Open and shut

How the back­fire ef­fect closes minds

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY GERRY CHIDIAC GUEST OPIN­ION Gerry Chidiac is a cham­pion for so­cial en­light­en­ment, in­spir­ing others to find their per­sonal great­ness in mak­ing the world a better place.

It’s in­ter­est­ing how open­minded people are to the opinions of others. News pro­grams reg­u­larly present de­bates that end with people com­ing around to op­pos­ing per­spec­tives or at least agree­ing to re­spect­fully dis­agree.

Of course, I’m only kid­ding. In fact, we see con­ser­va­tive news pro­grams where hosts shout down guests with op­pos­ing views. We see lib­eral au­di­ences dis­rupt­ing and walk­ing out of au­di­to­ri­ums where more right-wing views are pre­sented. We see on­line arguments that go on ad nau­seam, with each side get­ting more and more en­trenched, even as le­git­i­mate counter arguments are pre­sented.

What’s hap­pen­ing in these cases is the back­fire ef­fect. When ev­i­dence is pre­sented that con­tra­dicts a deeply held be­lief, we don’t change our view­point. On the con­trary, we tend to become more en­trenched and op­po­si­tional.

The key to deal­ing with any chal­lenge is to in­crease our aware­ness, understand what’s hap­pen­ing and make a mind­ful re­sponse.

There may have been a time when em­brac­ing cer­tain be­liefs was a mat­ter of life and death. This could ex­plain our ten­dency to en­trench our­selves in our points of view. Rit­u­als for pre­par­ing food, for ex­am­ple, pre­vented people from be­ing poi­soned. There was much that we didn’t understand and the rules es­tab­lished by com­mu­ni­ties kept mem­bers safe in their en­vi­ron­ment.

These struc­tures have their lim­its and there must be room for evo­lu­tion. The more ho­mo­ge­neous an or­ga­ni­za­tion re­mains, the more likely it is to fail. This was il­lus­trated in Euro­pean royal fam­i­lies of the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies. Ge­net­i­cally, they de­vel­oped se­ri­ous is­sues. And po­lit­i­cally, they be­came un­able to rule. They fell out of touch with their pop­u­la­tions, re­sult­ing in loss of power and in­flu­ence, dis­so­lu­tion of em­pires and even rev­o­lu­tion.

To­day, as world travel and com­mu­ni­ca­tion become eas­ier, so­ci­eties grow more het­ero­ge­neous. So we are in­creas­ingly con­fronted with dis­sent­ing views.

Psy­cho­log­i­cal re­search is shed­ding light on how we re­spond to cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance, which hap­pens when what we see or hear con­tra­dicts what we be­lieve to be true. In essence, we can fight or we can try to understand the other world­views.

Stephen Covey, the au­thor of “The 7 Habits of Highly Ef­fec­tive People,” tells us to “Seek first to understand, and then to be un­der­stood.” This doesn’t mean that we em­brace the views of the other and for­get our own. What nor­mally hap­pens when we fol­low this prin­ci­ple, how­ever, is that when others feel lis­tened to, they in turn become more open to our per­spec­tives.

From here, we can understand and em­brace what’s good in both points of view, and even cel­e­brate di­ver­sity. Covey refers to this as cre­at­ing syn­ergy. By shar­ing and brainstorming, we come up with the best pos­si­ble so­lu­tions, where ev­ery­one feels re­spected and ev­ery­one wins.

The most ef­fec­tive in­sti­tu­tions em­brace di­ver­sity. As a teacher, for ex­am­ple, I know how im­por­tant it is to lis­ten to my stu­dents and to use their in­put in cre­at­ing and main­tain­ing a pos­i­tive and re­spect­ful en­vi­ron­ment in the class­room. In or­der to do so, how­ever, I need to be con­fi­dent in my own lead­er­ship and ef­fec­tively com­mu­ni­cate my goals and my vi­sion.

The ideal is to create a learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment where stu­dents are re­spect­ful in chal­leng­ing other points of view and com­fort­able in hav­ing their opinions ques­tioned.

If we’re aware of our ten­dency to re­act neg­a­tively when others ex­press dif­fer­ing viewpoints and know that this is in­deed the back­fire ef­fect, we can con­sciously move be­yond it with an open mind.

The re­sult will be a better way, one that em­braces and cel­e­brates our dif­fer­ences. More ef­fort is re­quired but it’s worth it. As Amer­i­can civil rights ac­tivist Maya An­gelou says, “In di­ver­sity there is beauty and there is strength.”

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