Remember this iconic scene from the movie Forrest Gump? After undertaking an epic run across America that attracted a band of followers, Forrest stopped running. He simply stopped. In the middle of US 163 through historic Monument Valley. No compulsion to explain. No need for approval. No fear of judgment. No embarrassment. No ego.
Forrest Gump is a sublimely humble fellow. Most of us other humans find it harder to keep the demons of the ego at bay. Obstinacy, defensiveness, the desire for control, the impulse to judge others and—underlying all the rest—fear. Fear of being judged, fear of rejection, fear of isolation, and perhaps ultimately, the fear of death.
These manifestations of the ego are the ultimate buzz-kill, standing as a barrier to joy. They are also toxic to human communication and connection.
But what if we could simply stop?
What if we were able to recognize, for example, the sensation of defensiveness when it starts to arise in a conversation, and simply stop? Stop, constrain our knee-jerk reaction, and then perhaps even disempower the demon by naming it. Hmm, I’m feeling just a little bit defensive right now.
In the midst of arguing a position, what if we were willing to stop? Stop, roll up our sleeves and sit down at the table.
What if we were willing just for a moment to drop our fear of being wrong? What if, in allowing ourselves to hear and absorb new input, we were actually willing, like Forrest Gump in the middle of the desert, to reverse our direction?
Instead of stubbornly defending—and often even doubling down on—our own position at all costs, what if we were actually willing to change our mind in the light of new information?
Effective communication obviously does not require us to change our minds. But it does compel us to give sincere consideration to new input. And if that input is both factual and compelling, then emulating Forrest Gump is not only right but empowering.
It seems, however, that facts do not necessarily change our minds, thanks to a faulty thinking phenomenon called confirmation bias (also known as myside bias)—our tendency to embrace information that supports our beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more vividly evident than in American politics right now, where the rejection of science and reason has become commonplace. In Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, psychiatrist Jack Gorman and his daughter, Sara Gorman—a public-health specialist—are especially concerned with persistent beliefs that are not just verifiably false but also potentially deadly, like the conviction that vaccines are hazardous.
Compounding the pitfalls of myside bias is another phenomenon called the illusion of explanatory depth. This is our tendency to believe that we know way more than we actually do.
But there is a flicker of hope here. In a study conducted in 2012, participants were asked to rate their positions on specific issues depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with proposals presented on those issues. They were then asked to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each proposal. At this point, most people ran into trouble. And when asked again to rate their views, they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.
In other words, they discovered themselves able to stop.
The cognitive scientists who conducted this study suggest that if we—or our friends, or the pundits on CNN—spent less time preaching and more time trying to understand the actual implications of policy proposals, we would realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. “This may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”
So imagine if we were indeed willing to stop.
Imagine if we were willing to be wrong. Imagine if we were willing to change our minds when changing our minds is appropriate. Imagine if our leaders and representatives were willing to do that.
Ironically, this willingness to stop is an expression of strength. And its reward is an experience of empowerment.
Oh, and by the way, Deepak Chopra tells us that going beyond the ego is also the path to bliss!
Have a blissful day!