By Ryan W. Quinn
“I am bothered by the state of the world today,” a friend confided recently. “It’s reached a point where I feel so hopeless about the way our world is going that I feel frustrated, and sometimes I’m even upset around friends and family because of it. ”
He was not sure what to do about these feelings and needed a friend he could talk to openly about them. So I asked him to explain exactly what was bothering him about the state of the world. I thought his answer was profound. And troubling.
Turning Off Our Brains
The problems my friend saw were the same problems we hear about and discuss all the time: Conflicts on small and large scales that never seem to end, massive ethical lapses—business scandals, political scandals, sports scandals, and so on.
What seemed different to me about my friend’s observations is that he saw these problems as having two significant drivers: the human tendencies to avoid ambiguity and ignore any information that contradicts what we already believe.
Psychologists call the latter the “confirming evidence bias.” This bias is very well documented in the scientific literature, to the point that scientists have even shown that when people encounter confirming evidence (information that supports what they already believe), the pleasure centers in our brain fire, making us feel good about ourselves. In contrast, when we encounter disconfirming evidence, the critical reasoning centers in our brain turn off. In other words, once we take a position on an issue, we make an implicit decision to turn off our brains.
Reinforcing Brain Death
The confirming evidence bias is not a new discovery. But my friend’s observation was new to me in that our world is increasingly designed to help us keep our brains turned off. Take the Internet, for example: Through technologies like social networking, data mining, RSS feeds, and so forth, we have the ability to make sure we hardly ever have to encounter disconfirming evidence—let alone actually think about it.
My friend pointed out that structures like these enable us to avoid disconfirming evidence and ambiguity until we make ourselves blind to any part of the world we don’t want to see. Our blindness leads to crisis, and then we have more ambiguity and disconfirming evidence than we can handle. Given the scale of crises in our modern world, blinding ourselves until crises emerge seems like a pretty dangerous road to walk.
Where is the Positive?
You may, at this point, be wondering why I am bringing up such a depressing topic in a blog on positive organizational scholarship. It turns out that my friend and I had a wonderful discussion.
As we talked, our conversation prompted me to offer him a framework for accessing a positive exit from his negative feelings about the trouble our world is in: Gratitude exercises.
As we talked about this idea, we had an insight: Looking for things to be grateful about is a practice of looking for positive disconfirming evidence. For example, if I am concerned about the seeming endless problems of modern government, I could, instead, think about how Jennifer Flanagan and her colleagues cooperated across the aisle for the benefit of citizens in Massachusetts, or how activists rally exceptional movements in response to oppressive governments or guerilla leaders.
Negative stories may be more prominent in the news we read (and, as research suggests, not only read but even seek out to confirm our bias). But positive stories are out there. And the very act of finding something for which to be grateful is an act of seeking out disconfirming evidence. What’s more, because this disconfirming evidence is positive, it is seldom a threat, and has the potential to open our minds—rather than turn off our brains.
Imagine what effect it would have on the world if we would all go around looking for the wonderful ways in which we are wrong.