Do I Really Have to Be Actively Open-Minded?
A cognitive aspiration that can help us learn.
Posted May 02, 2018
Jason Fried, the co-founder of Basecamp, a project management software company, describes being at a conference and engaging with a fellow speaker. Fried had disagreed with the speaker and as he says:
“While he was making his points on stage, I was taking an inventory of the things I didn’t agree with. And when presented with an opportunity to speak with him, I quickly pushed back at some of his ideas” (2012).
In response, to Fried’s criticism, the speaker replied, “Man, give it five minutes.”
Fried says, “I asked him what he meant by that? He said, it’s fine to disagree, it’s fine to push back, it’s great to have strong opinions and beliefs, but give my ideas some time to set in before you’re sure you want to argue against them. ‘Five minutes’ represented ‘think,’ not react” (2012).
Alan Jacobs, in his book How to Think (2017) calls this entering “Refutation Mode—and in Refutation Mode there is no listening” (p. 18). In Refutation Mode you may even miss additional arguments and nuances that a speaker might give. Your emotional response and refutation of an early point shuts off additional incoming information. This is why, if someone has entered Refutation Mode, you might be surprised they didn’t hear that you’ve already addressed their point. You may have experienced this yourself in raising your hand in a seminar or class—once you do so you are fixated on what you will say to the point that your attention narrows and you stop listening to the conversation that is still occurring.
So what is the antidote to entering Refutation Mode? In Keith Stanovich’s impressive catalog of how to assess “good thinking” in his book The Rationality Quotient (with Richard West and Maggie Toplak), what emerges again and again is Actively Open-Minded Thinking.
Stanovich et al. (2016) measure Actively Open-Minded Thinking with a 30-item scale drawn from numerous sources, including items from a flexible thinking scale, Big 5’s openness to experience, and being able to resist dogmatism, among others (see also Stanovich & West, 1997). I won’t go into specifics on each dimension, but a few items should help see how Actively Open-Minded Thinking is assessed. These include:
“Beliefs should always be revised in response to new information or evidence.”
“I like to gather many different types of evidence before I decide what to do.”
“It is important to persevere in your beliefs even when evidence is brought to bear against them.” (R)
(R) indicates item is reverse scored (for additional items, see Stanovich, et al., 2016, p. 366).
The willingness to be open-minded, assess evidence, and update our beliefs takes cognitive effort. We need to override our initial impulses. This is further complicated when beliefs are central to us (Haidt, 2012). Nevertheless, it can serve as a cognitive aspiration. We will certainly fall short of being actively open-minded, but when we sense we are in Refutation Mode, we can try to momentarily recalibrate and see if being actively open-minded may serve us in the situation.
For example, in making billion-dollar investments, Ray Dalio, the founder of the world’s largest hedge-fund, places the dictate to be “Radically Open-Minded” as one of his key management principles. As he states:
“Radical open-mindedness is the ability to effectively explore different points of view and different possibilities…It requires you to replace your attachment to always being right with the joy of learning what’s true” (2017, p. 187).
But, you may argue, what are the limits to being Actively Open-Minded? Should I listen and engage in every opposing point of view? As Stanovich et al. (2016) describe, being Actively Open-Minded is not a disposition to maximize. However, we tend to be deficient in this disposition such that more is better. Thus, in being open-minded we obviously do not forgo having a point-of-view, but instead “practice being open-minded and assertive at the same time” (Dalio, 2017, p. 541).
So, the next time you see yourself in Refutation Mode—much like Jason Fried—see if you can stop yourself and be Actively Open-Minded. It won’t be easy, you may need “five minutes,” and you may not change your mind, but you’re likely to learn more in the process.
Dalio, R. (2017). Principles: Life and work. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Fried, J. (2012, March 1). Give it five minutes. Retrieved from https://signalvnoise.com/posts/3124-give-it-five-minutes
Jacobs, A. (2017). How to think: A survival guide for a world at odds. New York: Currency.
Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.
Stanovich, K. E., & West, R. F. (1997). Reasoning independently of prior belief and individual differences in actively open-minded thinking. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(2), 342-357.
Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F., & Toplak, M. E. (2016). The rationality quotient: Toward a test of rational thinking. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.