Heterodoxy Academy: Encouraging diversity of thought

Rubin Friedman flagged this initiative to me that aims to increase diversity of thought within the academic community (primarily social sciences). Although I sense a slight balance to the right (might reflect my bias!), the principles and approach of the Heterodoxy Academy are broadly applicable.

During one of my executive development programs, considerable emphasis was placed on being able to ask open-ended questions as a learning and engagement technique, rather than leading questions to advance one’s position.

I particularly like the OpenMind exercises to increase awareness of one’s biases and develop techniques to broaden one’s perspective and engage and understand the perspectives of others. These are particularly useful when engaging in polarized political discussions such as immigration.

The five steps are below but I would encourage readers check it out (for the useful “life hacks” you need to do the exercises, each step takes between 10-20 minutes in my experience):

First step: See what you’ll gain from viewpoint diversity

  • Viewpoint diversity helps you get closer to the truth. In order to fully understand an issue, you need to challenge your assumptions and consider it from multiple angles.
  • Viewpoint diversity will help you be more persuasive. By engaging with people with whom you disagree, you can understand where they’re coming from, and craft arguments that will more likely appeal to them.
  • Viewpoint diversity will open up opportunities for growth and learning. Realizing that your views and opinions have evolved over time is a sure sign of intellectual development.
  • Therefore, it’s ideal to talk to both people with whom you agree and disagree, and try to learn from them why they believe what they believe.

Second step: Cultivate intellectual humility

  • In order to prevent our certainty from blinding us to other ideas, we must develop intellectual humility: the value espoused by Voltaire, Alexander Pope, Buddha, and many others. We can become wiser by recognizing the limits of our knowledge.
  • But doing so isn’t always easy. Those with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is set in stone. This often causes them to prioritize looking smart at all costs, which makes it harder to learn and grow. Those with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can develop. As a result, they often relish accepting new challenges, which makes it easier for them to learn and grow.
  • In order to inject more growth into your mindset, you can: acknowledge that your abilities are fluid; view each mistake as a learning opportunity; and challenge yourself to do things you haven’t already mastered.

Third step: Explore the irrational mind

  • Our minds are divided into two parts that sometimes conflict: the elephant represents our quick, automatic intuitive thinking; the riderrepresents our slow, effortful reasoning. (You saw these two processes in action when you read the colors out loud effortlessly and then struggled a bit when naming the colors after.)
  • We often fall prey to post hoc reasoning, the process in which our elephant makes a snap moral judgment, and our rider works to justify it. (You might have used post hoc reasoning to justify your response that it’s acceptable to hit the switch on the trolley, and it’s acceptable to push the worker off the bridge.)
  • A common form of post hoc reasoning is when we seek or interpret information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs, which is called confirmation bias.
  • Our reasoning becomes even less reliable when we are motivated to reach a particular conclusion, especially when a moral issue is at stake. (We explored this in the different cases about the unintended economic and environmental side-effects of the president’s new program.)
  • As a result, it can be difficult to convince other people to change their minds, especially on moral issues—because their brains, just like ours, are wired in these ways.

Fourth step: Break free from your moral matrix

  • We all live within a moral matrix: a consensual hallucination that we believe represents objective reality. Many different moral communities exist, each with its own set of shared values, and each convinced that its group alone sees truth as it really is. (You saw a metaphor for this with the optical illusion of the young woman and old woman.)
  • The moral mind is like a tongue with six different taste receptors. We all share these same foundations, but we build upon them in different ways to create our own moral matrices. The six moral foundations are: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty.
  • Many disagreements can be attributed to the application of different moral foundations. There are also cases when different people apply the same moral foundation in different ways. When someone disagrees with you, it’s probably not because they’re evil. It might be because they have constructed a different moral matrix and they rely on the moral foundations differently than you do.

Fifth step: Prepare for constructive disagreements

  • We can engage in constructive disagreement by seeking to learn, rather than to be right. The key to constructive disagreements is mastering the language of the elephant (automatic, intuitive thinking).

  • Sometimes, our automatic thoughts (generated by our elephants) aren’t accurate, and these cognitive distortions can cause negative feelings. Our riders can rein in our elephants by examining our initial thoughts, and—over time—training them to be more accurate

  • We can also hone our ability to communicate effectively with other people by focusing on their elephants. We can: respect their elephants (don’t criticize people or make them feel stupid); understand their elephants (learn about what other people care about and why); and appeal to their elephants (convey your thoughts in a language that will resonate with them).

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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