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Open-Mindedness

People are very open-minded about new things…as long as they're exactly like the old ones!—Charles Kettering

This week’s featured strength is Open-Mindedness.

Definition

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.

Benefits of Open-Mindedness

Research suggests the following benefits of open-mindedness:

  • Open-minded, cognitively complex individuals are less swayed by singular events and are more resistant to suggestion and manipulation.
  • Open-minded individuals are better able to predict how others will behave and are less prone to projection.
  • Open-minded individuals tend to score better on tests of general cognitive ability like the SAT or an IQ test.  (Of course we don’t know whether being open-minded makes one smarter or vice versa.)
  Open-Mindedness as a “Corrective Virtue”

Social and cognitive psychologists have noted widespread errors in judgment/thinking to which we are all vulnerable.  In order to be open-minded, we have to work against these basic tendencies, leading virtue ethicists to call open-mindedness a corrective virtue. 

In addition to the myside bias described above, here are three other cognitive tendencies that work against open-minded thinking:

1) Selective Exposure
We maintain our beliefs by selectively exposing ourselves to information that we already know is likely to support those beliefs.  Liberals tend to read liberal newspapers, and Conservatives tend to read conservative newspapers.
2) Primacy Effects
The evidence that comes first matters more than evidence presented later.  Trial lawyers are very aware of this phenomenon.  Once jurors form a belief, that belief becomes resistant to counterevidence.
 
3)   Polarization
We tend to be less critical of evidence that supports our beliefs than evidence that runs counter to our beliefs.  In an interesting experiment that demonstrates this phenomenon [1], researchers presented individuals with mixed evidence on the effectiveness of capital punishment on reducing crime.  Even though the evidence on both sides of the issue was perfectly balanced, individuals became stronger in their initial position for or against capital punishment.  They rated evidence that supported their initial belief as more convincing, and they found flaws more easily in the evidence that countered their initial beliefs.

What Encourages Open-Mindedness?

Research suggests that people are more likely to be open-minded when they are not under time pressure. (Our gut reactions aren’t always the most accurate.)

Individuals are more likely to be open-minded when they believe they are making an important decision. (This is when we start making lists of pros and cons, seeking the perspectives of others, etc.)

Some research suggests that the way in which an idea is presented can affect how open-minded someone is when considering it.  For example, a typical method of assessing open-mindedness in the laboratory is to ask a participant to list arguments on both sides of a complicated issue (e.g., the death penalty, abortion, animal testing).  What typically happens is that individuals are able to list far more arguments on their favored side.  However, if the researcher then encourages the participant to come up with more arguments on the opposing side, most people are able to do so without too much difficulty.  It seems that individuals have these counter-arguments stored in memory but they don’t draw on them when first asked.

Exercises to Build Open-Mindedness

In my readings, I did not uncover any open-mindedness interventions.  But in the spirit of creativity/originality (the featured strength 2 newsletters ago), I consulted Catherine Freemire, LCSW [Catherine Freemire, LCSW, Balanced Life Coaching, coachcat@jps.net], a clinical therapist and professional coach renowned for her creative thinking.  She came up with three exercises for building open-mindedness which I think are definitely worth trying:

  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.  (While typing Catherine’s idea, I had a related one of my own: If you are conservative in your political beliefs, listen to Al Frankin’s radio show; if you are liberal, listen to Rush Limbaugh!  While you are listening, try to avoid the cognitive error of polarization described above.)
  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!)

I hope you enjoyed this newsletter!  See you in two weeks when we discuss the character strength, Love of Learning.

Recommended Readings

Baron, J. (2000). Thinking and deciding (3rd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kuhn, D. (1991). The skills of argument. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Peterson, C. and Seligman, M. E. P. (Eds.). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.  New York: Oxford University Press.


Stanovich, K. E. (1999). Who is rational? Studies of individual differences in reasoning. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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