Developing Open-Mindedness

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Growing Up in a Bubble

I had no idea at that time in November 1998 that the destination I was about to utter would set me on an unexpected, sometimes tumultuous, and ultimately life-changing journey—Moscow, Russia.

Growing up in the devoutly Latter-day Saint (LDS) community of Provo, Utah, I did what most 19-year-old young LDS men do—I served a full-time, two-year mission. To serve as a full-time missionary for the LDS Church, young men must be interviewed and endorsed by their ecclesiastical leaders. After receiving the ecclesiastical endorsement and formally applying to serve a mission, young men receive a “mission calling,” usually in the mail in a large manila envelope. It is hard to overstate the anticipation associated with getting a mission calling. Several weeks typically elapse between when an official application is made to serve a mission and the receipt of a mission calling. When that calling arrives, family and friends gather around as the envelope is opened and wait with bated breath for the letter to be read aloud to find out where on the globe the calling is to serve. Members of the LDS Church believe that the people who select where missionaries will serve—usually highly-placed leaders of the church in Salt Lake City, Utah—are given divine inspiration when deciding who will serve where, making the location of the calling all the weightier.

Even though it was many years ago, I remember the day when I opened my mission calling, surrounded by family and friends. I was so nervous, I had to stand while I was opening the envelope. As I slid the paper out, I carefully held it and began to read it aloud as quickly as I could. I had no idea at that time in November 1998 that the destination I was about to utter would set me on an unexpected, sometimes tumultuous, and ultimately life-changing journey—Moscow, Russia.

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square

After a crash course in Russian at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, I arrived in Moscow, Russia, in March 1999. After landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport and going through customs with a gaggle of other Russia-bound LDS missionaries, I was greeted by the Moscow Mission President (the person designated by the church to be responsible for the missionaries in the area) and whisked off to the small mission headquarters building in Moscow’s Sokol District, where I met my “companion.” LDS missionaries are always assigned to live and work with a companion who is also serving a full-time mission for the church. My new companion and I quickly made our way in a small taxi van to my first assigned area in the outskirts of Moscow—Zelenograd.

March is usually an ugly time of year in Moscow as the city emerges from months of harsh winter. It is still cold, but not cold enough to freeze the snow, so the streets are covered in a muddy slush. Everything is gray and dirty. It was against this gloomy and dreary backdrop that I arrived at my first apartment. On the way to the entrance to the building was a puddle of vomit that my companion pointed out by saying “Watch out!” and I narrowly escaped it with a quick leap. Entering the stairwell, I was struck by how dark and cold it was, which was topped off with an overwhelming smell of trash. Taking the elevator, which reeked of stale urine, we finally arrived at the sixth floor, where I saw for the first time the place where I would be living for the next several months. Upon entering our apartment, I was shocked by its small size, austere furnishings, and outdated feel. Thus began my two-year experience in Russia.

"Shelving" My Doubts

Anytime I came across a teaching or scripture that caused cognitive dissonance, I did what one friend of mine refers to as “putting it on the shelf.”
The Book of Mormon is considered LDS scripture and is a cornerstone of LDS theology

The Book of Mormon is considered LDS scripture and is a cornerstone of LDS theology

Before departing on my mission, I was an obedient member of the LDS Church but not exceptionally well versed in the scriptures and the church’s teachings—not an uncommon thing for young men of the church in their late teens. However, serving as a missionary, I became familiar with church scriptures and teachings very quickly, although not all of it made sense to me at the time. Nevertheless, I sincerely believed that the LDS Church was Christ’s only true church on earth, and I was a very devoted missionary. Anytime I came across a teaching or scripture that caused cognitive dissonance, I did what one friend of mine refers to as “putting it on the shelf.” In other words, I tried not to let it concern me and filtered the information I was taking in to reinforce what I believed (i.e., there was confirmation bias going on). While I was unaware at the time that I was sometimes experiencing cognitive dissonance and engaging in confirmation bias, the psychological phenomena were nonetheless significantly shaping my worldview. In the late 1990s, Russia was a tough place to live. The country was experiencing its second financial crisis in a decade, and the government at time appeared to be on the brink of collapse. Most people were just hanging on financially and emotionally. For the most part, the country was bleak and unpleasant. It was my faith that I was indeed spreading God’s one true gospel in Russia that sustained me through my time as a missionary, which was further exacerbated by some challenging periods of untreated major depression and anxiety.

