Why curiosity is a necessity for open-mindedness and a kinder world.

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To test your open-mindedness, let me ask you a question. Imagine that I were to show you a picture of an angry and intimidating looking Arab guy with a big beard. What do you think? What is the first thing that comes to your mind?

Is it the word ‘terrorist’?

If the first thing that came to mind is something along those lines, that’s okay.

What?!

When I say that that’s okay, I mean that it’s not your fault. This image you form is simply the result of repeatedly seeing pictures of similar looking men alongside the word terrorist in the media all the time. This initial thought is the result of your brain remembering these previous pictures, and subsequently categorizing the current one in an attempt to instantly make sense of what your eyes are seeing. The brain has to do so very quickly, so its system for it isn’t very refined and politically correct. That initial thought, no matter how possibly wrong and awful, is not your fault.

Scientifically speaking, this process of categorization is called forming unconscious attitudes and associations. We organize every aspect of the world in a mental category. Since the world we live in is very fast and complex, it is impossible to consciously process all the information we come across. This would simply require too much cognitive work, and our response would therefore be too slow. To find a way to facilitate this huge mental task of making sense of the world, your brain is equipped with predetermined mental categories called schemas, that exist to instantly and automatically organize the information, and reduce the effort it would otherwise take to process all of it.

As Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book Blink, however, this instant forming of categorical thought, and the unconscious attitudes based on those thoughts, are possibly dangerous: “Our unconscious is a powerful force. But it’s fallible. It’s not the case that our internal computer always shines through, instantly decoding the “truth” of a situation. It can be thrown off, distracted, and disabled. [And the most disturbing thing is] that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values.”

Your brain is not wrong by coming up with the initial answer ‘terrorist’. What is wrong, however, is being ignorant about what question this answers. It’s very important to realize that that initial thought is the answer to ‘what is my brain primed to categorize this picture as?’, which is not the same as ‘who is this man?’. For the latter question, you need something way more sophisticated than a primed initial association of the brain.

What matters is what you do the second after you had that initial thought.

Do you sullenly agree with that voice? Do you think ‘oh yeah.. probably. I guess’. Because if you do that, you’ll base your rational opinion-forming and decision-making as a civilized human being on very primitive and fallible categorization impulses of the brain. And this is where it gets dangerous. This is where ignorance, bigotry, and hatred start.

As Todd Kashdan explains: [A] lack of curiosity is a breeding ground for:
  • Stereotyping and discrimination, that in the extreme leads to hatred and even violence
  • Inflated confidence and ignorance that leads to poor decisions
  • Dogmatism and rigid thinking, which is the opposite of psychological flexibility

It is your moral responsibility to actively challenge your own possibly falsely negative initial judgment. In other words, it is your moral responsibility to be curious.

After your initial thought, do you actively challenge it by asking yourself; ‘Where does that thought come from?’ ‘What would he look like when he smiled?’ ‘Is this is a weird shot and is he actually loved by thousands?’ ‘Is he just a grumpy old dude who’s way too tired of life to even consider radicalism?’ ‘What would he say if I met him?’ Do you expand your view by being curious?

When you’re curious about something, you keep an open mind. Being curious is a state of wonder, in which you look for answers about the unknown. Asking questions about things is the direct opposite of judging things. Imagine how much kinder the world would be if everybody went ‘Ah what’s this? How does that work? What can this do?’ instead of ‘I like this, I don’t like that, that’s stupid’.

When you’re curious, you’re okay with not knowing. You embrace a certain insecurity, and it takes strength to do so. It’s much easier to hide behind fact, opinion or thought, whether false or true. You have to be okay with being vulnerable. It takes tremendous courage to show yourself unknowing. It takes courage to have no belief to hold on to.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it” – Aristotle

When someone has an opinion that seems wrong to you, it is easier to discard it. It takes much more willpower to be curious about it. Why do you think that? What could it be in their life that led them to that opinion? If I were in their shoes, how would I see my opinion?

