Back in 1971, philosopher, theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman wrote in his book, The Search for Common Ground:
There is a spirit in man and in the world working always against the thing that destroys and lays waste. Always he must know that the contradictions of life are not final or ultimate; he must distinguish between failure and a many-sided awareness so that he will not mistake conformity for harmony, uniformity for synthesis.
Nearly a half century later, I often think about Thurman’s words while taking in the daily news. Politics aside, it feels like we’re living in the upside down with headlines like, “Excessive brain activity linked to a shorter life,” and “Red and processed meat are OK to eat.”
Making peace with disparate ideas or ideologies isn’t easy, but I’d argue Gen X in particular — the original skeptics — has what it takes to beat cognitive dissonance and stay on track.
This is your brain on contradictions
It’s not just everyone out there who’s spouting off inconsistencies, but your mind is its own hive of hypocrisy. We all have “protected values,” or principles we hate to see violated. When others step on them, we’re outraged; when our own core beliefs conflict, we feel shame and guilt.
And yet, we routinely (and unconsciously) make exceptions. For example, you might hate cruelty to animals and love eating meat. Or perhaps you’re anti-abortion and support the death penalty. That’s because ultimately the mind is good at holding contradictions.
There are no automatic mechanisms in your brain that point out the inconsistency and force you to resolve it. Instead, you simply end up with two different beliefs that are not consistent.
Furthermore, evolutionary psychology says the brain is compartmentalized, which means it easily stores opposing beliefs. So collaboration and competition, lying and truth-telling all coexist in their own “modules.”
If assaults on what you believe are making your head spin, just remember your brain on autopilot isn’t much of an arbiter. You have a couple of choices on how to proceed:
- Use the “it depends” strategy: You can actively decide your beliefs aren’t contradictory, but depend on circumstances. This makes both arguments cognitively true, so like me, you can avoid eating highly processed foods for health reasons and simultaneously see Impossible burgers as a reasonably healthy choice.
- Be a positive skeptic: Take an open-minded, scientific stance, and question what appear to be reliable facts. This includes asking for and considering evidence, looking for logic, playing devil’s advocate, and examining your own cognitive biases. Then choose what you truly believe.
The contradictions of life are never final. But that doesn't mean you can't always decide for yourself what's the final word.
- How your brain makes you hold contradictory beliefs (Fast Company)
- The Art of Positive Skepticism (Psychology Today)