“There are three kinds of people: those who can do math and those who can’t” – an old joke from the hazy mists of long ago.
In my time on earth, I’ve debated, discussed, and argued with many different people on many different topics – ranging from mild to “hot button”. And, over the years, I’ve finally come to a conclusion about one particular facet of the enormous gemstone called Human Nature: that there really are two kinds of people. And of course, please note that I’m speaking in generality here as an intellectual exercise.
Setting the Stage
We all have what I call Cognitive Templates (I’m sure there’s an official term for this but I don’t know it) – call them CT for short. Essentially, everyone has a filter through which we view the world, and a framework into which we put our lifetime of incoming information in an attempt to organize and give some structure to the chaotic world in which we live. Everyone has one.
I have, however, noticed that there are two different kinds of people who process “fliers”: data that does not conform or fit into their CT, whose existence challenges the framework’s structure, and even threatens to alter or fundamentally upset their belief system.
Two Kinds of People
The first kind of person, when presented with such information, attempts to vet it by studying both (or more) sides of the issue and, if finding out the information is true (within human limits of discovering “Truth”), adjusts their CT accordingly to assimilate the new information. This can result in old information being supplanted, and very often in a belief being changed. The typical reaction of such people, when first presented with new information like this, is to the effect of “Wow, I’d never heard that – thank you for telling me. I need to investigate…”
The second kind of person, when similarly presented with information that doesn’t match the CT, not only reject the new information a priori, they deny it, seeking out only like-minded people and information sets which already conform to their CT to reinforce that CT lest their framework – and belief system – need to be altered. Their typical reaction is to get enormously defensive, and even go on the attack ad hominem, questioning character, motives, ridiculing and denigrating the other’s viewpoint, etc.
We all have deeply-held views about innumerable topics. Some are spiritual/religious, some political, etc. In the milieu of society, we will inevitably brush against others whose thoughts and opinions differ. And I have argued that intellectual and cultural diversity is, on average, a very good thing. Debate and learning make us grow, and even if we maintain a particular viewpoint we are the better for having had to defend it – because such a defense has made us think. (Being Jewish, one of my favorite quips about Jewish culture revolves around our love of debate: “One topic, two Jews, you’ll get three opinions in four minutes!”)
So, if a debate starts, watch for the signs of which type your debate partner is. If they are the second, end the debate politely. You will not convince them no matter what evidence you present. I know – I’ve tried. This, then, hints at an application of a quote I’ve immodestly developed and placed on My Quotes page:
You cannot argue rationally with a conclusion arrived at emotionally.
It is my contention – subject to debate of course – that people in the second group have an emotional vesting in their belief system to the point where information that challenges their CT becomes an assault on their personhood itself. Their comfort level with who they are in their center is not strong enough to withstand assault. Often these beliefs, supported by their CT, uphold their view of themselves as a good person, especially vis a vis their reputation in their social circles; to weaken those beliefs means they might need to admit they are not good people by their definition and also risk relationships within that social circle. Hence the utter viciousness many use to attack those with different views, and which I have experienced personally in the course of some of my debates over time.
In contrast, people in the first group have a strong sense of who they are as a person, independent of any specific CT framework. Thus, their perception of themselves as a good person is not married to their CT but resides within it foundationally. These people also tend to be less inclined to obsess over what others think of them, and so are less likely to be concerned about what “the Joneses” might think about their apparently-sudden shift on a specific topic to no longer be in the groupthink.
A Refined Model
Looking at the above second and in particular the last two paragraphs, might I humbly suggest the following structural analogy? Imagine each person as a planet, a sphere floating in space.
For the first type, their CT is built around their personality’s central core. This would explain why some people are open to new information – because it doesn’t disrupt the centrality of who they are. Think of it as a scaffold around the central core of the planet.
In contrast, for the second type, it is inverted – their personality is built around their CT. Thus, changes to their CT can undermine their sense of self. In this case, imagine a central scaffold upon which is accreted a person’s personality.
This conceptual model – albeit imperfect – would, IMHO, explain the workings of the two types quite well. What do you think?
I had a thought this morning:
The first type thinks “I am a good person, therefore I believe X, Y, Z”. The second thinks “I believe X, Y, Z, therefore I am a good person.”
© 2015, David Hunt PE