the willingness to search actively for evidence against one’s favored beliefs, plans, or goals, and to weigh such evidence fairly when it is available. Being open-minded does not imply that one is indecisive, wishy-washy, or incapable of thinking for one’s self. After considering various alternatives, an open-minded person can take a firm stand on a position and act accordingly. The opposite of open-mindedness is what is called the myside bias which refers to the pervasive tendency to search for evidence and evaluate evidence in a way that favors your initial beliefs. Most people show myside bias, but some are more biased than others.
Benefits of Open-Mindedness
Research suggests the following benefits of open-mindedness:
- Open-minded, cognitively complex individuals are less swayed by singular events and are more resistant to suggestion and manipulation.
- Open-minded individuals are better able to predict how others will behave and are less prone to projection.
- Open-minded individuals tend to score better on tests of general cognitive ability like the SAT or an IQ test. (Of course we don’t know whether being open-minded makes one smarter or vice versa.)
Open-Mindedness as a “Corrective Virtue”
Social and cognitive psychologists have noted widespread errors in judgment/thinking to which we are all vulnerable. In order to be open-minded, we have to work against these basic tendencies, leading virtue ethicists to call open-mindedness a corrective virtue.
In addition to the myside bias described above, here are three other cognitive tendencies that work against open-minded thinking:
- Selective Exposure – We maintain our beliefs by selectively exposing ourselves to information that we already know is likely to support those beliefs. Liberals tend to read liberal newspapers, and Conservatives tend to read conservative newspapers.
- Primacy Effects – The evidence that comes first matters more than evidence presented later. Trial lawyers are very aware of this phenomenon. Once jurors form a belief, that belief becomes resistant to counterevidence.
- Polarization – We tend to be less critical of evidence that supports our beliefs than evidence that runs counter to our beliefs. In an interesting experiment that demonstrates this phenomenon Anchor, researchers presented individuals with mixed evidence on the effectiveness of capital punishment on reducing crime. Even though the evidence on both sides of the issue was perfectly balanced, individuals became stronger in their initial position for or against capital punishment. They rated evidence that supported their initial belief as more convincing, and they found flaws more easily in the evidence that countered their initial beliefs.
What Encourages Open-Mindedness?
Research suggests that people are more likely to be open-minded when they are not under time pressure. (Our gut reactions aren’t always the most accurate.)
Individuals are more likely to be open-minded when they believe they are making an important decision. (This is when we start making lists of pros and cons, seeking the perspectives of others, etc.)
Some research suggests that the way in which an idea is presented can affect how open-minded someone is when considering it. For example, a typical method of assessing open-mindedness in the laboratory is to ask a participant to list arguments on both sides of a complicated issue (e.g., the death penalty, abortion, animal testing). What typically happens is that individuals are able to list far more arguments on their favored side. However, if the researcher then encourages the participant to come up with more arguments on the opposing side, most people are able to do so without too much difficulty. It seems that individuals have these counter-arguments stored in memory but they don’t draw on them when first asked.
Exercises to Build Open-Mindedness
Catherine Freemire, a clinical therapist and professional coach renowned for her creative thinking, came up with three exercises for building open-mindedness:
- Select an emotionally charged, debatable topic (e.g., abortion, prayer in school, healthcare reform, the current war in Iraq) and take the opposite side from your own. Write five valid reasons to support this view. (While typing Catherine’s idea, I had a related one of my own: If you are conservative in your political beliefs, listen to Al Frankin’s radio show; if you are liberal, listen to Rush Limbaugh! While you are listening, try to avoid the cognitive error of polarization described above.)
- Remember a time when you were wronged by someone in the past. Generate three plausible reasons why this person inadvertently or intentionally wronged you.
- This one is for parents: Think of a topic that you consistently argue about with your teen or grown child. Now, take their position and think of 3 substantial reasons why their point of view is valid. (This could also be done with spouses or any family members for that matter!)
The dictionary defines open mindedness as: “receptive to arguments or ideas.” One way to measure open-mindedness is to test for close-mindedness, and then take the converse. A subject for our measurement can be asked if he views certain proposals as impossible. By impossible we do not mean mathematically impossible, but so unlikely as to be considered absurd. Belief in impossibility is a sign of close-mindedness, because it reflects the unwillingness of the subject to be “receptive” to the possibility.
Test Your Open-mindedness – 20 Questions
- Do you resist admitting the possibility that a conservative approach to education is far more effective for students than a liberal one?
- If it were proven to your satisfaction that some idea you’ve been using to bolster a political argument was false, would you keep using that idea in your argument?
- Do you resist admitting that something you accepted for over a decade is, in fact, completely false?
- Do you resist the possibility that Hollywood values result in significant harm for those who believe in them, and to innocent bystanders?
- Do you think it is impossible that increased gun ownership reduces the rate of crime?
- When President Ronald Reagan told Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, would you have thought that it was politically impossible for the Berlin Wall to be torn down?
- Did you think, or still think, that the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) is impossible?
- Do you think that it is impossible that the Shroud of Turin is authentic?
- Do you think that there must be a purely material-based explanation (such as magnetism) for remarkable homing and migration behavior of birds and butterflies?
- Do you think that it is impossible for the speed of light to have been different in the past?
- Do you think that it is impossible to measure openmindedness?
- Do you think that evolution must have occurred?
- Do you think that is impossible for the power of 2 in Newtonian gravity, whereby the gravitational force is proportional to 1/r2, to be more precise with an exponent that is slightly different from 2, such as a gravitational force proportional to 1/r2.00000001?
- Do you resist admitting that some things taught to you in school are completely false, and even known to be false by some responsible for the material?
- Do you deny that some widely required theories of science, such as the theory of evolution, may actually impede the progress of science?
- Do you deny that the imposition of socialism and same-sex marriage on a nation could harm its competitiveness at international events like the Olympics?
- Do you refuse to consider the possibility that “experts” may not have all the answers, and that the best of the public may have valuable insights to which experts are blind?
- Do you think that if you read parts of the Bible years ago as a child, you can claim to “have read the Bible” and that you have no reason to read it regularly now?
- Do you believe that because the Earth’s orbit and rotation are what they are now, they are guaranteed to remain stable for billions of years?
- Do you refuse to consider the possibility that the Epistle to the Hebrews might have been authored by Jesus?
The above questions can be asked, and one’s closed-mindedness can be scored based on how often they answered “yes” above. Answering more than half as “yes” reflects acute closed-mindedness.
For each topic, a short set of follow-up questions is appropriate:
Have you seriously considered the evidence for this idea?
- a. If no, then is that because you have never heard of it?
- i. If if you have never heard of it, then will you seriously consider the evidence?
- ii. If you have heard of it, but have never seriously considered the evidence, then on this question you lose a point for lack of open-mindedness.
- b. If yes, then how much time have you spent reviewing the evidence? What evidence did you look at?
- i. If less than 1 hour, then you lose a point for lack of open-mindedness.
- ii. If more than 1 hour, then … [Optional question: When, where, what and how did you review the evidence? If the answers are consistent with your claim of spending more than an hour, then …] … you gain a point for open-mindedness.
- iii. If you have not reviewed the evidence due to lack of time or interest, have you formed an opinion about the idea anyway?
A more sophisticated approach would be to replace the time threshold (an hour in the above example) with an analog version or formula that converted time spent reviewing the evidence of a new idea into a variable for openmindedness. For example, the open-mindedness variable O could be:
where t is the time spent in minutes. O could then be summed over a series of topics, and normalized by dividing it by the number of topics.