After I returned from my mission in 2001, more questions about the LDS Church’s teachings caused doubts for me. Like before, though, I shelved these doubts. It was not until 2003 that I began to take some of these things off the shelf to examine them. The process of examining my doubts and unresolved questions lasted for many years, punctuated by waxing and waning activity in the church before I finally decided to formally leave the LDS Church in 2014 after a lengthy period of not having been an active member. I felt great relief after leaving the LDS Church despite the fact that my membership in the church had, indeed, brought good things into in my life. Even though there is a wealth of factual evidence contradicting the claims on which the LDS Church is built, I neither besmirch members of the church nor do I consider it my obligation to “deprogram” church members in an attempt to get them to leave the church.

Psychodynamic Phenomena Preventing Open-Mindedness

The vast majority of the time, the vast majority of people see the world from their unique and personal points of view while simultaneously believing that their point of view is the most accurate.

My personal history as a missionary and member of the LDS Church has taught me important lessons about the psychodynamics of people’s relationship to truth and reality in the service of developing open-mindedness. Open-mindedness is an oft-venerated personal quality that many claim to possess and wish upon others. But the fact is that most people are not open-minded most of the time. The vast majority of the time, the vast majority of people see the world from their unique and personal points of view while simultaneously believing that their point of view is the most accurate. It is easy to enter into a new area of consciousness with an open mind, but there is a phenomenon of “first in last out” when it comes to information we receive related to a specific topic—i.e., the first piece of information the brain takes is usually given the most weight, and unless the brain already possess knowledge to contradict “first contact” information, it quickly and subconsciously becomes the baseline for truth. After this, a rapid decline in the ability to accept contradictory information takes place while any additional information that confirms the baseline is accepted. This is the process of confirmation bias—i.e., the brain’s tendency to prefer information that confirms what we already hold to be true while unthinkingly rejecting anything that is contradictory until irrefutable information or doubts cause cognitive dissonance to the point where the mind begins to open up again. This psychodynamic phenomenon takes place on a large scale that affects our worldview and important life choices and on a small scale on a daily basis.

Take the example of how this psychodynamic phenomenon plays out in workplaces around the world every day. Imagine there has been a time change to a team meeting that is regularly scheduled to take place at 12:00 pm on Wednesday. However, it is not clear what the new meeting time is. One team member thinks he overhears the team chief saying that the new time is 2:00 pm. This team member then tells a couple of other people on the team that the meeting is now at 2:00 pm. Meanwhile, another team member talks to the deputy team chief, who says she thinks the meeting has been rescheduled to 1:00 pm. This latter team member then walks up to his other teammates to tell them that the meeting is now at 1:00 pm. Even when the stakes are relatively low, the impulse for people is to have a bias for “first-comer information.” “No, we heard the meeting is going to be at 2:00 pm, not 1:00 pm.” Without any factual evidence about when the rescheduled meeting is going to take place, this exchange is likely to be followed with some posturing about the source veracity (i.e., “I overheard the team chief.” vs. “I talked to the deputy team chief.”). Eventually, once factual evidence enters the discourse (e.g., the team chief comes over and tells everyone that the meeting is going to be at 3:00 pm), people will be inclined to rely on first-comer information as their baseline for truth.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The above is a trivial example exaggerated for effect. Nevertheless, most of us at some point have fallen prey to relying on first-comer information as accurate based solely on the fact that it came first. This example is a manifestation of a powerful psychodynamic phenomenon played out in a microcosm that has profound implications for our overall worldview and ability to keep an open mind. Even when the stakes are low, without factual evidence, we tend to cling to first-comer information and quickly put up subconscious defensive mechanisms to protect our points of view. This phenomenon reveals a paradigm of thinking that presents a significant obstacle to being open-minded, which is that we often labor under the misapprehension that because we hold something to be true—either because of what we think, feel, or believe—that it is, therefore, true. We tell ourselves that our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are based on objective truths when they rarely are. There is no correlation between what we think, feel, or believe and reality. That is to say, just because we think, feel, or believe something to be true does not mean that it is. This is a subtle but essential distinction. Just as the philosopher René Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” the basis of this mental paradigm can be summed up in the phrase, “I believe it; therefore, it is true.” This point of view represents the false mental paradigm that prevents true open-mindedness.

Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition, Cristiano Banti 1857

Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition, Cristiano Banti 1857

To be clear, I mean to disparage no one by pointing out this false mental paradigm. The reality is that all of us know nothing about almost everything. But living in the natural and human-made worlds, we encounter realities that we desire to understand. We naturally seek to fill in our gaps in understanding to help us make sense of the world around us. Without factual evidence, these gaps in knowledge get filled in with myths, assumptions, conjecture, and hypotheses. For example, in ancient antiquity, natural phenomena such as meteorological events and natural disasters were attributed to a pantheon of gods. Another example is the advent of heliocentrism—the theory that the earth revolves around the sun—and the Catholic Church. Nicolaus Copernicus proposed the notion of heliocentrism in his book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which contradicted the view of the Catholic Church that the earth was stationary. Decades later, Galileo Galilei supported and promoted the theory of heliocentrism, for which he was tried and condemned in 1633 by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Centuries later, we take for granted our understanding of astronomy. It can be easy to forget that changing the false paradigm of a stationary earth was nontrivial. However, convincing people that the earth revolved around the sun was not only a significant event in the history of science but an example of how people tend to resist new information—even when based on factual evidence—especially when that new information requires displacing other information that was an important part of our worldview.

