Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Who’s More Open-minded, You or Them?

Eight popular but flawed tests, and one reliable one

Who’s More Open-Minded?  This question comes up a lot and often leads to dug-heeled arguments between people closed to the possibility that they’re closed-minded.

I count eight popular but flawed tests by which people claim they can tell who is more open- and closed-minded.  I’ve long wondered what test would be better and I think I’ve got one.

First, the eight flawed tests:

Flawed Test #1:  People who believe wrong things are closed-minded.

“I swear, he’s the most closed-minded guy I know. He still thinks Obama is a worse president than Bush!”

If there were straightforwardly right and wrong answers to all questions, this might be a better test, but there aren’t. Some questions are more straightforwardly answerable than others:

Physical vs. Living systems:  Believing that water boils at room temperature is wrong, but believing that people are all selfish is a matter of speculation.

Past vs. Future:  Believing that the Holocaust never happened is wrong, but believing that Global Warming will kill billions is a matter of speculation. 

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Fact vs. Taste: Believing that 2+2=5 is wrong but believing that Justin Bieber sucks is a matter of speculation. 

On matters of speculation, when you say a belief is wrong you generally mean that it counters what you or most people believe. Disagreeing with you or the majority doesn’t make someone closed-minded.

Flawed Test #2:  People who believe unusual things are more open-minded. 

Well, I believe 9-11 was a Bush Conspiracy.  I guess that means I’m more open-minded than you.” 

The reverse test—that people who subscribe to conventional wisdom are more closed-minded—is also flawed. Popularity is an un-dicator a sign that doesn’t indicate either way on how true something is, how confident you should be about it and therefore how open—or closed-minded you are. Sometimes the minority proves right; sometimes the majority does.

Flawed Test #3:  Indifference is open-mindednes. 

“I don’t have an opinion about it. I embrace all possibilities as equally likely. I guess I’m just more open-minded than you.”

Not knowing and not caring are often mistaken for each other. We would call someone receptive if he eagerly seeks an answer he doesn’t have, but not if he’s open to all possibilities because he doesn’t care.  Someone who doesn’t care about religion or politics won’t care about differences between faiths or parties.  Not caring isn’t open-mindedness, but obliviousness.

Flawed Test #4:  The open-minded may well be steadfast, committed, discerning, devoted, dedicated, principled, but only the closed-minded are judgmental, stubborn, pigheaded, prejudiced or biased.

“No, that’s not a judgment; it’s my steadfast commitment.  I don’t judge. I’m more open-minded than that.”

We have lots of value-laden ways to describe closed-mindedness—some positive; some negative. We’re proud that we’re committed but not stubborn, principled but not judgmental, discerning but not prejudiced, devoted but not biased.

Likewise, we have value laden ways to describe open-mindedness. For example, we’re proud to be flexible receptive and accommodating, but not spineless, flakey, wishy-washy.

But how can one tell the difference between commitment and stubbornness, receptive and wishy-washy? The difference turns out to be a matter of subjective taste, not objective fact. One man’s commitment is another man’s stubbornness.  One man’s receptivity is another man’s wishy-washiness. 

You can imagine how this confounds trying to figure out who is open- or closed-minded. “I’m open minded because I’m principled but not judgmental; you’re closed minded because you’re judgmental not principled,” basically amounts to “I’m open-minded because I like my commitments.  You’re closed-minded because I don’t like your commitments.”

Unreliable Test #5:  A strong opinion about one thing indicates general closed-mindedness.

“It’s like she’s on a crusade or something. Her cause absolutely consumes her. She’s so closed-minded.  I’m dead certain I’m more open-minded than that!”

Everyone is closed-minded about certain things, even if it’s just dead certainty that one is open-minded. How much closed-mindednesses does it take to prove that someone is fundamentally closed-minded? And which ones? There’s no clear answer. And yet we often rely on this popular but flawed test. Some champions of open-mindedness go so far as too insist that the truly open-minded harbor no strong opinions.  We should always be open-minded, never attached to our beliefs, which means that we should always hold all of our beliefs lightly, as though that were even an option. It isn’t because committed beliefs are how we stay focused enough to get things done.  We need some closed-mindedness. Open-mindedness is not always a good thing.  Committed spouses hope their partners aren’t too open-minded about whether to stay married.  Committed infants hope their parents aren’t too open-minded about whether to keep supporting them. 

Flawed Test #6 People who don’t agree with you after you’ve laid out lots of strong and reasonable arguments are closed-minded. 

“Really?!? I give you all of those reasons and you still disagree? Lord, you ARE close-minded.”

Closed-mindedly you believe that you shouldn’t commit suicide.  Now, a good lawyer at a good price could supply you mountains of reasons you should commit suicide: You should sacrifice your life to a good cause, give not one but both kidneys to people who otherwise won’t live as long as you already have, donate your assets to the destitute. The list goes on, none of it credible enough to change your mind.

There are reasons for and against any proposition.  The lawyer could argue long and hard for your suicide without ever touching on the arguments against it. And no case covers all of the possible arguments pro and con. So the length and strength of a case made doesn’t indicate when if ever you should be required to change your mind.  You may be receptive to the lawyer’s arguments and yet not been persuaded by them because you have other reasons.  This doesn’t make you closed-minded.

Flawed Test #7: People who won’t listen are closed-minded

“Wow. You’re not even going to listen to me? Are you closed-minded or what?!?”

You’ve heard plenty of arguments pro and con and you’ve made up your mind. Your time and attention are limited so you’re no longer receptive to re-hearing arguments you’ve already heard and considered. At some point you’ll say “I’ve heard that all before,” and stop listening. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re closed-minded on a particular question or more generally.

Flawed Test #8:  Never changing your mind indicates that you’re closed-minded.

“I’ve never once seen you change your mind about anything.  You must be closed-minded.”

Just because someone hasn’t seen you change your mind doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t or won’t. Nor does it mean you should, since it is possible to place and stick to good bets all lifelong not because you’re closed-minded but because they’re good bets.

I’ve argued here that we will and should sometimes hold some beliefs closed-mindedly. Still, as you know if you’ve ever experienced someone sticking to atrocious bets far longer than they should (Take a dictator. Please.).

So, there’s something to our interest in cultivated at least a little open-mindedness, and there will be times when you feel like challenging people not just on a particular commitment they’ve made but on their overall receptivity.

If these eight flawed test can’t tell you who is closed- and open-minded, is there any test that will?  Here’s what I think is the best test.

The Best Test:  A person is sufficiently open-minded if he can make strong cases against his committed belief.

“I believe it wholeheartedly, but here are some strong arguments why I might be wrong.”

The test of open-mindedness is not in what you believe or how tenaciously you believe it but in how receptive you have been to arguments pro and con.  The test of your receptivity to such arguments is not whether you are willing to hear them espoused but whether you can espouse them yourself as persuasively as possible. 

The sufficiently open-minded are people who, whatever bets they place can voice like persuasive lawyer the arguments why their bet is wrong.  They might be 100% committed to a bet, but still their more committed to the belief that it is a bet, and they demonstrate it not by being persuaded by counter-arguments, nor by saying “I’ve heard all the arguments against it” but by proving they heard those counter-arguments through their ability to give sound voice to them.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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