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Don't Believe Everything You Think

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Confirmation bias is a well-known phenomenon: we have a tendency to seek out information that supports our pre-existing views and to discount that which does not.


A new research paper adds even more insight into how fickle our brains are. Thomas Kelly, at Princeton University, writes about belief polarization and points out that the timing of when we learn something matters:

“What I believe depends on the temporal order in which I encounter two opposing pieces of evidence. Thus, I can end up with diametrically opposed views, despite having been exposed to the same evidence. The only difference is the order in which I received it.”

Our thinking is much more fallible than we like to believe. A good antidote is to have more humility about our own views and more curiosity about opposing ones. We will gain a more complex and nuanced understanding of an issue, and in the long run, this will likely lead to more viable and inclusive solutions to persistent challenges.

Kelly’s paper is worth reading. It was forwarded to me by Brian Ziv, who has summarized some of Kelly’s arguments in the July newsletter. Thanks, Brian! Subscribe here to read the full newsletter.


Copyright © 2019 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.



A Mind-bending Concept

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Emotions play a large role in any discussion, including political discussions. We react with excitement when someone shares our view, and outrage when a person expresses a view we find offensive. We may also feel disdain, amusement, joy, anxiety and many other emotions when in conversation with others, whether we show it or not. We feel entirely justified in our emotional reactions because we are defending our worldview, which is deeply rooted in our beliefs about right and wrong.

Several social scientists (most notably, Jonathan Haidt) have shown that emotions play an important role in our sense of morality, and that emotions and morality influence our rational arguments far more than we realize.

Now, some fascinating new research reveals that our brains create our emotions in a predictive process based on past experiences. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a social scientist and professor of psychology, recently published her research findings in a book titled How Emotions are Made. She also expounds on the topic in a TED Talk. (I have watched the Talk but not yet read the book.)

“Emotions that seem to happen to you are actually made by you.”

“Your brain does not react to the world. Using past experience, your brain predicts and constructs your experience of the world.”

These ideas are similar to the philosophical underpinnings of meditation, yoga, and some East-Asian teachings, which suggest that our thoughts and emotions are separate from us; we can observe them, view them through another lens, and perhaps come to a different conclusion.

Barrett seems to take this a step further. Where Buddhism says that we can choose how to interpret a situation and how to respond, Barrett is saying that we can also influence what emotion we create in the first place. This is a mind-bending concept, and the implications are profound. We have far more agency than we realize, and we can make intense discussions more fruitful with a new approach and a bit of practice.

I look forward to reading the book and learning more. In the meantime, I am practicing greater awareness of what I feel and how I interpret. Then again, there are some situations that are fine just as they are. Today I was moved to tears as I listened on the radio to the wistful and wishful lyrics of the Beatles’ song, Imagine. I have no idea why my brain created these emotions; it intrigues me, but I’m willing to just let it be a mystery.


Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.