The Final Convition

So that’s me all done with my first draft. Woop.

Posting twice today because I totally forgot to press post on yesterdays post so I’m doing it today. (quite sad because now my daily post calender won’t be all blocked colour – ah the struggles of my life)

“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.

And so we discover the danger of conviction, those whom it possesses shall become invulnerable to the truth.

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.

How can we remove our convictions? The truth is that this is a hard process. In “ Human, All Too Human”, Nietzche laments that “Man is very well defended against himself, against being reconnoitred and besieged by himself, he is usually able to perceive of himself only his outer walls. The actual fortress is inaccessible, even invisible to him, unless his friends and enemies play the traitor and conduct him in by a secret path.” He aptly describes the phenomenon present in humans which results in an inability to critique oneself despite overwhelming evidence. During the Iraq war the Secretary of Defence, one Donald Rumsfield, was convinced the war could be won using top-down bureaucracy and strategic calculations. He was possessed by his strong convictions, refusing to accept his own obvious erroneous misjudgements. He refused to listen to his subordinates on the ground, preferring to silence or sideline them; his stubborn childishness lost countless lives and strategic footholds. Rumsfield couldn’t see his shortcomings, choosing only to see the outer walls of his impregnable castle. But instead of listening to the wisdom of others, he decided to block them out, and this is where he made his mistake. In the quest to abolish convictions you must be able to take in new disconfirming evidence, from others whom can show you the secret path through your defences of consistency and ego.

So it is found that Nietzche was indeed correct, his hypothesis, composed hundreds of years ago rings true today as it did thousands of years ago. Only now, instead of giving us an evolutionary advantage in a tumultuous, Palaeolithic landscape, it acts as a hindrance to our development, a lingering vestige of our savage, primal days. Strong beliefs should be shed, in favour of an openness to new, disconfirming evidence. And for you? Perhaps it is time to examine your own, ingrained religious rote, releasing yourself from the clutches of consistency and ego.

Bibliography

Cialdini, Robert, “Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion” , Harper Collins, 1984

Cioran, Emile, “The Trouble With Being Born”, 1973

Fitzgerald, Matt, “Diet Cults – The Surprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads and a Guide to Healthy Eating for the Rest of Us”, Pegasus, May 2015

Harford, Tim, “Adapt – Why Success Always Starts With Failure”, Abacus , March 2012

Nietzche, Friedrich, “Human, All Too Human” , 1878

Nietzche, Friedrich, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, 1993

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche , “Friedrich Nietzche”, 18 September 2015

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/conviction, “Definition of Conviction”

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