Cognitive Dissonance: the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values
Motivated Reasoning: refers to the unconscious tendency of individuals to process information in a manner that suits some end or goal extrinsic to the formation of accurate beliefs
Confirmation Bias: the tendency to search for, interpret, or remember information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses
It doesn’t matter who you are, how smart you are, or how open you are to new ideas. People are hardwired to hold on to existing information and to internalize beliefs. We get a glimpse of this by listening to people’s subconscious speech patterns; for instance, when an atheist says “Oh my god”.
There was an evolutionary advantage to this internalization and inclination towards patterns, even though these internalized assumptions might have been incorrect. The advantage was a simpler framework by which to understand the world, life-saving risk/benefit analysis, and more accurate memory. For instance, pattern recognition would have been helpful when remembering that a member of your tribe died after they ate a certain fruit or were bitten by a particular insect; therefore, it’s very important to stay away from that fruit or insect.
If I’m in a conversation, either in-person or online, and I’m forced to defend a position, I often end up making sloppy arguments because I am in a hurry to talk about the points I want to make; in the process, I reveal some of the “shorthand” I perform in my brain, and these shortcuts do not always translate to well-formed arguments.
In order to honestly assess a claim, and not just engage in motivated reasoning for the sake of confirmation bias and to avoid cognitive dissonance, I think there are a certain number of questions one must consider.
1. Does this claim appear true?
2. Is this claim logically sound?
3. Does this claim reveal weaknesses in my own beliefs?
4. Does this claim reveal weaknesses in the underlying ideology it supports?
5. Is this claim, or its implications, significantly different from the beliefs I have?
A. If yes, have I evaluated the truth value of this claim? Am I confident that my evaluation was an honest one? Does it merit re-evaluation?
B. If no, then determine if there are any details to learn from my counterpart
I’m sure there are more questions to consider when honestly considering a claim or position, but these are the ones on the top of my head.
It’s hard to honestly assess the claims people make. It requires a lot of thought and a lot of processing, and a lot of examination of deeply held and internalized beliefs that you currently hold. This is nearly impossible to do in the heat of the moment, when multiple claims are being put forward in a short time span.
It doesn’t help that we have internal mechanisms, both social and physiological, that make us disinclined to admit we’re wrong. It is indeed a matter of personal growth to not only recognize when your position is faulty, but also to admit when your position is inferior to your opponent’s.
But this internalization can reveal our willingness to trade reason for dogma. For instance, consider debating religion with a person who literally believes they will spend eternity in hell if they accept your position. The more internalized a belief is, the less likely a person will honestly assess their belief.
This is the reason why religion is so motivated to indoctrinate children. There is no better way to internalize ideas than to force children to accept them. It’s easy, too, because most children don’t have the intellectual toolset to challenge the absurdity of the claims you make – they trust adults. You can literally get children to believe anything – Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy, The Easter Bunny, Chocolate-delivering leprechauns. The list goes on and on.
As I’ve gotten to think more about the problems associated with institutionalized religion, I’ve come to see it as a malignant force – a cancer on humanity. When we put such an emphasis on indoctrinating children based on faith, we undo their natural capacity for skepticism, logical thought, and the ability to reason. And we replace these tools with blind faith and decreased confidence in their built-in moral compass.