The lens through which we view the world and all the accompanying myths, assumptions, conjecture, and hypotheses that we use to fill in the voids in our understanding to help us make sense of the world represent a significant part of our identity and can be conflated with our sense of self. I had concluded years before I formally left the LDS Church that it was based on a false premise. But because being a member of the church made up a part of my identity, it was harder to leave. In leaving the church, I was not just giving up things that I had believed in, but I was also letting go of part of my identity. It, therefore, felt like I was giving up part of myself. It was much harder to give up part of my identity than it was to give up my beliefs, and this is true of many of the falsehoods we cling to in our lives. On some level, we can come to terms with our myths, assumptions, conjecture, and hypotheses being false. But when these things make up a part of the fabric of our identity, it can be much more difficult to abandon them. For this reason, we are much likelier to believe things that we perceive to be in our self-interest while eschewing things that represent a threat to our self-interest, all without applying much, if any, scrutiny and examination of the information.

All of this suggests that true open-mindedness is a state that must be developed and maintained and not a default or obtained by virtuous desire alone. An example of how this phenomenon plays out in our daily lives is politics. Political parties, organizations, and movements are usually highly expedient because their primary objective is to seek, obtain, and maintain power. No political party, organization, or movement has a monopoly on truth. And yet, we see politicians in the minority deride the opposition for doing things that they did when they were in the majority and had power. This is the height of expediency and reveals how people are capable of insulating themselves from their blatant hypocrisy when it is in their self-interest to do so.

A Model for Developing an Open Mind 

So far, I have described four psychodynamic phenomena:

  1. A bias toward first-comer information
  2. The desire to make sense of our world by filling in voids in understanding with myths, assumptions, conjectures, and hypotheses
  3. Our myths, assumptions, conjectures, and hypotheses making up important parts of our identity and getting conflated with a sense of self
  4. A tendency to rebuff information that does not fit into our worldview

These things represent four barriers with which we must reckon in order to develop true open-mindedness. Based on this, I propose a three-step model for developing a state of true open-mindedness.

Step One: Developing Awareness of Biases

The brain is very chatty and is always saying something. However, most of what our brain is saying (i.e., our internal dialogue) resides in our ambient consciousness. In other words, our inner dialogue is not entirely outside of our awareness but is like a radio station that is not properly tuned—the words cannot be hard to make out if we are not paying attention.

The first step toward true open-mindedness is developing an awareness of our biases. The mind works such that we are genetically programmed to try and make sense of our world. There is nothing inherently wrong with using myths, assumptions, conjectures, and hypotheses to fill in the voids in our understanding. The key is to develop an awareness that this is occurring and to understand how our worldview biases us toward accepting some information over other information. This requires developing the ability to observe our thoughts from a distance. The brain is very chatty and is always saying something. However, most of what our brain is saying (i.e., our internal dialogue) resides in our ambient consciousness. In other words, our inner dialogue is not entirely outside of our awareness but is like a radio station that is not properly tuned—the words cannot be hard to make out if we are not paying attention. Tuning into our inner dialogue takes practice, but, with a little persistence, it is relatively straightforward to accomplish.

Paradoxically, the best way to tune into your inner dialogue is to ask it to stop. Attention to breath (ATB) awareness meditation is a useful practice to develop an awareness of your inner dialogue. ATB is the practice of paying attention to your breath wherever you feel it in your body, be it in your nose, mouth, chest, stomach, etc. As you pay attention to your breath, you will notice that thoughts start to wander in. As thoughts wander in, you redirect your attention to your breath. It is amazing how loud our inner dialogue becomes when we try to ignore it. The basic practice of ATB for five minutes a day helps you to tune into your inner dialogue. Before long, you will be more in tune not only with the silent conversation you are having with yourself but also with the silent conversation you are having with other people when they are talking. You might catch yourself thinking, “Well, that is a stupid idea he just came up with,” or “I could not disagree more with what she is saying right now because...” You might not say these things aloud, but these are the conversations you are silently having with other people. Our internal dialogue reveals our biases. When we become aware of our biases, we can start to challenge them. Our inner dialogue is extraordinarily powerful. Consider the placebo effect. The brain is capable of convincing itself and the body that it is getting better off of a sugar pill.

