Confronting Erroreous Thinking: A Lost Art

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you
know for sure that just ain’t so.” -Mark Twain

The snail at left has no business ascending or descending a tall tree.  But there he is.  How did he get there?  If he’s climbing, it is a one way trip to disaster.  If he’s coming back to the ground on which he belongs, he took a wrong turn unlike any other in snail-dom travels.  One can only imagine how desperately wrong he had to have been to find himself in this predicament. How long did it take for him to realize he was headed in the wrong direction?  Did no one warn him?  Did he not heed the warning?

How snail-like are we when our thinking is erroneous?  How easy is it correct erroneous conclusions?  When someone is clearly headed in the wrong direction, can we prevent the lost time, embarrassment or mere inconvenience her error has caused her.

As a culture we are amazingly resistant to being corrected.  “Don’t confuse me with the facts.”  Even more amazingly, we are even less adept at correcting someone’s mistaken impressions.  When the emperor is not wearing clothes, we simply won’t tell her.  And when the court counselor has his hat on inside out before going to advise the emperor, we are far more likely to let him fail than save him from embarrassment, or worse.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  A fascinating study recently published by University of Michigan (“Go Blue”) health policy professor Brendan Nyhan and Georgia State University assistant professor of politics Jason Reifler has far reaching implications for conflict management and public policy. (When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions)  Using a series of controlled studies, Nyhan and Reifler illustrate how easy it is to alter a person’s misinformed thinking by confronting it promptly and directly.  In other words, the emperor will get dressed if we let him know it is in his best interests to do so.

However, if a misperception has matured into belief, confronting the error in thought will actually backfire and further entrench the erroneous thinking.  If the emperor believes she looks great in her royal robes, telling her she’s naked will only result in an insistence that she display her new wardrobe more defiantly and more publicly.

If we are to restore our society to rational thought, we need to learn how to promptly, directly and respectfully confront thinking that can lead to unfortunate outcomes.  If we are concerned about the wrong turns people take conceptually, we owe it to them to tell them.  Remaining silent doesn’t merely perpetuate ignorance, it promotes it.

However, our failure to exercise this caring skill will encourage people to believe what should not be trusted.  Once they do so, telling them they took a wrong turn will only make them move further up the tree and away from safety.

What does this tell us about political discourse?  Partisanship only feeds more partisanship and less reasonable dialog.  Those who hold extreme positions demonize those who hold opposing views.  Reason has nothing to do with it.

Let’s learn how to respectfully tell the emperor he’s nude, before he comes to believe he looks ravishing in his nakedness.


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