Convictions pt 7.5

Just did a bit of editing today, haven’t had the most productive day today, well unproductive in the grand scheme of things, still did a decent chunk of homework, reading and some orchestra practise.

Anyway here it is. This needs to be ready as a draft in about 4 days, needs a conclusion and maybe another main paragraph (or maybe it doesn’t and I can add it later) plus I have actually used any rhetoric or any of Aristotles Trivium (sorry fore pretentiousness but honestly I love saying that).

“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of the truth than lies.”

Friedrich Nietzsche- Human, All Too Human

This cryptic message was written nearly 150 years ago, by the eminent philosopher Friedrich Nietzche. During his lifetime he composed over 20 manuscripts, was a eminent classical philologist- being the youngest ever Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel. He had many ideas that still pervade modern society: the idea of rising beyond one’s own standing in society, and to become “Ubermensch”- a literal superman.

So as we begin to decipher the secrets to his word we first have to ask, what is a conviction?  The Oxford dictionary defines a conviction as:

“A firmly held belief or opinion”

So what Nietzche means to say is that a strongly held belief is a greater foe (impediment) to the discovery of truth than lies.

And the truth? What of that? My interpretation of his ideas is that the ‘truth’ is whatever the most accurate answer to a question is. For example when you consider what the most suitable diet for humans is, the truth shall be whatever diet enables us to perform at our best, physically and mentally. But that is not to say that truth is not an absolute proposition, it may not be consistent between people, at different moments in time, or even across cultures; for example fruit may be part of one person’s optimum diet whilst for someone with a fructose intolerance it may cause them to die instantly.

A lie, is simply a false belief, not based on anything, that can be dismissed by the simple revelation of the truth.

So why are convictions so dangerous? Here we turn to a much different source, Robert Cialdini, a New York Times bestseller. In his book: “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” he discusses a concept known as Commitment Consistency Bias.

An experiment was set up by two social psychologists- Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard. They selected a sample of college students who were shown sets of lines and asked to guess their length. Students were divided into three groups: some would write their estimates on paper before handing it in to the experimenter. A second group would write down their results on a etch-a-sketch like device and would erase their estimate before it was seen by anyone else. The last group would just keep their estimate in their head.

When new dis-confirming evidence was introduced to suggest that their initial estimates were false the three groups responded very differently.

The group that held their estimate in their head were most likely to be convinced of their mistake with their original estimate and change their results. The group which had publicly committed to their estimate were unlikely to change their views, their public commitment had hardened them into the most stubborn of all the groups. Most interestingly though, was the sample of people who had committed themselves privately, this group was also significantly less willing to change their minds when presented with dis-confirming evidence, this slight change had caused them to resist the new, more accurate data and remain identified and consistent with their original decision.

So how this relate to our hypothesis? Well here we see three groups, the most convicted, those who had a little conviction about their answer and those who held a false belief (lie). When met with the correct, more accurate answer (the truth) we see how they react.

The most convicted people are unchanged by this revelation of the truth, those a little convicted become less likely to change their false beliefs, and that lies are easily dispelled by the appearance of the truth.

So it is revealed that convictions are more dangerous foes of the truth than lies.

Why do we have convictions? It seems that all humans have them. So it stands to reason that convictions, like most other inherited habits, must have conferred some evolutionary benefit for humans, a few thousand years ago. The simple answer is that convictions save energy, to process both sides of an argument, to consider every new input is exhausting. In a harsh territory, with limited amounts of fuel and brain glucose, the human mind sought a simple way to quickly make judgements using the minimum amount of energy. Emil Cioran, a Romanian philosopher, once said: “We have convictions only if we have studied nothing thoroughly.” And that’s exactly what our distant Neanderthal ancestors did, study nothing thoroughly. As with other inherited vestiges of our primitive past it must be shed in our journey into becoming our best possible selves.


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