Thursday, 29 April 2010

The feeling you're about to get smarter

As you might have noticed if you read this blog, I'm quite an aggressive rationalist - I'm big on introspection, and strive to be as rational, consistent and justified in my beliefs as possible. If someone demonstrates to me conclusively that I'm wrong I'll generally (at least: I'll try to) reverse my position on a dime.

Because I try not to invest identity in my opinions it's usually not too difficult to change a belief or position when new information or reasoning comes along. However, even I'll admit that despite my efforts in this area, It's Not Fun Being Wrong.

In particular, everyone hates that point in a discussion that most rational people experience occasionally, where you discover your argument has a gaping hole in it. You know the one - you get that sick, empty, vertiginous, see-sawing feeling where it feels like you've inched yourself out over a long drop because you trusted the plank you were standing on, only to notice now that it was apparently made of cardboard the whole time.

However, I've realised recently, that feeling is exciting and scary, but it should be savoured and sought-after, because it's the feeling you're about to get smarter.

It may feel unpleasant, but that doesn't mean it should be unpleasant - that's much more down to what we associate with the feeling than the feeling itself. For example, a muscular ache is rarely considered pleasant... and yet after a good workout we can even enjoy it. This is because - while the feeling is the same - when we've worked out hard out we often feel virtuous, and good about ourselves. Although our muscles ache, every time we notice it it's a reminder that we did something we think of as good, and that we're slightly fitter or healthier now (or can just eat an extra cream cake without feeling guilty) as a result.

Equally, it's usually unpleasant to have our insides jangled about, or to feel like we're falling, or to be out of control... and yet many people love roller-coasters. It's unpleasant to be frightened... but some people will watch horror movies for fun.

In every case, the important difference is that although the sensation might be unpleasant on its own, we recognise in each case that we're getting something greater out of it, that makes the uncomfortable sensation worth-while - health and fitness, or novelty, or entertainment and feeling more secure the rest of the time. Indeed, when we associate it strongly enough, you can find yourself searching out these unpleasant sensations, and relishing the discomfort because of what it signifies.

"Being wrong" is one such unpleasant sensation, but as pointed out above, it's actually the feeling that you've just become smarter. This is unambiguously a good thing... and yet we generally don't realise or acknowledge to ourselves that that's what's happening, so people often simply fixate on (or even actively, instinctively try to avoid) the unpleasant sensation.

What this means, then, is that as humans we very deeply, subconsciously, instinctively try to stop ourselves from becoming smarter, and we don't even realise we're doing it. Whatever we consciously tell ourselves, subconsciously we would rather feel good about ourselves and be wrong than be correct or rational in our opinions.

As you're reading this blog, I'll assume you're the kind of person who would rather be right (even if it's uncomfortable) than deluded but confident. This, then, is clearly a problem.

What to do about it?

The good news is that - because it's a subconscious association, it's malleable. You can change and modify (even, as we've seen, completely reverse) these associations with a little effort.

Try the following: next time you realise (or someone proves) you're wrong about something, stop and consciously acknowledge it to yourself. Try to hold and really feel that sensation of being wrong. Try to consciously acknowledge and analyse the emotions you're feeling - are you embarrassed? Ashamed? Annoyed? At the other person or yourself? Do you suddenly feel less sure of your place in the world, or your opinions on certain subjects? Can you feel that bruise on your ego?

Be brutally honest with yourself - if it helps, if you don't feel any of the above (or something similar), you're probably not human.

Now you're fully engaged, and aware of how you feel, try to modify it. Acknowledge that you're feeling bad, but remind yourself it's only because your ego is wounded. Realise that the only thing making you feel bad is egotism, but that even that is both instinctive (ie, uncontrollable and not your fault), and a normal part of being human.

Remind yourself that you want to be smart and right and rational about things, and remind yourself that what you're feeling is the feeling of getting smarter, that that's unambiguously good. Try to explicitly relate the uncomfortable sensation to the positive feelings you have about being smart, or correct, or rational in your beliefs. Nice, isn't it? So, like exercise, or taking care of paperwork, that feeling you initially shied away from or avoided is actually a good thing, even if it's briefly uncomfortable in the short term.

Once you're smarter or more right about a subject, you're generally smarter or more right about it for the rest of your life. Isn't that worth a brief, temporary, silly little sting?

Now you've got the hang of it, go out and try to find things you're wrong about. Read up on subjects that interest you. Challenge your beliefs and attitudes by seeking out dissenting opinions and viewpoints, and see if you can prove your existing opinions wrong. Treat it like an intellectual game of conkers - every time you're proven wrong you get a little bit smarter, and every time you win a debate you can reward yourself by being a little more confident in that opinion or line of reasoning.

Test your ideas by subjecting them to challenges, discard the ones which fail and adopt the ones which succeed. And remember - the whole time you're doing it, you're becoming smarter, more educated and more rational.