Because we think of ourselves as rational beings, we might ignore the fact that neuroscience has demonstrated that we actually rely first on our emotions, not our intellect. We become attached to a particular outcome – the way we want things to be – and we ignore any data that might contradict that particular picture. We rationalize our decision after the fact. Since the primary emotion that is often aroused is fear, sometimes we even go so far as to attack and discredit the source of the data we don’t want to hear.
Psychologists have a term for the tension we experience when the world is not the way we want it to be. They call it cognitive dissonance – a mismatch between our beliefs and our actions, or between our desires and what is real. We always feel tension when there is a mismatch, like the discomfort we feel if a violin is out of tune. That tension tells us we need to find a resolution, which in the case of the violin would be to retune.
Once we have a vested interest in a particular outcome or in seeing the world in a particular way, then we will begin to slant or distort our own experience. We will embrace any data that confirms that we are right, and we will ignore any other data. We will proclaim those confirming data as “the facts” and label anything contradictory data as “hearsay” or “lies.” In other words, we will resolve any dissonance by closing our eyes to the actual facts.
Is closing our eyes a useful strategy? Not being willing to notice everything that is happening cripples us and leaves us less able to make an informed decision. In legal terms, this is called “wilful blindness” and we are held legally and morally responsible for having averted our eyes, so to speak.
The issue becomes how we remain open to noticing what is really happening without jumping to premature conclusions or attacking anyone. The answer is detachment, or remaining neutral about what the real facts are. We refer to this attitude as remaining open to all sides of a question. How do we do that? Neuroscience tells us that, if we focus on a positive emotional state, such as empathy, we are likely to consider a wider range of data or options.
The choice is ours. Do we want to be triggered by fear into closing out actual facts, or do we want to remain open to all of the data?