Jul 142010
 

surprise I was browsing around this morning and ran into a rather grim article over at the Boston Globe titled How Facts Backfire. It highlights psychological research which uncovers the interesting pattern that when people are deeply committed to a particular opinion, showing them facts that prove them conclusively wrong doesn’t change their opinion. It actually makes it stronger.

This bias also works on the positive side of course. We’ll gladly accept “facts” that confirm our opinions.

There is a substantial body of psychological research showing that people tend to interpret information with an eye toward reinforcing their preexisting views. If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t. This is known as “motivated reasoning.” Whether or not the consistent information is accurate, we might accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them.

Jumping to conclusions is actually a mental shortcut that served us well in survival situations. It can be unhealthy to stop and ponder whether this particular lion, unlike the last one you met, might in fact be friendly. Doubt and hesitation are unwelcome when decisive action is needed.

But this survival instinct can backfire, and it can be used against us to manipulate us by our leaders, our culture, and even our religions. Research shows that the stronger and more deeply held our opinions, the less likely we are to be swayed by any facts. And while we have no problem seeing this tendency in people who agree with us, the trick is to see it in ourselves.

The best defense against this and other cognitive biases is to be aware of them and to

 seriously ask ourselves, especially with regard to our dearest opinions, to which of them we might be falling victim.  I find it very helpful to make myself clearly and honestly adopt the motto, “I might be wrong”.

Many of my most transformative and wonderful experiences in life have been the result of discovering I was wrong about something. I’ve gotten to the point where I actually relish the th

rill of uncovering some new opinion or aspect of myself where false ideas are lurking. To find them opens us up to new experiences and new learning. Learn to embrace them.

As for convincing the unwilling of their errors, the article in the Globe is less than optimistic. As Von Schiller put it, “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain”. Lord Acton was a bit kinder, and put it like this:

“There are two things which cannot be attacked in front: ignorance and narrow-mindedness. They can only be shaken by the simple development of the contrary qualities. They will not bear discussion.”

The Globe article tends to agree. While occasionally a brutal assault of facts will change an entrenched opinion, the only thing that seemed to work well in changing wrong opinions was an overall increase in the opinion-holder’s self esteem. This makes perfect sense, as when we become identified with our opinions, they become part of our ego structure. To lose an opinion to which we’ve become attached is to lose a part of ourselves. Only if we have a strong self-worth are we comfortable risking that kind of danger.

At the bottom of it all, the primary negative emotion in this and so many other things is fear. Our little ego’s fear of being further diminished by having the ideas it associates with damaged. By identifying, instead, with our higher selves, we learn to trust. We feel safe opening ourselves up to change, because we have faith that our true selves will survive that change. We develop an attitude of love and acceptance toward the universe, and, as the writer of First John says, perfect love casts out fear.

Feb 172010
 

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.. (1 Jn 4:18 NKJV)

While fear is less and less a part of my life, there are still several situations that can cause me to panic. One is hypodermic needles. That’s improving. Another is sudden financial problems. The other day I opened my bank account online expecting to find a healthy balance only to find myself severely overdrawn. It turns out that when I had tried to make an online payment for $100.00 I had instead typed in 100,00 (a comma instead of a period). The company had processed a payment for $10,000.00 instead of $100.00 It took a week to straighten out, and my immediate reaction was panic to the point of having trouble breathing.

Fear is an instinctive reaction designed to make us alert and cautious in the presence of danger. This may be a very useful reaction when crossing a savanna teeming with lions. Unfortunately, our modern minds can create the mental experience of danger when there is no real physical threat. In the case of my mangled bank account, the actual situation was a matter of some pixels on a screen. There was no immediate threat or danger. My fear was the result of mental scenarios that my mind began to construct as it tried to process the implications of the error. Unfortunately, the mental reaction of fear was totally unhelpful in this situation. I needed a sense of perspective, clear objective judgment and cool reason. Instead I got tunnel vision and a body prepared to jump up a tree to escape a lion.

The spiritual roots of fear are even more destructive. Our ego, convinced of its separation from everything and everyone else, and conscious of its own mortality, constantly fears its own annihilation. The mind under the dominion of ego lives with a persistent background noise of existential fear. How do we escape it?

Since fear originates in the mind, practice in quieting the mind is a very helpful discipline to control fear. Meditation has many benefits, and this is one of them. A mind disciplined by meditation, like a well-trained horse, will not panic and throw its rider at the first sudden noise. Even if the horse jumps, like my mind did at the first sight of my negative bank balance, it can quickly be brought under control by the steady hand of consciousness. Meditation also shifts our consciousness away from the fearful ego and toward the greater Self, which is immortal, indestructible and beyond the reach of fear.

The passage from 1st John at the beginning of the article also suggests another spiritual practice that can help us. The way to escape the fear that torments us, says the author of John, is through perfect love. The Greek word for love here is “agape”, which is a rather difficult word to translate. It is not a simple human love. It is a divine, selfless openness and acceptance. It is a complete and total lack of resistance to the reality of the present moment, a surrender to the wisdom of God and the universe. It is a pure love for all that is, including the present situation.

In a post I did earlier, quoting from David Hawkins, I mentioned that this unconditional and universal love and acceptance is the first step to enlightenment. As a side benefit, as you perfect it, fear begins to disappear in your life.

There are other spiritual practices that can help transcend fear. People who have had near-death experiences report that the experience leaves them with a complete lack of fear. While we can’t deliberately have a near-death experience simply to cultivate this benefit, many of the same benefits can occur when we master astral travel, or out-of-body experiences. By having first-hand experience that we are more than just our physical bodies, and that our consciousness transcends our physical life, we lose some of our fear of physical dangers.

For particular phobias, hypnosis and self-hypnosis can also be helpful tools to rearrange our mental wiring.

Have you had good success with a particular method for overcoming fear? Share it with us in the comments.

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