That’s why it’s worth pondering this new research about open-mindedness. It comes out of Canada but relies on survey data about Americans — that chutzpah alone will raise eyebrows stateside. It’s also likely to make you even more furious if you’re already fuming about political polarization and blaming most of it on the other side of the aisle. But try to keep an open mind.
The four authors were interested in the “meta-beliefs” of Americans across the political spectrum — that is, not whether they do actually change their minds easily, which is quite hard to investigate, but whether they think we should do so when the evidence changes.
Those deemed more open-minded agreed that “a person should always consider new possibilities,” that “people should always take into consideration evidence that goes against their beliefs,” and that “beliefs should always be revised in response to new information or evidence.”
Those considered less open-minded tended to agree that “it is important to persevere in your beliefs even when evidence is brought to bear against them,” that “certain beliefs are just too important to abandon,” that “no one can talk me out of something I know is right,” or that “loyalty to one’s ideals and principles is more important than ‘open-mindedness’.”
At this point, you may be feeling that this is a setup, and in a way it is. Unsurprisingly, the people who professed to value open-mindedness skewed “liberal,” whereas those we might call closed-minded tended to be “conservative.”
The less open-minded attitudes were also associated with hot-button political stances such as opposing abortion and gay marriage. These respondents professed more reverence for tradition, religion and God. They were more skeptical about science. Specifically, they tended to doubt evolution and anthropogenic global warming. They were also likely to have anti-vaccine sentiments and paranormal beliefs, and to subscribe to conspiracy theories.
If you locate yourself on the right, you’re doubtless irate about reading this because nobody likes being called closed-minded. You probably feel you’re being framed. If you consider yourself liberal, you’ll also be angry, because this is yet more confirmation that the game’s rigged. While you try to influence democratic debates with evidence and honest reasoning, your opponents disdain facts and disingenuously regurgitate disinformation for the sake of being “loyal” to their group.
But the truth, as usual, is more nuanced and interesting, especially for all those now raising their hands as “open-minded.” That’s because the Canadian study is only about meta-belief, not lived reality. Do people who praise mental flexibility actually have more open minds?
My guess is that they do, but the question is moot, as the Canadian researchers freely admit. Even if we claim to be open to new evidence, we’re still cognitively primed to construct narratives that suit us. This is called “motivated reasoning.”
It involves pernicious little tricks our brains are constantly playing on us. A notorious one is confirmation bias. Even our allegedly wide-open minds embrace new facts more readily when they appear to prove our intuition and less readily when they conflict with our gut feelings. We cherry-pick.
Some social psychologists don’t find this very shocking. After all, the human brain evolved mainly to convince other humans of something, whatever that might be. That skill is much more useful for survival and procreation than is the ability to arrive at true beliefs. In this sense, cognitively, we’re more like lawyers than philosophers. There’s nothing as powerful as a good story well told, whether it’s right or wrong.
Another metaphor I like is that our conscious minds, however liberal or conservative, are like mahouts riding on, and ostensibly driving, elephants, which stand for our unconscious cognition. What really happens is that the elephant goes wherever it pleases. But the mahout on top uses his superior cognition and communication to expound reasons why he wanted to drive the elephant all along to the destination the animal chose. He even believes that himself.
The subtext of all this is dead serious. How we handle the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, will depend on whether we as societies and individuals will accept medical evidence or fall prey to conspiracy theories that sabotage vaccination efforts. Similarly, open-mindedness is a prerequisite for coping with climate change, and every other problem we have.
Beyond that, we must cultivate open-mindedness as a public virtue to save our democracies from authoritarians and populists. They are the great oversimplifiers who try to pit in-groups against perceived out-groups by deliberately scorning evidence in favor of their own truthiness.
So the rest of us — left, right or center — must recognize, value and practice open-mindedness as a civic duty and a modern form of heroism. I’m reminded of an anecdote from Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and prominent atheist. As a young man at Oxford University, he attended a lecture in which a scientist presented evidence that mercilessly refuted an entire career’s worth of research by another esteemed and elderly professor in the audience.
When the talk was over, all eyes turned to that older professor. He strode up to the lecturer and said: “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these 15 years.” Young Dawkins and his peers applauded “till our hands were red.”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”
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