Boy, do people hate being wrong. It’s embarrassing, frustrating, and makes you feel stupid. That discomfort and stress you feel when you find out you’ve made a mistake has a name: cognitive dissonance.
You’re pro-gun and a statistic shows a child is 10 times more likely to accidentally shoot himself in states with open carry laws. You’re pro-choice and a new study finds that a fetus may feel physical pain far earlier than once thought. You’re pretty sure you’re a straight man, then one day you get a chubby looking at a shirtless male model on a cologne ad.
Your brain will go to great lengths to resolve cognitive dissonance. It will misinterpret, discredit, or reject as irrelevant any facts that are contrary to what it thinks is true.
We weren’t always this way. When we were toddlers and pointed at a dog and said “kitty”, and our parents pointed out the wet nose and wagging tail and said “puppy”, we just rolled with it. A kitty was a kitty and a puppy was a puppy, and there was room in our head for both concepts.
If you handled that situation as a toddler the way you do as an adult, your mom explaining to you “No, honey, that’s a puppy” would make you angry and embarrassed. You’d look for reasons she was wrong, focus only on the similarities between cats and dogs and ignore their differences, and just keep calling it a goddamn kitty.
So why the difference between how a young child and an adult handle new and unexpected information?
As Rufus the 13th apostle put it in Kevin Smith’s film Dogma:
“(Jesus) still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it….I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier…”
Children know what they don’t know, and learn by forming ideas about the world around them. Ideas are flexible and easy to modify or even dismiss when new information arises.
Adults form beliefs. It happens almost without our knowing about it. Information comes at us so quickly as we get older that we form a set of beliefs as a heuristic, or a shortcut for sorting through complex sensory and data input. Anything that agrees with a belief is assimilated, and anything that disagrees gets tossed out.
While generally useful, belief systems are far more inflexible. People become invested in their beliefs. Their pride, their values, their self-esteem, and even their actual money is at stake. While this provides a comforting source of stability, it can also foster prejudices, poor decisions due to overconfidence, reinforcement of depression and other mental illnesses, conflicts ranging from heated debates to all out war, superstitions, and poor science.
Before you take the step of making an idea into a belief, know that with each new belief you form, you become more of an idiot. This is actually scientifically true.
In a real study, people were flashed a blurry image of an object (say, a bicycle) and asked to guess what it was. Those who guessed wrong (It’s a dick and balls!) tended to stubbornly reassert their wrong guess as the flashed pictures became clearer, continuing to say that “by God, that’s a penis and nads” well after independent observers could clearly read the “Schwinn” logo on the bike frame.
Imagine playing a game of Guess Who? where before the game even started, you believed you knew exactly who the other player’s person was. Instead of asking a question likely to eliminate the most wrong people (Is your person male? Is your person bald?), you ask a question you think will reaffirm your belief (Does your lady have red hair and a green hat with a white flower and cerulean blue eyes that shimmer like pools of crystal clear water on a summer day?) That’d be stupid. Except that people who hold firm beliefs do exactly this every day. Conservatives only watch Fox News, Liberals only read Huffington Post, Creationists only read the bible, scientists only read peer-reviewed papers in respected journals. Especially in the Internet age, it’s easier than ever to find someone who’ll tell you what you want to hear. No matter how misguided or batshit crazy, you’re sure to find thousands, if not millions, of people who will back you up.
In order to combat the pitfalls of a rigid belief structure, you have to be prepared to absorb some of the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. You have to drop your blankie of cynicism and risk being considered naive. You have to admit something you’ve thought to be true since childhood is bullshit, you have to play your own devil’s advocate, and you have to listen to things you’re not going yo want to hear, and try to appreciate the merits of that information.
It’s isn’t easy, but if a two year old can handle it, so can you. Don’t shout “kitty, kitty, kitty!” at every four-legged animal you see for the rest of your life.