The Importance of Arguing With Yourself
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The Importance of Arguing With Yourself

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Originally published on Medium — August 18th, 2018

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This article is a result of the intellectual rigor of a Junto, inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s club for mutual improvement of the same name, between the author, Tim RiserMinna WangNikita Singareddy, and Bryce DeFigueiredo.

The purpose of a Junto is to provide a group of people with whom to reflect on things going on in the world. But sometimes the most important reflecting we can do is when we reflect on ourselves.

Believing What You Want to Believe

Recently, as a group, we’ve been reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. A key principle of the book is that “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” A lot of books have been written about this idea, from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Haidt provides an analogy to illustrate our minds inner-workings. In each of us, there is an elephant that sways whichever way it wants to, representing our intuitions and emotions. On top of the elephant, there is a rider. But the rider serves the elephant. If the elephant chooses to sway one way or another, the rider will justify that decision.

When you find yourself bristling at some argument someone has presented, you may not even know why yet, but the rider on your elephant is fast at work acting as a “press secretary” to justify however you want to feel. Regardless of what’s true, the rider is trying to find the justification that will make us feel most safe in believing what we want to believe. For the most part, this is an unconscious effort. Sometimes, not so unconscious.

People have always leaned their elephant towards believing what they want to believe. But more and more lately, people are saying out loud that they’re going to believe what they want to believe. Haidt even argues that the feeling of having our beliefs reinforced releases dopamine to the point where validating our own beliefs can become literally addictive. If you’ve ever come across an article that finally proves your uncle is, in fact, a racist, then you know what he’s talking about.

There has been a plethora of articles explaining how we’re arguing badly and how these 2 or 7 or 3 techniques will change the way you argue. Being able to argue effectively, to structure rhetoric, and appeal to logic with facts, figures, and even emotional implications, is an important skill, one that more people should develop and hone. That is a big reason why speech and debate can be a valuable extra curricular. But that is an argument for another day (chuckles heartily.)

The flip side of that coin is arguing with ourselves. Haidt points out just how bad we are at this.

“People are quite good at challenging statements made by other people, but if it’s your belief, then it’s your possession — your child, almost — and you want to protect it, not challenge it and risk losing it.”

Breaking News: You’re Wrong. A Lot Of The Time.

In fact, there are whole organizations dedicated to righting this human frailty. The Center for Applied Rationality explains its existence in its mission statement.

“Human intelligence itself remains demonstrably imperfect and largely mysterious. We suffer from biases that still influence us even after we know they’re there. We make mistakes that we’ve made a dozen times before. We jump to conclusions, make overconfident predictions, develop giant blindspots around ego and identity and social pressure, fail to follow through on our goals, turn opportunities for collaboration into antagonistic zero-sum games — and those are just the mistakes we notice.Sometimes we manage to catch these mistakes before they happen — how? Some people manage to reliably avoid some of these failure modes — how? Where does good thinking come from? Good research? Good debate? Innovation? Attention to detail? Motivation? How does one draw the appropriate balance between skepticism and credulity, or deliberation and execution, or self-discipline and self-sympathy?[The Center for Applied Rationality] exists to try to make headway in this domain — the domain of understanding how human cognition already works, in practice, such that we can then start the process of making useful changes, such that we will be better positioned to solve the problems that really matter.”

Research, generally, has come to the consensus that humans are not great at making well-informed decisions without falling victim to their own failings. But failing to acknowledge a problem is the ultimate kiss of death.

Jennifer Porter, an executive coach, explained in the Harvard Business Review that “the hardest leaders to coach are those who won’t reflect — particularly leaders who won’t reflect on themselves.”

“The most useful reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning. Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions.”

This type of “meaning making” that Porter is referring to is the creation of mental models. My wife Camden Harrison*, who is smarter than me, explains it this way: Mental models are the reality that you have constructed for yourself based on your experiences. These beliefs and opinions you have constructed are neither good nor bad, but they impact how you see the world, and whether or not you realize it, affect your actions and how you interact with the world.

“Unfortunately,” as Peter Senge pointed out in his book, The 5th Discipline, “most of us are in the habit of imposing biases on our perceptions of current reality. ‘We learn to rely on our concepts of reality more than our observations.’”

A generation of people who could objectively analyze themselves would be great, maybe even the ideal. If all humans were constantly updating their internal bayesian algorithms to reevaluate beliefs, and weighted arguments probabilistically, that doesn’t happen too often. People are intellectually lazy. But instead of resigning to the fate chosen by our monkey-based hunter-gatherer brains, I’m of the opinion that we can be taught.

Learning To Argue With Yourself

I’m Mormon, which is a religion that a lot of people call a cult. But like any belief system, there is a wrong way and a right way to raise children in a religion. The wrong way is to say “here’s what’s true, because I said so, and if you think otherwise you’re going to hell.” The right way to raise a child, not just in a religion, but in any belief system, is to say “here’s what we believe, here’s why,” and over time, that child is responsible for deciding whether or not they agree. Parents are responsible to provide every resource for that child to build themselves and their own beliefs. This requires each child to experience accountability for what they’ve decided to believe.

Bryan Johnson, a serial entrepreneur, and the founder of Braintree, focuses on raising his children to think through the question: “How did you think about it?” He explained his method this way.

