I hold strong opinions. Dangerously strong opinions.
The way that the human brain works, strong opinions like mine can lead to political breakdown, financial collapse and even death 💀
Most human beings hold at least a few strong opinions thanks to something called the confirmation bias. Duh, duh, DUH.
Because of, I dunno, evolution or something, our mystical skull goo (or ‘brain’) automagically seeks and celebrates evidence that supports our entrenched beliefs and rubbishes and discards evidence that contradicts them.
- Confirmation bias in politics leads to polarisation of opinion and, ultimately, to political breakdown and events like the storming of the Capitol in the United States on January 6 2021.
- In finance, confirmation bias leads to overconfidence and lower investment returns as traders overestimate their market knowledge and overlook contrary information about their portfolio.
- The Covid-19 pandemic is a huge (and inadvertent, I should hastily add) social experiment in the effects of confirmation bias on our health, as misinformation and misperceptions of the safety and efficacy of vaccines become self-reinforcing and lead to many more of us dying avoidable deaths.
(PSA: In the first half of 2021, Covid-19 was the cause of death in 37.4 percent of all unvaccinated people in the UK. Among those who chose to get two shots of a vaccine, the Covid-19 death rate was 0.8 percent. But, then again, this data is from the government-funded Office of National Statistics so you can magically confirmation bias that away too!)
Just Plain Dumb
But even worse than political breakdown, financial collapse and death is succumbing to the Dunning-Kruger effect:
Dumb people think they’re smart.
Or, as David Dunning and Justin Kruger wrote in their original 1999 paper:
Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.
Smackdown. You do not want to get on the wrong side of Messrs Dunning and Kruger.
Follow up research on the Dunning-Kruger effect has since expanded the phenomenon to take in its flipside too:
Smart people think they’re dumb.
The more one learns, the more one realises how much more one has to learn, which leads high achievers to underestimate their level in comparison to the rest of us dumb-asses.
You see this a lot. Smart or skilful people tend to come with a healthy dose of humility. As ancient philosophy MVP Socrates apparently said:
What I do not know, I do not think I know either.
Or, as twenty-first century tennis MVP Rafael Nadal put it:
Humility is the recognition of your limitations. I always work with a goal, and the goal is to improve as a player and as a person.
This is the same Rafael Nadal who has won an all-time high 21 Grand Slam tournaments, the crowning achievement in tennis. What improvement? What limitations?
So whenever you notice yourself holding the sharp end of a strong opinion, take a minute.
Is the strength of your opinion really justified? Like, really justified.
Or are you just plain dumb?
Now: Be Like The Tree
But strong opinions don’t have to mean inflexible opinions.
If I can use a shitty metaphor that’ll break down in five minutes: imagine a hurricane ripping through your town. Sorry.
A skyscraper has a strong, inflexible opinion. It’s going dowwwwn. But a tree has a strong, but flexible opinion. It’s going to survive the storm by bending with the wind.
So be like the tree.
Strong opinions are fine — good, even — I will strenuously defend my strong opinion about the right of all beings to free movement across the planet. Go on: I dare you!
But strong opinions shouldn’t be like a badly constructed skyscraper in a hurricane. They should be re-examined in the light of new information, contrary viewpoints and changing circumstances. Like a tree.
(Told you it’d break down in five minutes.)
Always Right In An Infinite Universe
One of the wisest books I’ve read recently is Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey.
(Tl;dr: Poverty Safari is an attempt to describe how brains, humans, families and communities operate under conditions of financial scarcity.
It’s the anthropological-autobiographical partner to the more academic Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by psychologist Eldar Shafir and economist Sendhil Mullainathan, and you can read an updated summary of the research here.)
In the latter pages of Poverty Safari, McGarvey addresses the apparent inability for political parties to work together to solve really important systemic problems like poverty.
McGarvey points the finger squarely at the confirmation bias and our desperate need to be right, no matter what the dire social consequences:
In a global civilisation dogged by political and religious tribalism, occasionally asking ourselves where we may be mistaken becomes a radical political act.
Isn’t it a bit convenient that we, the ‘good guys’, always find ourselves not only on the right side of history but also on the right side of every argument on the right side of history?
In an infinite universe, on a planet that has existed for billions of years, the chances of us being right about everything are slim, surely?
[…] There’s arguably more virtue in admitting you’re mistaken and correcting your course, than there is in stubbornly believing you haven’t been wrong since you were a teenager.
So (finally) here’s a list of:
- 9 things I once strongly believed and now completely don’t.
- 9 things I strongly believe today, but suspect I might not in the future.
- 9 things I strongly believe today, but am actively canvassing for contradiction — help me out, won’t you?
I suspect that sharing these beliefs should come with some sort of a trigger warning so please don’t take them too much to heart.
My point here is more to recognise where I now strongly disagree with my past self. And you can ask yourself the same question.
9 Things I Once Strongly Believed And Now Completely DON’T
- Drugs are bad and will lead to addiction, destitution, imprisonment and an early grave. Drug users are, therefore, Bad People to be greatly feared. (Remember: these are opinions that I now strongly disagree with!)
- Nation states are a sensible way of organising the different human communities of the world and borders must be protected against illegal intrusion.
- The police service is unimpeachable. Police officers know the law and will always enforce it fairly. (Also applies to law courts and politicians.)
- Morally and ethically, there is such a thing as Right and Wrong.
- There is only one type of intelligence — the one that I’m good at.
- When people let me down, turn me down or do me down, it’s probably because I’m in some way an awful person.
- Being well-travelled is about how many countries you’ve visited.
- Meat and dairy are an essential part of a healthy diet, or at least of a healthy diet for me.
- I sleep badly 99.9 percent of the time. (It’s actually 100 percent — nah, only kidding. Compared to some horror stories I hear, I sleep really well. Sorry.)
9 Things I Strongly Believe Today, But Suspect I Might Not In The Future
- Robots and A.I. — ughhhh. Let me talk to a human! While we’re here: I strongly believe that we’re not living in a computer simulation. I’m probably wrong.
- Everything is relative. Morality, ethics, opinions, abilities, knowledge, whatever — it’s all relative. So back off.
- I’m a handsome clever clogs.
- I’m in great health and will probably live forever.
- I’m crap at music.
- I despise potato crisps or any crisp-like appetiser, such as poppadoms or Chinese crackers.
- ‘Everything is amazing and no one is happy.’ I hope I always believe the first half of that quote and I really hope that, magically, everyone in the whole wide world contradicts me on the second half.
- For most people, looking at the weather forecast is a total waste of time. We’re in the UK, you’re going to need a raincoat.
- I don’t deserve enduring happiness in my relationships. Because that would be too easy.
9 Things I Strongly Believe Today, But Am Actively Canvassing For Contradiction
- Please can everyone stop voting Tory for a second? Thanks.
- Authentic connection is the single most important thing we can do for each other and for the planet that we live on. That could mean going for a muddy walk in nature or sharing a ribald laugh with a stranger.
- Every second I spend in front of a screen instead of outside in nature is killing me a little bit.
- Reading a physical book, however, is probably the best way of building our empathy muscles to help us with #2. Also: books we can read outside.
- Fuck borders.
- Going on adventures is a wonderful thing to do and another way to build authentic connection with people and place.
- The mind is a body and needs stimulation, touch and movement.
- All property should be cooperatively owned. End landlords.
Now, over to you — how wrong am I? And how wrong have you been?!
Thanks to AT for the motivation to turn this nagging thought into a story.