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I spend a good deal of clinical time explaining to clients why things they’re doing or people they’re with aren’t good for them. Sometimes they even tell me that friends or family agree, and admit they ignore advice and still cling to the belief that all will be well.
Then, not long ago, I came across an explanation for this dynamic in “Bad Thinkers: Why do some people believe conspiracy theories? It’s not just who or what they know. It’s a matter of intellectual character” by Quassim Cassam, PhD. Bad thinkers include conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers, people insisting they’ve been abducted by aliens, and astrology adherents, to name a few. In my work, I’d throw in chronic dieters who’ve regained lost weight but continue to diet and people who stay with abusers.
Cassam says that “Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry.” Virtues are comprised of “humility, caution, and carefulness” while vices include gullibility, faulty intuition, close-mindedness, prejudice and carelessness. He says that “Differences in intellectual character help to explain why people in the same situation end up believing such different things.”
The major problem with intellectual vices, he explains, is that we’re all too often blind to them. He maintains that “no one is immune to self-ignorance,” but that a major problem is that people regularly believe things based on poor or non-existent evidence. Evidence, he reminds us, is objective, not subjective. There is such a thing as fact.
Fortunately, says Cassam, intellectual vices are tendencies which can be challenged and refuted. This is why I point out the failure of weight-loss diets long-term, poor outcomes likely in repeating certain behavioral patterns, and evidence of unhealthy behavior on the part of people in clients’ lives. My job is help them be curious and open-minded, seek alternate explanations for situations or events, and challenge rigid, all-or-nothing thinking and fear of being emotionally uncomfortable.
If you frequently fall into believing ideas that lack evidence and are not supported by facts or caring for people who only hurt you, it’s time to wake up to your gullibility and work on developing some intellectual virtues. If you want the best in life, you’re going to have to do your best thinking to get it. Stay tuned for part 2 of this article which explains more about why we believe things that are untrue and don’t believe facts that are right in front of our faces.
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