In a time when we seem to be sharply divided on almost every public issue, I often find myself wondering what ever happened to open-mindedness.
Linked with judgment and critical thinking, open-mindedness is one of the strengths measured by the VIA Inventory of Strengths,
a free, scientifically validated self-assessment survey that’s been taken by over 1.3 million people worldwide.
Let me tell you what I mean.
My colleague Lisa is a passionately political person. You don’t need to spend much time with her to know exactly where she stands on the issues of the day. And in most cases, she’s standing on the other side of the fence from me.
“I understand how you feel,” I tell her. And even though I see things differently, I do understand. I understand that she cares deeply, and that she’s an idealist, and that she wants the world to be better, more peaceful, more humane place.
It’s what we all want. We just disagree on the means for making it happen.
Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts
I have close friends of all political stripes, all of them relying on their own interpretations of history and economics, each with a suitcase full of beliefs, facts and reasons to back up whatever opinions they profess. And I’ve learned a lot from them.
I’ve learned what arguments are dominant for each side of an issue, for one thing. That gives me an opportunity to consider both sides.
I’ve learned that when people believe something deeply, they don’t really want to hear ideas that contradict their own. Even when they say that will listen to other opinions if they’re presented reasonably, they aren’t necessarily open to being persuaded to give up their own views.
We all like to believe that we’re seeing reality clearly, that our own view of the world is correct.
But for the most part, we’re like an old uncle of mine who would put his hands over his ears and shout, “Don’t confuse me with the facts! My mind is made up.” It’s a lot easier to stand firm in our beliefs than it is to examine all the facts.
Love Me, Love My Dog
Few of us have the time – or, it seems, the interest – to deeply research all the issues of the day. And we’re rarely exposed to genuine debates or discussions between proponents of opposing sides. Most of us wouldn’t welcome them if we were. We don’t like confronting facts that challenge what we believe. Cognitive dissonance upsets us.
So we tend to latch onto a belief set that harmonizes with the one we picked up as a child, or the one that the teachers we most revered professed, or the one that some hero we found along the way said was true, or that our closest peers embrace.
Then we find the commentators and media outlets that stick fairly closely to that script and, barring some extraordinary revelation, pretty much let them be our guides.
We adopt them as our own. We link them to our values, to our hopes for a more perfect world. They become a part of our identities.
And because we do – because we feel that our beliefs define us – we defend them. We put up caution flags or walls between ourselves and those who do not share our views. Something about them, we think, must be morally defective or unevolved, or at best, woefully misguided or misinformed. We fall into the trap of us-versus-them, and disrupt the very harmony that both sides want so deeply to create.
And this tendency of ours doesn’t just show up with political issues. It extends to things as mundane as our fashion sense, or our preference for a certain sports teams, or our choice of pets. “Love me, love my dog.”
Viva la Difference
But our differences don’t have to build barriers between us. If we give some attention to increasing our quotient of that character strength of “judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness,” we can appreciate differences of opinion as educational. Our differences can serve as assets that trigger our curiosity and our love of learning—both of which are additional character strengths, by the way.
A Definition of Open-mindedness
At first glance, the words “judgment” and “critical thinking” may not seem to go along with “open-mindedness.” But “judgment” doesn’t mean “judgmental; it’s more like “to evaluate.” And “critical”, in this context, doesn’t mean fault-finding; it’s more like “discerning.”
Here’s how the VIA survey describes people who rank high on the “judgment, crucial thinking, and open-mindedness” strength:
“Thinking things through and examining them from all sides are important aspects of who you are. You do not jump to conclusions, and you rely only on solid evidence to make your decisions. You are able to change your mind.”
The Authentic Happiness newsletter from the University of Pennsylvania gives this definition of open-mindedness:
“Open-mindedness is the willingness to search actively for evidence against one’s favored beliefs, plans, or goals, and to weigh such evidence fairly when it is available.
“Being open-minded does not imply that one is indecisive, wishy-washy, or incapable of thinking for one’s self. After considering various alternatives, an open-minded person can take a firm stand on a position and act accordingly.
“The opposite of open-mindedness is what is called the myside bias which refers to the pervasive tendency to search for evidence and evaluate evidence in a way that favors your initial beliefs. Most people show myside bias, but some are more biased than others.”
The Benefits of Open-Mindedness
Why should you focus on becoming more open-minded? Consider this description of benefits from Positively Present:
1. You allow yourself to experience new ideas and thoughts, and that’s liberating.
2. It gives you the option of changing how you view the world.
3. It let’s you admit that you don’t know everything, and that there are possibilities that you may not have considered.
4. It lets you give yourself permission to recognize mistakes that you’ve made and to correct them.
5. The new ideas that open-mindedness brings you let’s you build on old ideas. It’s hard to build on experiences without an open mind.
6. It gives you a stronger sense of self, one that’s not confined by your beliefs, by allowing you to learn and grow.
7. Because being open-minded let’s you admit that you aren’t all-knowing, it creates an underlying honesty. You no longer have to pretend that you know something you don’t.
In other words, open-mindedness is freeing.
How to Build Open-Mindedness
To stretch your open-mindedness, clinical therapist Catherine Freemire suggests these three exercises for the Authentic Happiness newsletter:
1. Select an emotionally charged, debatable topic (e.g., abortion, prayer in school, healthcare reform, the current war in Iraq) and take the opposite side from your own. Write five valid reasons to support this view. . .
2. Remember a time when you were wronged by someone in the past. Generate three plausible reasons why this person inadvertently or intentionally wronged you.
3. This one is for parents: Think of a topic that you consistently argue about with your teen or grown child. Now, take their position and think of 3 substantial reasons why their point of view is valid. (This could also be done with spouses or any family members for that matter!)
In other words, practice playing the devil’s advocate.
It’s worth the effort. Practicing open-mindedness lets you live in a much bigger world.
If that sounds like a good idea to you, please share this article with your friends.