Question Your Gurus

by Michael on September 20, 2010 · 0 comments

...or scarf your idols, either way... (Photo by Haversack)

This post is inspired by Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, but it’s something I’ve believed for a long time. Sit down, pour yourself a beverage, and ask yourself these hypotheticals:

  • What if you found out that a “fact” you use as the basis of a belief is not a fact at all, but a falsehood?
  • What if the world is significantly different from the way you believe it is?
  • What if someone you trust and respect is wrong?

If you’re reading this, you’re part of the Internet generation, and you’re inundated with ideas and statements. Some are good ideas; some are ideas doomed to fail. Some statements have grounding in fact, others were created because they fit that person’s narrative.

It’s hard to sort them all out. We can’t fact-check everything we read. So over time we come to trust some sources over others. And that can be good. On the other hand, we often trust our sources, our leaders, our gurus too much.

Why?

We Want Structure

Everyone develops a world view—the set of internal rules that make sense of everything around us and gives us structure in a complex world. But world views are as different as people:

  • One man believes it’s perfectly rational to rush and weave through traffic if he’s late for an important appointment; another curses out the obviously crazy guy who just cut him off on the freeway.
  • One believes creating jobs through government projects is the way out of a recession; another believes that tightening the belt and cutting taxes is the answer.
  • One believes the way to get women is to head to the clubs and out-Alpha the other men in the room; the other believes in striking up in-depth conversations with girls in the local coffee shop.

Once we’ve developed a world view, we seek out leaders who fit it. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad. They can teach us, and put the world into terms we can understand. But there’s a point when it becomes a problem: when our leaders, our gurus, choose to give us what we (or they) want to hear—what fits best into that world view—instead of what’s right or appropriate.

Talk radio hosts are the epitome of these “salesman” gurus: with hours of air time to fill every day, and their reputations created from strong opinions, they will extrapolate and magnify a speck of logic into an enormous ideological leap. And it works for them: the hosts with the strongest opinions are often the highest-rated. But there’s a tipping point when their desire to create fervent listeners trumps the need to dial back opinion and insert more facts. (This is not just about political commentators, sports-talk hosts are often just as guilty.)

When Facts Don’t Fit

When this support system inflates and strengthens a world view, a curious thing happens: facts that would weaken the world view are downplayed or ignored entirely. A recent study showed that faced with facts that directly contradicted a previously stated falsehood, most people chose to continue to believe the falsehood. In some cases, confronted with the truth, people believed the falsehoods even more!

Clearly, this is a difficult problem to solve. On a large scale, that’s simply how human beings operate. But on an individual level, how do you prevent falling for false or exaggerated statements, especially when you want to believe them?

Ask Questions for a Clearer Picture

In the study above, the researchers found that the best way to have people look at actual facts was not to keep repeating the facts: instead they asked questions that would force the respondent to question what they believed. To this end, the best way to fact-check your own world view is to constantly ask yourself questions. What in specific do you believe? What is open for debate? Let’s look at the above examples:

  • How much time do you actually gain with frequent lane changes in traffic? How much are you dependent on other drivers when you’re making fast lane changes? Do you trust them that much? What behavior are you willing to accept from other drivers, and do you agree you should adopt the same behavior?
  • What is the historic role of government in previous downturns? (Use multiple sources.) How did we exit the Great Depression, for example? What services should we cut in order to cut taxes? Do you know exactly what percentage of the budget the tax cuts and services account for?
  • Do the girls you meet in clubs have personalities you really want to be around when you wake up beside them? What if you instead befriended the other guys at the club and traded off as wingmen?

After you’re done questioning yourself, question your leaders. You may not be able to do that directly, so instead look for exaggerations and inconsistencies. Ask yourself whether a piece of the puzzle is missing. What are others saying? Are consequences really so bad or potential benefits really as good as they’re being portrayed?

Finally, use critical thinking to see the “other side” of each issue or bold statement. Give yourself quiet time to meditate and sort out your thoughts and develop new ideas. Learn that your world view is not, and cannot possibly be, a fixed perspective. The world changes. People change. Take new sources of information—especially sources you may not initially agree with—and incorporate them. Learn to sit down and ask polite questions of everyone, no matter what they believe.

I’m a born skeptic. (The best term would be “skeptical optimist,” but that would require more explanation.) Usually I assume there are holes in anything I read, and I look for them. Does that mean I think everyone’s full of crap? No, I just think nobody’s perfect.

Make your life’s goal one of learning, instead of preserving a fixed world view, and your life will improve in so many ways.

Yes, that’s a bold statement, and yes, feel free to ask me about it.

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