Your Ideological Mold

No one ever thinks inside a vacuum, untainted by cultural and cognitive biases.

Our beliefs and values are shaped by our life experiences and the thinking we do to make sense of these experiences. This thinking follows a finite set of possibilities, limited by experience and ignorance.

Our upbringing plays a major role in how we see the world and ourselves. We are brought up with beliefs about what is true and what is right, and these early teachings tend to define the general direction our thinking will take in later years. It creates an ideological mold that shapes future thinking.

We may believe our thinking is objective, but for the most part, it’s simply an expression of our biases and the shape our worldview has taken.

I’ve had discussions with people from different religions and religious denominations, and they all seem to believe that their worldview is 100% correct and perfectly rational. They’re unaware of the fact that their thinking is based largely on rationalization, not rationality.

They select the facts that support their views, and omit those that don’t. They thread their arguments in a way that fits their outlook, without realizing the patchwork they had to do and the fallacies they had to use.

This isn’t done out of intellectual dishonesty. Many people are honest and make a sincere effort to think clearly, but they’re unaware of the ideological mold that has shaped their thinking and, therefore, cannot see the validity of any alternative. Everything else seems wrong because it simply doesn’t fit their worldview. It’s irrational, according to their mold.

Willingness to listen to other people’s views doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re open-minded, when your thinking is shaped by an ideological mold you refuse to question or break out of. In fact, exposure to other beliefs and cultures may solidify your prejudices out of fear of losing your convictions or identity.

Immigrants have the choice to assimilate into the culture they are living in, or to isolate themselves. Muslims in a country like Britain can hold more extremist views than a Muslim in a country like Kuwait because their religious beliefs have become more a matter of identity than ideology.

This doesn’t mean that we can never be objective. But to be objective, we need to be aware of our ideological mold, and the influence it has on our thinking.

Below are a few steps you can take towards objectivity:

  1. Your goal must always be to find the truth and never to justify your existing beliefs. Are you sincere in wanting the truth, or are you reluctant to change your views? Are you willing to admit when you’re wrong, or will you do what it takes to defend your biases?
  2. Don’t identify with your existing beliefs. That’s a surefire way to enter Rationalization mode, rather than Rationality mode.
  3. Identify the assumptions and arguments you’ve built your beliefs on. Question those. What are the supporting facts? Are they really facts? What are the supporting arguments? Are there arguments against your beliefs? How valid are they?
  4. Learn more about critical thinking, logical fallacies, and cognitive biases. You need to apply valid reasoning in your thinking and weed out faulty arguments. Learning more about correct thinking will help expose the errors in your present thinking. An error is defined by the gap between your beliefs and reality.
  5. Use the Golden Rule of Intelligence. Don’t use arguments in support of your beliefs if you wouldn’t accept similar arguments in support of other beliefs. If you are a Christian, would you consider verses from the Koran as proof? If not, don’t expect a Muslim to accept verses from the Bible as proof. Would you accept “I have a feeling that it’s right” as an argument? If not, don’t make similar arguments. Identifying the faulty arguments used in support of other beliefs will help you identify the faulty arguments you use in support of your own. Then stop using them.
  6. See other people’s beliefs from their point of view, not your own. Projecting your prejudices on the beliefs of others is a good sign you’re not being objective. Try their worldview on. How do they see the world? What evidence do they use in support of their arguments?

It’s crucial that we constantly refine our thinking and to never settle with our present level of understanding. Our views must always remain flexible and open to new information and correction.

What tips would you add to breaking out of an ideological mold and build a more realistic one?

The Biased Burden

I remember watching a Kuwaiti comedy sketch a long, long time ago that went something like this…

A male employer was interviewing two women for a secretary job: one was a hopeless bimbo and the other was the closest human approximation to a troll.

He desperately wanted to hire the bimbo, and so made the interview questions a lot simpler for her. And with all the help he was offering, she still struggled to give the right answers. The troll, on the other hand, was very intelligent, and answered his questions with ease.

Towards the end of the interview he asks the bimbo about the number of deaths in some war (I don’t remember which): “Was it 10,000? Or 10,000? Or 10,000?”

After some thought, the bimbo hesitantly replies: “Ummm… 10,000?”

“That’s right! Bravo! You’re a smart girl!” He screams with delight. “And you,” he turns to the troll with a look of disgust: “What are the names of all the 10,000?”

The troll takes out a thick volume and says: “I have their names right here!”

I’ve noticed a similar bias in many religious and political discussions, where the “burden of proof” in support of one’s own opinions is extremely light, but enormously heavy on others.

“As we all know…”, “It’s obvious that…”, “Only an idiot would doubt that…”

These are the types of arguments we may present. But we expect others to present case studies, academic papers or physical evidence to prove their points. And even then we may question the evidence.

I noticed this biased burden a lot recently when talking about the politics of the Middle East.

Person A claims that the US is behind the uprising in Syria, because it wants to control the whole Middle East by removing the governments hostile to Israel. The argument? “It’s well known that…”

Person B claims that Iran is supplying Syria with weapons and fighters to quell the uprising. The argument? “It’s obvious that…”

Person A rejects Person B’s claim by demanding proof: “Name me one Iranian who was fighting in Syria. Just one!”

Even though Person A hasn’t given any evidence that shows US involvement in Syria, he wants much more proof from Person B than he’s able to give in defense of his claims.

And if Person B does give a name, Person A might ask for his shoe size and the color of his underwear.

That’s how the biased burden usually works.

The Solution? To present as much evidence in support of our views as we expect others to present in support of theirs.

Note: Please don’t start an argument about the example I used. 🙂

The beginning…

Once upon a time, I was reading a wonderful book called Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, which introduced me to the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition.

Reading about the Dreyfus model made me feel like a doofus, because I had thought of a very similar learning model a year earlier, but didn’t pursue the idea because I didn’t think I was smart enough, or knowledgeable enough to be able to propose such a model. Besides, the model I was coming up with needed refining, and since I wasn’t 100% certain that the model is accurate, I thought it best not to share it with the world.

But the fact is, all our thinking is work in progress. We continuously refine our thoughts, and the more we express them and get feedback about them, the more we are able to improve on them.

This blog is my way of sharing my ideas before I fully develop them, and to learn from the experiences and ideas my readers are willing to share and contribute.