Step Two: Prefactual Thought Experiments

When things do not go according to the way you think they should go, it can be easy to catastrophize. Being deliberate about using prefactual thought experiments helps to slow the brain down and leaves open the opportunity to explore non-catastrophic—i.e., the most likely—outcomes.

Once you have begun to tune into your inner dialogue, you can start the next step in developing open-mindedness: playing the devil’s advocate with yourself. Playing the devil’s advocate with yourself can sometimes be an uncomfortable exercise, but it allows you to conduct thought experiments—i.e., exploring the potential consequences of an idea without necessarily acting on the idea. The most useful type of thought experiment for this is called “prefactual.” A prefactual thought experiment is simply asking yourself questions like, “What will happen if X is true?” or “What will happen if Y occurs?” In these cases, X and Y can be replaced by a point of view that is different from your own.

When things do not go according to the way you think they should go, it can be easy to catastrophize. Being deliberate about using prefactual thought experiments helps to slow the brain down and leaves open the opportunity to explore non-catastrophic—i.e., the most likely—outcomes. Catastrophizing can lead to hyper-defensive and unproductive behavior. I once worked in an office where about halfway through my tenure, my supervisor was replaced. I had a very good relationship with my first supervisor in the office, and we trusted each other. When the new supervisor came in, she had a very different style of conducting business from that of her predecessor. Not long after the new supervisor arrived, she proposed several new approaches to doing things. The approaches that my new supervisor proposed ran contrary to my point of view. In response, I protested loudly and mostly unproductively, ultimately to the detriment of my relationship with my supervisor. My protests did not change anything, and in the end, the new approaches my supervisor proposed had a trivial effect both on how we conducted business and the outcomes of our work. Had I been more aware of what my inner dialogue was telling me at that time, and had I arrested my catastrophizing by doing some prefactual thought experiments, it is entirely probable that I could have prevented a falling out with my supervisor and preserved a productive work relationship.

Step Three: Grounding Your Sense of Self

Everyone is going to have a unique worldview, but the key to being truly open-minded is a willingness to take in new information that shapes and expands that worldview through a heightened consciousness, which allows you to see many possibilities and get out of rote patterns of thinking.

The final step toward true open-mindedness has to do with building upon a developed awareness of your inner dialogue and practicing thought experiments: grounding your sense of self. Everyone is going to have a unique worldview, but the key to being truly open-minded is a willingness to take in new information that shapes and expands that worldview through a heightened consciousness, which allows you to see many possibilities and get out of rote patterns of thinking. However, to achieve this level of consciousness, new information—especially information that contradicts your worldview—must not represent an existential threat to you. This is accomplished by grounding your sense of self outside of your myths, assumptions, conjectures, and hypotheses. By doing this, a buffer between your worldview and your sense of self is developed by emotionally and intellectually accepting that almost nothing in your myths, assumptions, conjectures, or hypotheses, if false, represents a true existential threat. This does not mean that new information should not be scrutinized. On the contrary, scrutinizing new information is a healthy habit. Scrutinize and question the hell out of new information. A buffer simply means having enough confidence in your identity to allow the drawbridge into your mind to remain always open—i.e., reduced resistance to new information. As you scrutinize new information, you may choose to accept or reject it. However, outside of the context of an existential threat, you can scrutinize information with a more open aperture of agency through a heightened self-awareness, instead of being a slave to subconscious confirmation bias.

Closing Thoughts

Developing a truly open mind does not happen automatically; it must be worked at. Having an open mind is not only beneficial to your self-development, but it is also a highly useful characteristic to have as a leader. Having an open mind does not mean being tossed to and fro by the winds of each new idea. Having an open mind means maintaining a willingness to hear and scrutinize information that is contrary to your worldview. This means first getting to know your worldview by tuning into your inner dialogue, reducing your resistance to new ideas though prefactual thought experiments, and developing a buffer between your myths, assumptions, conjectures, and hypotheses and your sense of self. Leaders who have open minds can admit when they are wrong, which builds trust. Leaders who have open minds can make better decisions by accepting that they do not have to be omniscient and can rely on and accept input from others without feeling existentially threatened, allowing others to be valued and included. Leaders who have open minds can see more possibilities and opportunities as they break the shackles of rote thinking and confirmation bias. Leaders who have open minds have the confidence to allow for productive conflict by inviting dissenting points of view and allowing people to have their say, which engenders buy-in. People who have open minds are better leaders for themselves, the people they lead, and the organizations they serve. And even if you are not in a leadership position, developing an open mind is one of the most freeing and rewarding gifts you can give yourself.