One of my deepest held beliefs is that our need for coherence is a profound source of misery. We agitate for universal theories to tie everything together. Our obsessions with gurus, religion, ideology, macro, or even astrology are symptoms. We search for meaning as if it is something that’s “out there” to be discovered. I’m not holding my breath. And I believe the quest is actively destructive when taken too seriously. When people become overly invested in any of these expeditions, they will protect their egos at any cost. It’s actually more insidious than this. They dehumanize opposition so they don’t even have to consider their plight a cost.
I just picked up Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Ethics Of Ambiguity because its description vibrates with my own feelings. I’ll report back after reading it. (See How The Need For Coherence Drives Us Mad to see if you’d be interested in reading it.)
In the meantime, I’ll share a technique that I use to resist the seduction of coherence.
A Drawer Of Curiosities
In my notes, I keep an ever-growing list of “tensions” and “paradoxes” that I encounter from reading or experience. It is a constant reminder that every bit of advice you’ve ever heard is not universal. My buddy Jake likes to say that seat belts are the only free lunch. To which I respond, “unless the presumption of safety encourages drivers to speed or drive more recklessly”. Let’s be blunt. My response is utter ankle-biting tediousness (if you have this kind of thought, don’t make it a personality). The larger takeaway is there are paradoxes running loose everywhere and if we run around trying to corral them with some ill-conceived notion that it makes us “more right” or there are truths we can somehow own and wield, then we’ve done nothing but build intellectual totems to hubris.
Instead of trying to resolve the paradoxes, maybe just accept them. Name it to tame it, put it in a drawer, and move on. You don’t need the world to bend around your own brain to protect your ego. You can just have a big list that reminds you that the task is futile. That’s the antidote.
Just some excerpts of obvious relevance:
Why the ‘paradox mindset’ is the key to success (BBC)
- Over a series of studies, psychologists and organizational scientists have found that people who learn to embrace, rather than reject, opposing demands show greater creativity, flexibility and productivity. The dual constraints actually enhance their performance. The researchers call this a “paradox mindset” – and there never be a better time to start cultivating it.
- Contemplation of apparent contradictions can break down our assumptions, offering us wholly new ways of looking at the problem…study of how revolutionary thinkers had spent considerable time “actively conceiving multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously”.
- “Paradoxical cognition” can also help more average thinkers to solve everyday problems, and organizations to enhance their performance. In one of the early studies, Ella Miron-Spektor, associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, and her research collaborators asked participants to write down three paradoxical statements. This, the participants were told, could be as banal as the idea that “sitting can be more tiring that walking”; they simply had to list any thoughts that were “seemingly contradictory but nonetheless possibly true”. She then gave them two of psychology’s standard tests of creativity. The first was the “remote association test”, which requires participants to find a common word that links three different alternatives. What links “sore, shoulder, sweat”, for example? The answer is cold – and if you get it right, you’ve been able to spot the hidden connections between diverse ideas, which is considered essential for many forms of creative thinking. [Me: Reminds me of Codenames!]
- Although the participants’ paradoxical statements were not directly related to the task itself, their contemplation of the contradictory ideas seemed to have freed their thinking from its usual constraints, meaning that they were better able to think “outside the box” (or, in this case, inside it).
- Questionnaire to measure the “paradox mindset”. The participants were first asked to rate statements about their willingness to embrace contradictions, such as:
- When I consider conflicting perspectives
- I gain a better understanding of an issue I am comfortable working on tasks that contradict each other
- I feel uplifted when I realize that two opposites can be true
- The participants were also asked to describe how often they experienced “resource scarcity” at work (the need to perform highly under limited time or financial resources). Their supervisors, meanwhile, had to rate their performance and innovation within the role. Sure enough, the study found that the employee’s paradox mindset had a large influence on their ability to cope with the demands. For the people who scored highly, the challenge of dealing with limited resources was energizing and inspiring, and their performance actually increased under the tension, so they came up with new and better solutions to the problems within their role. Those without the paradox mindset, in contrast, tended to crumble and struggled to maintain their performance when resources were scarce.
- The prospect of deliberately embracing competing demands may sound arduous, but Chinese researchers have recently shown that people with this mindset also get greater satisfaction from their role. There is enjoyment, apparently, in reconciling two opposing goals – provided you have the right mindset
- Simply note down any paradoxes you encounter – and to make a point of contemplating them before you set about solving problems. If you are stuck for ideas, you could look further into the paradoxes that inspired scientists like Einstein and Bohr. Greek philosophy is also full of paradoxical ideas that might get your creative juices flowing. Your own job may already contain many contradictory goals that could inspire paradoxical cognition. In the past, you might have assumed that you need to sacrifice one for the other – but if you want to cultivate the paradox mindset, you might spend a bit more time considering the ways you can pursue them both, simultaneously. Rather than seeing the potential conflicts as something to avoid, you can begin to view the competing demands as an opportunity for growth and a source of motivation. (And if there aren’t any external pressures, you could create your own – asking, for instance, how you could increase the efficiency and accuracy of your performance on a particular task, if only for an exercise in paradoxical thinking.)
Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence (Nature)
- People often discount evidence that contradicts their firmly held beliefs. However, little is known about the neural mechanisms that govern this behavior.
- Data on any topic—from climate science to epidemiology—must first be successfully communicated and believed before it can inform personal behavior or public policy. Viewed in this light, the inability to change another person’s mind through evidence and argument, or to have one’s own mind changed in turn, stands out as a problem of great societal importance. Both human knowledge and human cooperation depend upon such feats of cognitive and emotional flexibility.
- It is well known that people often resist changing their beliefs when directly challenged, especially when these beliefs are central to their identity. In some cases, exposure to counterevidence may even increase a person’s confidence that his or her cherished beliefs are true. Although neuroscientists have begun to study some of the social aspects of persuasion and motivated reasoning, little research is aimed directly at understanding the neural systems involved in protecting our most strongly held beliefs against counterevidence.
- One model of belief maintenance holds that when confronted with counterevidence, people experience negative emotions borne of conflict between the perceived importance of their existing beliefs and the uncertainty created by the new information. In an effort to reduce these negative emotions, people may begin to think in ways that minimize the impact of the challenging evidence: discounting its source, forming counterarguments, socially validating their original attitude, or selectively avoiding the new information. The degree to which such rationalization occurs depends upon several factors, but the personal significance of the challenged belief appears to be crucial. Specifically, beliefs that relate to one’s social identity are likely to be more difficult to change.
- Our results show that when people are confronted with challenges to their deeply held beliefs, they preferentially engage brain structures known to support stimulus-independent, internally directed cognition. Our data also support the role of emotion in belief persistence. Individual differences in persuasion were related to differences in activity within the insular cortex and the amygdala—structures crucial to emotion and feeling. The brain’s systems for emotion, which are purposed toward maintaining homeostatic integrity of the organism, appear also to be engaged when protecting the aspects of our mental lives with which we strongly identify, including our closely held beliefs.