Asking and arguing

We have all experienced this I am sure. Probably we have been on both sides of this coin.

Someone you know consults with you for your opinion, no matter what the subject is. You give your opinion, if it is in disagreement with their own, they begin to argue with you. 

When people ask for an opinion they are pursuing one of two goals: Education or Confirmation. In the case of someone seeking education they are trying to extract some information and update their own knowledge, either in the abstract or in the concrete (i.e. “what is this thing that I have”).

Based on people’s psychological makeup, and their reason for pursuing this hobby or anything similar, they will have a natural inclination to one path or the other. People who simply seek out confirmation will eventually find it, and they will sort out their opinions of everyone else based on whether or not they receive confirmation of their existing beliefs. It is not just with collectors of antiques or art, it goes for politics, religion, or who you think the best quarterback in the NFL is. 

This flowchart illustrates the two different paths someone seeking education and someone seeking confirmation follow. This is very important to be aware of because it is human nature to seek out confirmation of our existing beliefs and biases. It interferes with our judgment and ability to learn when we seek confirmation instead of education. 

Denial

The person who seeks confirmation will continually ask the same question of everyone they can find, until they receive a positive result. When they receive that positive result, they then characterize the person offering it to them as worthy of their respect. If the answer is a bad answer, but what they want to hear, this becomes a poisoned well that they will return to time and time again. Every time they return to that poisoned well, they descend deeper into a well of denial. Once they go down deep enough there is no longer enough time left in their life and it is too traumatic an experience to attempt to extract themselves, as they will fight tooth and nail to remain in denial. Usually a catastrophic event is necessary to extract someone from this depth of denial. People will go so far as to hold mutually contradictory ideas in their heads in order to remain in denial.

Such a set of ideas may be something like this:

  1. This political leader is a moral person and a good leader.
  2. This leader seems to act in immoral ways

Mostly the 2nd item on this list will be outright dismissed in spite of solid evidence as the primary form of resolving the cognitive dissonance. If forced to accept the contradictory ideas, then a rationalization to explain the contradictory and unpleasant fact is generated.

When it comes to a collector, this may be a primary idea and then a secondary fact forced onto the collector against his will but undeniable:

  1. I believe I have found the Honjo Masamune.
  2. This sword does not match the Honjo Masamune oshigata.

This may be resolved either by dismissing the second fact in spite of it being undeniable, in which case they cannot be reasoned with at all (i.e. it is still the Honjo Masamune, the oshigata is just wrong), or they will retreat and rationalize into a new set of ideas.

  1. It may not be the Honjo Masamune but it is certainly a masterpiece of Masamune
  2. This is why I thought it was the Honjo Masamune but it doesn’t match the oshigata

This is an act of moving the goalposts to maintain the primary idea that the person wants to hole (i.e. in this case that they have found a Masamune). 

I see this all the time with people who have fakes in their collection, as when presented with an unassailable attack on the signature for instance, they will retreat with the following, descending set of rationalizations:

  1. Signatures are not so important, you are too focused on the signature.
  2. Maybe the signature is not correct, but the work is, perhaps it was signed by a student.
  3. Maybe the signature and work are both work not correct, but it is certainly a masterpiece.
  4. Perhaps you don’t know what you’re talking about.

This is what we would call a rear guard action. Part of their brain is accepting the logic of what they’re being told, while the other part of their brain is throwing up rationalizations as they retreat to safer ground. The only thing they are clinging to is the idea that I have recognized and found a masterpiece and this is the unassailable fact that they won’t want to give up. The final rationalization may be quietly said in their brain, which is to simply dismiss the person offering unpleasant facts and thereby, dismiss the facts and maintain a state of denial.

And of course, the fourth part may be true. But whenever someone wants to think this thought, that a contrary source may not know what they are talking about, then they also need to be wise and consider that it applies also to themselves.

Resolution of denial is difficult

At some point, anyone trying to force them to reconcile the fact that the two ideas are contradictory will give up. The result is an echo chamber where the only external information that they will ever hear is only information that agrees with their existing biases. This both confirms the biases to be true, and confirms the expertise of those offering the information to them.

The psychology involved is cognitive dissonance

It happens because it is mentally painful to address a past history of holding a false belief. People resolve this mental anguish by refusing to relinquish the false belief and accept the truth. 

I knew a girl when I was younger who told me the following when I told her jokingly she was in denial.

There is no problem being in denial. All of the problems are when you come out of denial.

And therein lies the rub and why people seek out confirmation instead of knowledge. 

Because of this, a savvy judge will want to understand the mental disposition of a student or a petitioner before knowing how frankly they can speak with them. Also the fact that reasonable people do not want to hold unreasonable arguments constantly with confirmation seekers means that they will offer a pat on the head instead of a frank and somewhat unpleasant judgment that can be learned for educational purposes. The side effect again is that the confirmation seeker will descend ever deeper into denial and more confirmation seeking behavior.

The wise girl who said the above also said this:

I wonder why my psychic never told me this would happen.

And to any reasonable person the answer is there on its face about why your psychic failed to tell you a correct version of your future. However to the confirmation seeker, there will always be a loophole through which they can jump in order to retain their existing belief system. Though this girl was wise enough to know that staying in denial allowed her to avoid the mental anguish of resolving past and current false beliefs, she was not wise enough to apply it directly to her opinions on her psychic’s lack of accurate results.

Any and all of us need to make important decisions as early as possible, which is to maintain an open mind to any new information and try to assess it as objectively as possible. Handy rules of thumb like Occam’s Razor exist and are guidelines to help us sort our way through a maze of information. 

One difficulty present is that when seeking knowledge and education, you first need to judge the judge, or judge the teacher. Lacking expertise yourself, you will not have the right basis to know if a particular person offering up knowledge is himself a fool or a savant. There is no other recourse in these situations other than to use a little bit of common sense, to survey public opinion (and realize that you may be asking people in denial themselves for advice), and then to take this whole mess of opinion and try to filter it for a reasonable conclusion (using Occam’s Razor). 

You do not need to seek out an infallible teacher, because they do not exist. Nor should you expect infallible answers.

You need to be in a position where you can understand that two worthy experts or teachers can disagree on a subject and you can accept both points of view to some extent. In this way, real answers can be nothing other than a probability function that tells you both A and B are possible, with one being more likely than the other, and the truth being difficult to know lacking any further data. This does not impugn either judge if it is an honest and scholarly disagreement.

But always it’s necessary to understand that a wise man constantly questions his own knowledge while a fool believes they have all the answers. 

And in other situations the truth is cut and dried and anyone who wants to disagree with it can be holding a completely untenable position, being nothing more than a flat earther. 

In all of this, listening, studying, gathering information and sifting it, is all to your benefit. 

At the end of the day if you are going to tear down experts in order to substantiate your own belief system, you need to be standing on a rock solid foundation of facts and knowledge. The vast majority of people who want to tear down experts don’t have this: all they have is cognitive dissonance and the desire to make the dissenting information go away, and for that reason they attack the sources of the dissenting information as that will resolve the mental anguish and make the unpleasant facts go away. 

We all have this in us to some degree, as I said it’s human nature.

You are your own worst enemy, never forget it and continue to ask yourself why you are believing what you want to believe. Is it because you want to be right, or is it because the facts are undeniable?

Leave a Reply