Why won’t people consider new information?

Why is it that some people won’t consider new information? What keeps them wedded to their views, defending them fiercely, almost in a fight, rather than discussing an issue rationally and clearly? This post explores the question.
Essay

Why is it that some people won’t consider new information? What keeps them wedded to their views, defending them fiercely, almost in a fight, rather than discussing an issue rationally and clearly? This post explores the question.

The question why people won’t consider new information is not an idle issue. You will know this yourself if you have ever presented some non-mainstream ideas to Normie friends (for example); or, if you yourself are beholden to a mainstream view, you may have found that your tin-hat wearing friends seem oblivious to what is clearly factual to you.

So what is it? What is it that causes someone’s off-switch to be activated? What is it that makes someone fight vehemently and earnestly for their own view, which they may present as a ‘fact’? And should it be offensive if the people who love you the most—your family and friends—simply try to shut you down?

All of these are valid questions.

I was going to write a long essay to help you understand what’s going, but the Atlantic wrote a comprehensive and valuable perspective that is really worth your time, even though it does present its own political and moral views throughout, so be careful of that (and I am not endorsing those aspects). Nevertheless, it also presents a lot of what I was going to give you anyway, so I encourage you to go and read it.

That article points out that the chief reason why you can logically argue with someone, and somehow reaffirm their view, is because of their belief system.

It’s easy to categorise beliefs as unimportant, especially if your first impression of ‘belief’ is ‘dogma’ or ‘religion’. However, beliefs are enmeshed with greater questions of identity and social environments.

The challenge that you have, if you are confronted with people who either shut you down, who shut themselves down, or who simply refuse to have a conversation or discussion, is that their behaviours may ignite particular emotions in you.

This is why being able to to decide how you feel is so useful to you.

The truth is: You decide how you want to feel.

This isn’t to say that if you’re sad you can just decide “I’d like happy instead”. No, it means that you’re better at interpreting what your emotions are telling you. Those who are resilient are much better at governing their emotions than those who aren’t. As a Brisbane-based psychologist points out, ‘Feelings give us feedback about how we are interpreting a particular situation.’

You have a choice in how you choose to react in any situation. The challenge is that if you’re not used to leveraging that choice—meaning, for example, that you can’t create enough space between an action, or behaviour, or emotion, and how you react—this feels untrue. It’s because the act of creating that space is conscious before it can be habitual.

You also have to be able to accept the reality in front of you. And that’s what’s likely brought you here today. Accepting that someone is just shutting down—or perhaps actively fighting you—allows you to step out of the reactive space that they are in, and to respond rather than create sparks.

This acceptance is also what happens when you’re focused on others rather than yourself. However, if your confidence is low, you won’t be so good at doing that. Self-confidence is a critical factor in empathy, in getting out of your own head, and in being able to focus more completely on other people. Following Dale Carnegie’s lead (from How to win friends and influence people), you’ll find that focusing on other people is a quick and easy way to encourage discursive activity. Carnegie is credited with being the first to identify that gaining friends and influence begins with being competent in conversation. According to Carnegie (and tested and verified by the experience of others), competent conversation is always all about the other person. This is why, if you are interested in someone else’s perspective, they will speak at length to you on topics that they find interesting, and why they will then consider that you are an amazing conversationalist even if you never say anything in reply.

Looping this back to the notion of belief, when you are a competent conversationalist, the other party will begin to believe that you are on the same team. This may not at all be the case, depending on how you’ve handled the conversation. However, what we do know is that opposing the other party is not the way to get them to change their views. The only way to do that is to (a) have them believe that you are on the same team, (b) present them with information that feels right to them and thus leads them through the conversation rather than causing a reaction, (c) create a cognitive dissonance that they will desperately want to resolve, and (d) present them a solution that is very close to their original beliefs. The Overton Window is a great example: You must present ideas that are within a range of the other’s tolerance, in order to gain leverage. It’s only when you have agreeance that you can work together, otherwise you will simply experience a reaction.

Importantly, social belonging and identity form a strong part of the belief system that causes people to react.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, in writing about propaganda and programming, social, cultural, and ideological belonging are intrinsic to belief systems, seeded or otherwise.

The desire to remain part of a culture or ideological is often what underpins a belief. You see this in all kinds of subcultures, but most especially online. Challenging some dominant narratives on social media will result in your being trolled and harrassed until you acquiesce and/or apologise. Those who don’t apologise often face campaigns to be blocked.

