How do we solve climate change? Oh and what’s your opinion about the situation in Syria? What’s the best way to cook an omelet? Also is the earth really flat? Okay I think I can confidently answer that last question, at least I’m pretty sure I can get most of the way there. But the point is that it’s far too easy to feel like we should have an opinion on everything. We want to be relevant and weigh in on important issues, but what do we really know? For the past few years, especially as I started paying more attention to politics, a feeling began developing in my mind that I could not seem to properly articulate. I wanted to transform this feeling into a simple heuristic — into a rule of thumb that I could fall back on when things got complicated. And then finally, during the Q&A section of this Sam Harris podcast interview, I heard it expressed perfectly. The advice was so simple that I was mad at myself for not finding it on my own: have fewer opinions. The man who said this was Robin Hanson, and the context was all about his recent book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. As I developed the idea, I realized that so many subject areas that were already of interest to me — scientific literacy, psychology, Stoicism, and especially meditation — all seemed to lead to this same conclusion of having fewer opinions. So much of our suffering comes from our confusion at an infinitely complex world, and I think this advice — through allowing us to let go and be okay with uncertainty — first and foremost improves our personal well-being. But I also think that at the larger scale it has the potential to fix a lot of the dysfunction in our current political discourse.
“You don’t actually know why you do things, but your job is to make up a good excuse”
-Robin Hanson from Making Sense Podcast #119
Without getting into the full details of Robin’s book, the basic idea is this: You (the conscious you) are not in charge of your mind. You are not the president or the king; you are more like the press secretary. Ninety-five percent of the processes in your brain are happening underneath your awareness, and your job as the press secretary is to give acceptable reasons — not only for the benefit of others but also for yourself — that explain why you do what you do. And the psychological evidence shows that we are rarely vocalizing the real reasons (or at least the primary reasons) for why we do things. Evolution shaped our minds to lie like this, and the most successful and convincing lie is one in which we also believe. Split brain patients showcase aspects of this phenomenon, and unfortunately even without a split brain we are all guilty of similarly making up excuses for our actions. This reality of the mind also applies to opinion formation. How many of your opinions are coming from the press secretary? And what is the real reason that you want to have an opinion in the first place? Even more disturbing is why we choose to vocalize our opinions; unfortunately it is rarely for any noble goal like solving a problem. Most often, even though people won’t admit it, the main motive (we do often have multiple motives) for vocalizing an opinion is to seek dominance or prestige within a social circle. The psychology that this book highlights is honestly disturbing, but it did convince me to watch myself more carefully. I’ve been able to catch some of the more obvious attempts at prestige signalling. Disturbance aside, it really just made me shut up more and have fewer opinions.
“Bias is the brain’s strategy for dealing with too much information”
Most people would admit that they have various biases which color their opinions. This admission is easier with trivial opinions like favorite foods or TV shows, but is harder when dealing with more serious topics. We normally think of bias as some kind of an unfair forming of opinion, but I don’t think that bias only exists at this level; I think it is true that — as Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale University Molly Crocket has said — “bias is the brain’s strategy for dealing with too much information”. There is nearly infinite data available to us in any given moment, and on deep levels our brains are deciding for us — in this sense I mean somewhere in the 95% of subconscious brain activity — which information is important enough to push into our conscious awareness. We normally think of bias as something like a Republican being overly critical about a Democrat’s speech while being too lenient towards a fellow Republican’s speech (or vice versa). This type of bias definitely exists, but in the subconscious sense a bias can also exist at the level of data collection and pattern formation. You might literally see a different world than the person you disagree with. This phenomenon was famously shown in both the Laurel-Yanny and the Gold Dress-Blue Dress internet sensations. But there is a concept that can constrain this inherent bias in all of us: the null hypothesis.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind and still retain the ability to function”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The null hypothesis is the scientifically literate way in which we aim to understand the world without any preconceived notions. We don’t go into an experiment — this can be any type of hypothesis testing not just a laboratory setting — trying to prove that our suspicion (hypothesis) is true. We may want it to be true, but the power of the null hypothesis is that it magnetically helps us stay in the unknown, in the space between conclusions. When we are committed to staying in that space, we can more honestly wait to see where the data pulls us. Our minds get restless when they are truly open, truly waiting in the unknown for more data. But grounding yourself in the concept of the null hypothesis gives you the strength to remain agnostic until the objective data truly lead you to a conclusion. If we are honest with ourselves, too many of our opinions are not grounded in such an objective process. Bias exists at all levels in the brain, so we must be ready to change our minds at any moment. No opinion can be so strong that you are unwilling to change it. Even safer, just have fewer opinions in the first place.
“Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly”
Yet again, mindfulness can help save the day. Our minds are constantly trying to pull us around, but with the space of awareness we can let that happen without committing strongly to any one thing. For example we can feel the desire to be right — a desire that not only expresses itself in the mind but also physiologically in the body — without losing control and spouting out an angry and strong opinion. We are not bad people for wanting to impress others and be right, but we don’t want to be controlled by that. And what do we really know? Our internal models of the world are filled with contradictions and holes. We simply cannot account for everything. Careful thinking in specific areas might allow for a justifiably strong opinion, but can you ever really know for sure that you are right?
As we said, our minds don’t like uncertainty. But is being uncomfortable with uncertainty a good reason for having a strong opinion? In our attempt at understanding the complexity of the world, we often oversimplify it. Most often we compartmentalize the world into binary thinking (black/white, good/bad, laurel/yanny). Sometimes this is accurate, and even if it isn’t accurate there are times — like when immediate action is required — during which a low resolution opinion will have to suffice. But with mindfulness, we have an awareness of how strong our opinions actually are, as opposed to the emotion of how strongly we feel them to be. So I try to be most skeptical of the opinions for which I have the strongest emotional attachment.
Mindfulness also allows us to know more about why we are wanting to have a strong opinion in the first place. Are we scared of being wrong or changing our minds? Maybe we’re feeling particularly righteous that day as we comment on something political. Probably, we are just feeling insecure about what we don’t know. Meditation helps us to accept that insecurity is a fundamental aspect of life. We can never account for everything and our biases cloud our view of the world. When we accept this, we become more comfortable with the chaotic complexity that is reality. Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield calls this “the wisdom of insecurity”. And even though we resist it so much, admitting that we don’t know something is actually a tremendous relief.
Finding a Balance
I am definitely not saying that we shouldn’t have any opinions. Like so many things in life, the goal is to find a balance. Don’t be so disengaged or scared of being wrong that you never form an opinion on anything. But also don’t be so confident that you need to have an opinion on everything. Form strong opinions on the limited things that you actually know a lot about. Form weak opinions on the things that you know a little bit about. And on the rest, enjoy the relief of not needing to have any opinion at all.
Thanks for reading. The original post as well as the accompanying podcast episode can be found on my website here. -Luke from Thunk Tank Podcast
Originally published at thunktankpodcast.com on March 28, 2019.