Reality testing and learning to change our opinions

“As much as we might like to believe that we can flip a switch and become dispassionate, coldly logical evaluators of facts and figures, we simply can’t divorce ourselves of the emotional side of cognition. And it’s important to remember this: emotion is not separate from cognition. Emotion is cognition.” – David McRaney, You Are Not So Smart

Being able to accept and integrate new information is an emotional intelligence skill. This is a little counterintuitive for some. Many of us think of reality testing as cognitive intelligence.1

To really grapple deeply with the way reality testing is not just a cognitive intelligence capacity, consider this funny thing about humans: sometimes, we ignore evidence.2

When it’s bad evidence, doing this is perfectly rational. There are, in other words, good reasons to reject bad evidence.

But what I’m talking about is real evidence; good evidence; aka, evidence. And when we reject evidence, we’re not being “rational.” And it happens quite often. We filter it out. We reject and dismiss it.

Some kinds of information are easy to accept. When we receive new information that confirms a pre-existing opinion, then we happily accept it.

And if it’s evidence about stuff we’re undecided about, then we’re also pretty good about integrating it into our models of the world. We rely on this capacity to cross the street, pay our rent, and survive in the jungle.

A new report about the safety of smart phones, for example, is probably easy for most to believe. A report on the danger that smart phones pose to the workers that make them, however, will be widely ignored by consumers.3 And a new report about the safety of GMOs will be disbelieved by many. Importantly, the reports can be equally well-researched, and can come from equally expert research centres.

Consider a different example: hearing a claim about knee surgeries might be a neutral experience for many. But a claim about abortions could be very heated for the very same group. Both are well understood medical procedures. That we have such varying experiences of similar kinds of facts is a really important and common part of being human.

Some facts, and some topics, provoke qualitatively different reactions.

And it’s not just abortions and GMOs. It’s climate change, vaccines, unions, feminism, Black Lives Matter, proportional representation, electoral politics, gun control, colonization, the best way to cook mushrooms, economic theory or any number of other controversial and deeply felt topics.

Do try this at home

When we’re presented with information that challenges our deeply felt beliefs we have a physiological response. It’s a stress response. And we can feel something “click inside.” We can feel defensive.

These deeply felt beliefs are sometimes called protected values or cherished beliefs.

Try on some claims that contradict your cherished beliefs. Take an opportunity to feel the difference in the way you think about this information. Compare that to more neutral facts. If you’re feeling more adventurous, ask a nemesis or family member, to help you with the experiment!

Take turns and watch other people get confronted with information that threatens their identity. Pay attention to how they react, deflect, and squirm when you trigger their flight or fight mechanisms.

But be warned. If you’re attempting to actually change someone’s mind, making them defensive, or activating their stress response, can backfire. The result can be that they actually double down, and strengthen their belief, no matter how incorrect. This backfire effect is effectively the well researched phenomenon that PR folks have always known to be true: facts aren’t sufficient to winning arguments.4

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Why some topics are deeply felt

In short, the reason some topics are deeply felt is that some things we believe are built into our identity; and our identity is also emotional in nature.

Jonas Kaplan, and Sarah Gimbel, from the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, have done some interesting research on this phenomenon. I recommend their excellent interview with David McRaney on You Are Not So Smart. In their research, they deliberately challenged people’s beliefs, especially their cherished beliefs. And they observed their brain states by MRI in order to measure the degree to which they changed their opinions.

They found that people who had high engagement from their amygdala and insular cortext were less likely to change their mind.5

Gimbel tells us that the stress response related to the amygdala activity is not unlike coming across a cougar in the forest. Your adrenalin goes up and your body prepares for flight or fight. The brain doesn’t differentiate between the threat of physical harm and the emotional threat of changing the kinds of beliefs that are at the core of identity.6

“The brain is a sophisticated machinery for self protection and it extends beyond our physical self, to our psychological self. Once beliefs become part of our psychological self, they are then afforded all of the same protections that the brain gives to the body.” – Jonas Kaplan, BCI USC 

The brain, after all, is working to protect itself. That’s what brains do. As Kaplan says, “that’s the brain’s first and primary job, to protect itself.”

The idea is that political issues and hot topics are more likely to activate the default mode network. Cognitive scientists think this network is the neurological basis of the self.7

So, for example, if you have strong beliefs about abortion or unions, these beliefs probably form part of you. And if someone challenges these beliefs, they’re threatening the same you. And the brain reacts accordingly.

Challenges and opportunities in improving reality testing

I should note that both Kaplan and Gimbel make a point of underlining that our knowledge about our neural functioning is still limited, and the science is active and ongoing. But the thing about the brain is that everything is connected to everything else. And our beliefs and opinions are too. And some things are more connected than others.

By way of a metaphor, imagine that your beliefs are construction materials in a house. Removing or replacing a door or doorknob is easier. Moving a load bearing wall is much harder.

Another challenge with changing our opinions is that they can be central to our inclusion, or exclusion, in social and familial and cultural groups. These factors are powerful determinants of the things we believe.

Add to this the importance of psychological safety in productive teams, and it can seem a little daunting to have people with different ideas working together. Too often, it can seem like everyone else is the one having problems integrating new information.8

All of this tells me that improving our reality testing is a golden platinum opportunity to improving our teamwork.

  1. Reality Testing, after all, is the capacity to see things as they really are. In the Western academy, “seeing things as they really are” has always evoked models of truth and the analytic tradition beginning with Aristotle and running through Spinoza and Wittgenstein in their most logic-oriented dimension. In this tradition, emotions are an impediment to the truth. And this is definitely part of the picture. Interestingly, even in this paradigm, our ability to be aware of and regulate our emotions, is central. Our ability to recognize when our emotions might be interfering with our ability to see things as they are, is part of reality testing.
  2. For a really fun exploration of this check out You Are Not So Smart, episode 93, “The Backfire Effect, Part One”
  3. Research by Neeru Paharia form Georgetown University, found that the more people cared about the ethics of consumer products, like environmental impacts and worker’s conditions, the more they evaded finding out those kinds of details.
  4. See Smart Tribes for helpful insights into preventing and mitigating the impacts of a teammate slipping into into their mammalian or reptilian brain during work meetings.
  5. The amygdala and insular cortext are both lymbic system related, and are involved in stress response. See also,
  6. See also “Processing Narratives Concerning Protected Values: A Cross-Cultural Investigation of Neural Correlates”:
  7. See “Activation and Connectivity within the Default Mode Network Contribute Independently to Future-Oriented Thought” and and also “Zoning out or deep thinking?
  8. For some helpful analysis, check out Intellectual Empathy, by Maureen Linker, and also these tools by Google.

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