“So, we got on a four-wheeler 2 weeks ago — my 11- and 9-year-old and I — and I said, ‘Okay, I am going to put your helmets on, I am going to give you a 2-minute lesson on how to go forward and how to go backwards, how to brake, I am going to give you some lessons — do not go into a ditch, do not go on a hillside that will turn you over, etc. — but I am expecting you now to go out for 5 minutes and come back safely, and tell me how you did it. What were your thought processes? How did you stay safe? What were the risks you took? But I want you to do it, and I’m not going with you.’ … They came back in one piece, and it was a good experience for them to tell me, ‘Okay, Dad, this is how we looked at the risk, this is how we thought we might potentially get into a problem …’ They [even ran into a tree] going slowly … but they talked about it, which I thought was really helpful.”

In liberal arts, kids grow up being told to read something, research the context around it, and write something that analyzes it. What they don’t spend very much time doing is building their own things. Most people don’t get PhDs because they’re developing a new philosophical framework. They do it because they’re presenting a different dialogue around Kant. We get good at the things we practice, and get feedback on. The act of creating something out of nothing and being accountable for it is not something we often practice. And not just accountable as in what grade the teacher gives us, but to have people in the real world genuinely disagree with and critique the thing we’ve built. Of course it makes sense that we’re not examining our beliefs, there’s no feedback loop for that response.

Education is optimized for what we’re good at. If you’re good at math, you get good grades. That reinforces you to spend more time on math because it’s what you’re good at. There’s no positive reinforcement for trial and error. When I was in college, I wanted to revisit the piano. I had quit when I was 13 and wanted to try again. I took a piano class. I did poorly. I got a C-. That negatively impacted my GPA. From then on, anything I wanted to learn, but that wasn’t required and wasn’t something I knew I’d be good at, was a class I was just going to show up to. I wasn’t going to enroll ever again.

“Growth mindset” is the idea presented by Carol Dweck that says “students who believe (or are taught) that intellectual abilities are qualities that can be developed (as opposed to qualities that are fixed) tend to show higher achievement across challenging school transitions and greater course completion rates in challenging… courses.” The ability to recognize our own thought processes and abilities as constantly developing is the only way arguing with ourselves will ever be anything more than schizophrenia. The ability that when arguing with yourself, you can actually win the argument, is the doorway to progression.

Trying and failing is the key to seeing that potential for adjustment in yourself. If the educational system was set up to focus on that growth rather than what you are or aren’t good at, then you’d have more thorough and reinforced success. To learn, we have to build something, and get it out into the world. And then if we’re being intellectually honest, and people critique what we put out there, we will learn from that, and it will help us with the next thing we learn.

I had a friend of mine recently say how he really struggles with whether his kids should go to college: “I’m saving all this money. Should they spend it to get a degree? Or should they take it and try a startup? What’s actually the bigger gamble?” I’m a big proponent of encouraging young people to tackle bigger challenges, to start a business, or a hedge fund or a non-profit, or try and cure cancer.

Recently, I stumbled upon a tremendous article by Indra Sofian about education.

“Some people may ask: “But how do you expect kids to do all of those things when the vast majority of them don’t know what they really want to do in life? Or that they care more about relationships and playing video games?”That’s because we expect kids to do that. That’s because we created a system that focuses more on testing, ranking, and categorizing kids than teaching them actual skills, letting them do what they’re actually interested in, and helping them discover themselves. That’s because if a child wanted to do something beneficial to their future career or pertained to their interests that didn’t involve classes or one of the registered extracurricular activities, a school’s response is to tell them to do it on their own time. We create this system and tell kids to just play around in it and not deviate. Everything extraordinary we see other kids doing is extraordinary because those kids realized the system they were in and escaped it. In reality, every child has the potential do something great that they love.”

Ultimately, the only thing that we really have to build, whether we like it or not, is our own life. And if our kids have never really tried and failed at anything in a big way, then they’ll only have one shot in creating their life. And a lot of people are going to fail.

All of this about how children need to build things, acknowledge growth, fail, and learn; it all comes back to this idea from Haidt:

“People are quite good at challenging statements made by other people, but if it’s your belief, then it’s your possession — your child, almost — and you want to protect it, not challenge it and risk losing it.”

So how would we sum up the way we get better at challenging our beliefs? At arguing with ourselves?

My wife, per usual, explains it better — It is important that we learn to identify what Peter Senge identifies as “leaps of abstraction,” or generalizations not based in fact, within ourselves, and then ask yourself “what is the data, or evidence, on which I have based this assumption? And then move to asking “Am I able to admit that this assumption may not be based in fact?” It is essential that we are able to identify leaps of abstraction in order to create a more accurate understanding of reality.

We can argue all the livelong day about how everyone is wrong unless they agree with you. Unless you’re an omniscient being (if you are, ignore this next part, and just give me a call. We need to talk), you’re going to get some things wrong. The ability to stop and reflect on what you believe; that reflection will not only make it easier to identify areas where you are off base, it will also reinforce those areas where,after thinking through more deeply, you feel more assured of. And that ability to reinforce what we ought to believe, and correct what we ought not to, is more than likely the most important human characteristic going forward.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (Mark Twain)