In the Real World, the threat any argument presents to an existing belief system, especially if that belief is in an existing or mainstream authority, is immense. On the one hand, the recipient is in fear of being categorised as an outcast; on the other, there is a fear of reprisals from whichever authority is being questioned. A great example is challenging dominant views of accepted health practices, like vaccination. On the one hand, ‘anti-vaxxers’ are considered to be unhealthy, unhelpful extremists (and you don’t want to be one of them); on the other hand, there is a fear that encouraging such a view may threaten the listener’s own existence (whether true or not) because of the perception of potential following action. A vaccine-challenger may have robust evidence of the same volume and quality of a vaccine-accepter, and yet neither will accept the other’s view, because of deep-seated beliefs, identities and ideologies that keep their relevant worlds stable. Unless one or both parties are exceptionally open-minded and self-confident in their own decision-making and ability to live autonomously—and I say exceptionally, because it’s often the exception rather than the rule—a rational conversation between the two, which results in one or both re-evaluating his or her position, is unlikely.

In 2020, we see this situation occurring everywhere in which there is a so-called ‘touchy’ subject:

  • political perspectives, attitudes and governmental actions
  • dietary choice
  • religion and spirituality vs science and atheism
  • selfhood and personal identity
  • any dominant narrative in the mainstream media, from climate change to coronavirus
  • parenting
  • healthcare
  • working women vs stay-at-home women
  • … and so on.

So what is an open-minded person to do? Are you right to be offended if someone you appreciate switches off, or tries to switch you off? Do you just run away from it and protect your own fragile emotional state from someone else’s anger (if you’re facing anger)?

Well, my own perspective on this is extremely balanced, because I whatever you (or anyone else) chooses to feel is nothing to do with me. Offense, like any other emotion, is a choice. You can choose to be offended, but then what do you gain, truly? Resentment, anger, or discomfort? Yeuch.

If you’re facing someone who is switching off (or switching you out), then if you want to continue the conversation you have a couple of options.

One is to shut up and become interested (or pretend to be) in the other person’s perspective. Knowing that whatever you say in contradiction is going to embed their own beliefs more strongly, you’ll know that attempting to ‘educate’ them has a high likelihood of failing. By continuing in the conversation, you may find opportunities to discuss points of irrelevance, discontinuity, or contradiction, that may enable you to ask some questions. People will often reevaluate their own information when prompted clearly and calmly, where they would simply react if challenged.

A second option is to shut down the conversation.

And a third option is to ask them why they believe what they do, or (perhaps most risky!) why they’re shutting down or shutting you out. Ask them to explain to you their perspective, that you might better understand them. If you are able to do this with a genuine interest, and not arrogance, you may be able to re-enter the conversation with a more open counterparty.

All of the foregoing is why self-censorship is so rife. In the face of a challenge—and especially in the face of someone who is asking questions as a challenge rather than a genuine attempt at understanding—people will shut down.

Unfortunately, social media and people’s increasing inability to feel comfortable inside a conversation that challenges their own worldviews, contribute to stressful encounters built on fear. That fight-or-flight reaction (accept my views or you’re stupid/ridiculous/extreme, or simply exiting a conversation) is a hallmark of fear and stress.

If you are confident, empathetic, and capable enough of putting yourself on hold in order to help make the other party feel ‘safe’ through your conversational prowess, one of the best things you can do is simply to have the conversation that the other party wishes to have.

Your views and opinions won’t suit everyone.

And some relationships won’t be robust enough to withstand an argument.

In facing the difficulty that challenging topics present interactions, the key question to ask yourself is whether or not attempting to ‘educate’ the other party is worth your time, your emotion, and your relationship with them.

If it isn’t, focus on the conversation and the other person, instead of your own perspective.

You won’t like it.

It may not be a pleasant experience.

But you will come out the other side better for it:

At the very least you’ll learn more about them, and (hopefully) more about yourself. As the more open-minded of the parties to the conversation, this learning will make your own ability to form opinions and views more robust and independent because you are willing and able to listen to (and evaluate) others’ perspectives.

Just because someone says something, it doesn’t mean you have to accept it. It also doesn’t mean that you have to fight it if you disagree. Instead, you can explore it, think about it, and then make a choice.

That choice—in everything, from emotion to perspectives to behaviour—is truly what makes you human.

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