We Are Who We Like and Why You Can’t Change

The problem with asking ourselves questions is that we might get honest answer because we don’t want to think of ourselves as bad people. We might want to avoid admitting deficiencies in our social behavior, like lying or our more abstract moral principles, like being open-minded. If you ask most people if they are liars, they will probably say they aren’t. But you’d have to follow up to see if that matches reality. In the same way, if you ask people if they are close-minded, most would tell you they aren’t. But, in this case, I can assuredly refute those claims. Almost no one is as open-minded as we say we are. And we refuse to believe it about ourselves (though can see it more obviously in other people. Like those dang close-minded friends of ours!)

Positive assortative mating. The data show that people tend to marry people like themselves. We can all see it in the incestuous nature of movie stars. They routinely date and marry other celebrities. What’s less noticeable is that professionals of all kinds do the same thing. Lots of professors marry other professors. Steven Pinker himself has married two psychologists and a novelist/philosopher. (I know one example isn’t that impressive, but I just found that out and shoehorned it in here. Sorry.)

“These findings – that we mostly marry and live with people very like ourselves – always annoy people. Confronted by the data, the most common response is a challenge: I’m not like that, my husband’s not like that. Why are we so affronted? Because we all want to feel that we have made our own choices, that they weren’t predictable, that we aren’t so vain as to choose ourselves, and that we are freer spirits, with a broader, more eclectic range of taste than the data imply. We don’t like to feel that we’re blind to the allure of those who are not like us; we don’t like to see how trapped we are inside our own identity.”

This is the sort of free will question that I’m interested in. We want, and feel,   more control over our actions than we have. You might look at your own life and realize that you happened to marry a fellow liberal Christian who happens to do the same work as you, or have the same belief that there should be a stay at home parent. You might not have planned it out and you might argue that it just happened to work out that way. But it’s probably not true. So much data continues to roll in showing that we aren’t good at identifying what motivates our decisions. The only way to get any better, is to acknowledge the truth of this situation. That way we can notice when we ignore the good ideas from someone we generally don’t agree with. Or when information changes, we aren’t stubbornly holding on to outdated concepts.

“There’s a circle here: We like ourselves, not least because we are known and familiar to ourselves. So we like people similar to us – or that we just imagine might have some attributes in common with us. They feel familiar too, and safe.

[. . .]

We feel happy. Human beings want to feel good about themselves and feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently.
The problem with this is that everything outside that warm, safe circle is our blind spot.”

There’s this need to be comfortable. It’s not very fun to be anxious and tense, but it really is necessary if we want to live a full and complete life, and have good reasons for how we act. You may not want that, in which case, continue ignoring everything outside your current set of worldviews. But I would guess most people don’t like to think of themselves as cut off to the vast majority of truth and possible experiences out in the world. We don’t like the idea that we limit ourselves by only paying attention to what we already believe (part of our confirmation bias). The problem with having a blind spot covering most of the suite of ideas out there, is that we are unable to progress in any meaningful way.

“This is how willful blindness begins, not in conscious, deliberate choices to be blind, but in a skein of decisions that slowly but surely restrict our view. We don’t sense our perspective closing in and most would prefer that it stay broad and rich. But our blindness grows out of small, daily decisions that we make, which embed us more snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values.”

Now try to accept change or challenging information. There is no motivator there to drive us toward new ideas. In fact, so much of what we do is to protect ourselves from anything we don’t already know or believe. But say you are in an unpleasant place in life. What can you do to fix that? Chances are you won’t want to see it in the first place, but assuming you overcome that hurdle, you might not want to see that YOU are doing anything wrong. Your ideas, your choices, your behavior is all fine in your mind. You’re locked into a certain mindset that you can’t break free from or even want to break free from. It’s possible you don’t even see that you’re stuck.

All the quotes are taken from Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril by Margaret Heffernan

We Are Who We Like and Why You Can’t Change

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