Words of wisdom

Psychologically Speaking

Its fun to watch the various debates going on in the letters pages of newspapers. Locally, in recent times, it has been the hoary old questions about fluoride, student unions and the industrial laws. Last week I listened to a debate on the ABC about nuclear power. Various speakers gave evidence for their point of view and tried to argue a case. It was very entertaining. At the end the chairperson asked how many people in the audience had changed their minds based on what they had heard. The response was one person who said that he had become more strongly averse to nuclear power during the session. It is less fun to watch arguments between family members or in workplaces, which I often see in my work.

We like to pretend that we make decisions based on logic and the facts. The truth of the matter is that we tend to make decisions based on emotion rather than evidence. And, when the decision has been made, its much harder to shift despite compelling evidence to the contrary. The Challenger disaster was an excellent, very tragic, example of this phenomenon. You might remember that the decision to launch was made despite overwhelming scientific evidence that to do so was perilous and the vehicle had a good chance of exploding because of a faulty fuel seal. My own experience running many workshops for managers supports the notion that we tend to make decisions based on how we feel or the last influential person we spoke to rather than the facts.

You may have noticed too that when you have a conflicting point of view with someone you both try and argue even more strongly for your position. And it can easily get out of control, especially with your teenage child or even your spouse. It seems that once we have taken a position and argue for it then we become even more entrenched in that point of view. Politics and religion are excellent examples of how people can become even more fundamentalist when confronted with opposition. It is as if the point of view has become a part of the persons self. So, we are not defending a cause, we are defending ourselves at a very personal level. Personally, I am wary of any ideology for precisely this reason.

Overcoming this almost universal psychological tendency to engage in this behaviour takes considerable insight, will and skill. Recognising that we tend to do this is a good start. The next is to challenge our beliefs and thinking before challenging others. Go look at the facts and suspend belief for a while. Remember that others have an emotional interest in what they think and do. You need to appeal to their emotions before even getting a chance to appeal to the mind. Ask yourself if you really need to defend yourself quite so hard, particularly if it is against your apparently rebellious teenage child or your spouse. And you might even think about the emotions underpinning your decisions.

As F Scott Fitzgerald noted, The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. Personally, I call this wisdom.


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