, you would change your mind about almost anything. It's like Anthony Magnabosco says in his street epistemology (SE) videos, "If I'm wrong, I wanna know it". But how do you deal with people who aren't so open-minded?
If you're going to approach close-minded people differently from the open-minded, which I suggest you do to preserve your own sanity, you must first determine that the person you're dealing with is actually close-minded. To determine that, here are a couple key questions to ask them:
Now just because someone says yes to these questions doesn't mean they're open-minded. But a no to either of these questions almost certainly means you're dealing with somebody who isn't even willing to consider the possibility of being wrong. It's probably not worth your sanity trying to engage them, unless you have an audience. This leads me to my first piece of advice in dealing with close-minded people.
Even with a small audience of 3 or 4 people, engaging the close-minded person may be worth it. Of course you won't convince them. That's a given. They've already decided ahead of time they will never be convinced. But you might nudge some bystanders in the right direction. The bigger the audience, the more worthwhile it is to engage with the close-minded person.
If you do decide to engage such a person and you have an audience, you yourself must be open-minded. This is vital. If you're not willing to consider that they might be partially right, to concede the valid points they make, to admit when you don't know something, you lose credibility. It's just 2 close-minded fools going back and forth getting nowhere.
You'll get much more respect from others being open-minded. Bystanders who don't have a strong opinion either way will be more likely to listen to you because you're open to hearing new evidence while the other person isn't. You also set a positive example for others on how to engage people, whether open-minded or close-minded.
Also keep in mind that people seldom admit they're wrong in realtime. You can see this if you watch Anthony Magnabosco's SE videos. Usually people change their minds after retreating to the safety of solitude. Then if you're lucky, they'll openly admit they changed their mind later. It just comes down to people don't like admitting they're wrong because it feels like they're making a fool of themselves in front of others.
So with that in mind, don't expect any person, open-minded or close-minded, to change their mind in realtime. Giving people time to themselves just to think about what has been said is how minds change. Long pauses give time for the other person to integrate what you've just said. There has to be some breathing room which brings me to my next point.
It's wise to set a stopping point. It's so easy to go on arguing with someone until you're blue in the face. What you end up doing is only triggering their psychological defense mechanisms, making them more close-minded, more unwilling to listen to you, and possibly even more entrenched in their existing belief structures.
The moment you start repeating yourself or the other person repeating themself, then it's probably time to wrap up. If nothing new is being added to the conversation, what then could be the benefit of continuing?
Often people will want to continue arguing until they have smoke rushing out both ears and their face is as red as a tomato. They have the false notion that a consensus must be reached before they give themselves license to stop. They think that if they only repeat themselves for the 100th time, if they find the right words, they'll change your mind meanwhile they don't even consider the possibility of being wrong.
This is why it's so important to set boundaries with close-minded people. Especially if you have to be in contact with them. It's perfectly okay to say "I don't want to have a debate right now". If they want to take that as a "win" for their side, let them. Your mental well-being is more important than trying to reason with someone who has decided ahead of time to never change their mind no matter what. Don't let them rope you into a debate you don't want to have.
Robert Oxton Bolton once said, "A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses; it is an idea that possesses the mind". Closed minds are impenetrable propaganda factories for the memes they hold. They do not adjust their beliefs according to new information. They simply find a reason to discard it and continue outputting what they already believe. Subjecting yourself to that can be psychologically damaging. It's not worth it, so set boundaries.
Now for my final piece of advice on how to deal with close-mindedness, I urge you not to waste time reevaluating claims you already know to be false. I'll give an example.
A republican I know recently insisted to me the 2020 U.S. presidential election was a sham and that Mike Lindell had proof. Cue the eye roll. According to an Ipsos/Reuters poll, over half of republicans believe that conspiracy. Since it's common, I was aware of the election fraud conspiracy before Mike Lindell was brought up. But I'd never heard of him before. If this guy had proof that the election was a sham, I definitely wanted to see it. So I took an open-minded attitude and started researching.
Of course, after the most basic research of Mike Lindell, it was blindingly obvious to me that the guy was full of shit. He's a religious fanatic Trump loyalist who hosted a cyber symposium where he purported to show his "proof". I watched parts of the event. In it, he used the attention to sell pillows for his My Pillow company and displayed the most obvious partisanship putting up a huge picture of Trump's face on a big screen. I won't go through all the details. Suffice it to say he's so batshit even popular conservative media won't promote him.
I'd investigated the claims of election fraud for the 2020 presidential election numerous times before Mike Lindell. I learned that the election fraud claims are conspiracy theories that have been debunked time and again. Courts have thrown out dozens of baseless election fraud claims. At some point you have to say "Okay, I've looked into it enough times. I'm not doing it any more. Unless something changes, I'm going to assume all future election fraud claims regarding the 2020 election are lies". That's just basic inductive reasoning.
So when someone tells me again that the election was a sham and they have proof, I'm going to dismiss them. I'm not going to look into it for the millionth time and I'm not going to apologize for not looking into it. And that doesn't make me close-minded. Refusing to reevaluate the same claims you've already determined to be false many times in the past is not being close-minded. Don't let anybody convince you it is. Instead, preserve your time and sanity by refusing to reevaluate known false claims.
So that's my best advice on dealing with close-minded people. It comes from lots of personal experience dealing with close-mindedness. I hope my readers find it helpful. If anyone has suggestions or additions to this post, just email me. If you disagree with me on anything I've written here, I'd love to know what I got wrong.
1: New Atheists
2: Cognitive Dissonance
3: Anthony Magnabosco
4: Street Epistemology
5: Backfire Effect
6: Ipsos/Reuters Poll
7: About Page
Unless otherwise noted, the writing in this journal is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
Copyright 2019-2021 Nicholas Johnson