Only when you truly keep an open mind are you not judgmental.

It doesn’t matter what questions you ask. The point is, that you will always have initial thoughts. Your brain just has to do that in order to make sense of the world quickly. What’s important, is challenging those initial thoughts by being curious. Open-mindedness does not come naturally, and as human beings, we have the moral responsibility to base our thinking on more sophisticated methods of reasoning than only our brain’s categorization system. It’s our responsibility to challenge our initial thought and to dig deeper, and to find real truth. Because not doing so, is dangerous for peace.

I’m curious what you think. Leave a comment below.

NOTE: this text is from a chapter of my new manifesto, titled ‘Intense Curiosity’. The chapter is titled ‘Open-mindedness’. I’m working on the final draft before it’s going to my editor. I consider this to be the most important part, and in times like this I felt like I needed to share it.

SOURCES:  Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. K. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The implicit association test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1464–1480.
Chee, M. W. L., Sriram, N., Soon, C. S., & Lee, K. M. (2000). Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the implicit association of concepts and attributes. Neuroreport: For Rapid Communication of Neuroscience Research, 11, 135-140.
Phelps, E. A., O’Connor, K. J., Cunningham, W. A., Funayama, E. S., Gatenby, J. C., Gore, J. C., et al. (2000). Performance on indirect measures of race evaluation predicts amygdala activation. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 12, 729-738.
Baron, R., Byrne, D., and Watson, G..  Exploring Social Psychology.  Toronto: Pearson, 2005.

8 Responses

  1. Dee
    | Reply

    Wow Rikky this is so totally thought provoking. Keeping an open mind is not something people tend to do anymore, with the media being at the forefront of so many topics, people just take the stories on face value.

  2. Michael Knouse
    | Reply

    I remember a time not so long ago where I simply acted on my initial thoughts. I had never considered any alternatives. Then I hired a coach who challenged me to create a new reality by noticing as many of my thoughts as I possibly could, especially the ones that weren’t serving me. I learned so much from this simple exercise, namely that our thoughts and resulting actions shape our world. Once I started noticing my thoughts, I began acting differently in subtle ways. Then I would catch myself noticing my old thought patterns in mid-sentence. I would find myself stopping a conversation and going back to the drawing board because I realized that my thoughts were not aligned with the words that were coming out of my mouth. This was extremely frustrating. And then I started to have these moments where I would consciously answer a question or engage in conversation in a new way – with thoughts that felt better.

    While I’m definitely a work-in-progress in this area, I do my best to override my lizard brain and react more consciously to the things that would ordinarily trigger fear or immediate reaction.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking article. It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything about this and you’ve created the space for me to do that. 🙂

  3. Kendra
    | Reply

    What a great article! It is important to keep the mind open to new ideas and thoughts. After all that is how we learn. And yes, in this day and age with so much information (true or false) so many people just take it at face value. We need to learn to question things so much more.

  4. Grace
    | Reply

    Gah, I’m so embarrassed by my typos. cuts me off or* and build* Haha, sorry!

  5. Grace
    | Reply

    Wow! I feel like I sort of knew these concepts, but I have never thought about them in terms of curiosity. It sort of reminds me of my anti-road rage technique, haha. Whenever someone cuts me off of dangerously passes me, my first instinct is, “What an asshole!” but then I try to think of that person as an actual person who is living their life with circumstances I know nothing about, and I think, “Maybe they’re rushing to a family emergency, maybe they’re late for work and they’ll be fired if it happens one more time, maybe their pregnant wife is in labour in the passenger seat.” It helps keep me out of judgement and I think can built compassion.

  6. alclunnie
    | Reply

    I absolutely love not knowing! It’s what makes life interesting. The more curious you are the more you learn, the more you learn the more curious you become- it’s a virtuous cycle, and I’m glad to be along for the ride.

  7. Kamil Olszak
    | Reply

    That’s a great article. A lot of people in our society need to be reminded of the importance of keeping an open mind to other possibilities.

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