I’ve argued elsewhere that being either open-minded or close-minded is intrinsically neither good nor bad. Both open-mindedness and close-mindedness have their benefits and costs. Open is great for exploring options but terrible for sticking with them. Conversely, closed is terrible for exploring options and great for sticking with them.

The best allocation between open-minded and close-minded is therefore a division of labor: When deciding what to do, be open-minded—weigh the benefits and costs of your various options. But once you’ve decided, close your mind to the costs of your chosen option and to benefits of the ones you didn’t choose.

People err on the side of close-mindedness, acting, while deciding what to do, as though they have already decided. We do this for many reasons. For one thing, indecision is an unsettling state we would rather avoid. One way to consider an option is to try to act as though we’ve already decided on it. A great way to persuade others to adopt your preferred option is to proceed as though it is hands-down the right one. There are many reasons we would want to ignore the benefits of the options we’re leaning against.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

In social psychology, we talk of affirmation bias, the tendency to think one has conclusively proven the merits of a decision by listing the reasons it’s right, while ignoring the reasons it might not be.

We see it in business books often. The standard structure of their argument is

Do x.

Companies A, B, and C did x, and they succeeded.

Companies that didn’t do x failed.

Which is all very well, but really just half of the story—the half that affirms the author’s argument to do x. What about the companies that did x and failed? What about the companies that didn’t do x and succeeded? The author doesn’t talk about them.

Well, if you have already decided that doing x is the answer (and the author surely has), close-mindedly ignoring the counterarguments is both affirming and beneficial. But if, as the reader, you are still deciding whether to do x, you can’t really afford to ignore the other half. And yet we often do just that.

You see a version of affirmation bias in psychotherapy, too. The troubled soul wants to know why he or she is so troubled, and through therapy or self-help an answer is discovered: It’s because of this thing that occurred in childhood. “X happened in my childhood, and, as a result, I’m troubled. If x hadn’t happened during my childhood, I wouldn’t be.”
The story is plausible. That’s not the problem. The problem is that there may be many other plausible stories that are ignored: How many people had x happen to them in childhood? How many of them are troubled? And how many people to whom x didn’t happen are troubled anyway?

Yesterday, I talked to two people who explained their depression in such terms—one because his father died when he was a teenager, the other because her mother really didn’t want to be pregnant with her.

Stories like these can be useful. Half of solving a problem is getting to root causes. If the depression’s causes are in the past, maybe one can learn to accept it and move on, or, alternatively, treat the problem at the root. Either way, there’s a sense of relief in knowing what caused the problem and that it isn’t one’s own fault.

Stories like this are also sometimes not useful. We can use them as excuses for not changing. We can treat them as hopelessly insurmountable handicaps.

Usefulness aside, how accurate are such stories? If one really wants to test their accuracy, one has to compensate for our tendency toward affirmation bias by asking, “Compared to what?” In other words, we have half the story already. For example, Mom didn’t want to be pregnant, and therefore the child grew up to be depressed. The half that affirms these accounts is that if a child is unwanted, she grows up depressed, and if the child is not unwanted, she doesn’t grow up depressed.

But what about unwanted babies that didn’t grow up depressed? And what about wanted babies that did grow up depressed? Indeed, what percentage of all pregnancies are unwanted? Do all those babies grow up depressed?

It’s surely possible that early traumas cause depression. But until data from all four corners of the equation are examined, these early traumas are undicators. They don’t indicate either way. They don’t warrant certainty that the cause of the depression has been identified. They are hypotheses at best.

There’s potential relief to be found in answering the compared-to-what question. I had a traumatic accident at the time my wife was pregnant with my first child, and this child of mine grew up to have a severe mental disability. Did my traumatic accident cause it? Possibly. There were a few years when I was certain it had, and I felt very guilty about it. But then I noticed that I wasn’t the only father to suffer trauma during my wife’s pregnancy, and if there were a simple correlation, we’d sure see a whole lot more people with my son’s particular and rather rare mental disability. Which isn’t to say my accident didn’t cause it, but it does make it more open to question.

Another example comes to mind: I knew a middle-aged woman who was certain that something was wrong with her because she kept being attracted to unavailable or inconsiderate men. She assumed somehow that she had some pathological homing device that would pick these guys out of a vast pool of potential partners that included many available and considerate bachelors. The story is plausible—but, again, compared to what?

In statistical research, this compared-to-whatness is called the base rate. The question unanswered by her story is, of all her potential partners, what is the percentage of available, considerate guys? By midlife, many of the considerate guys are taken, so the dating pool from which she’s picking doesn’t have a base rate of 50 percent available, considerate guys. Maybe it’s no more pathological that she keeps picking unavailable or inconsiderate guys than it would be to keep picking red balls out of a bag filled with 80 percent red ones and only 20 percent green ones.

One more example: There’s a popular psychological theory that we end up with partners who bring up our unresolved issues from childhood. In other words, whatever rare dilemma you dealt with in your childhood, you will naturally gravitate toward a partner with the same rare dilemma.

Again, this belief can be strategically useful. Think of it: It means our fights with our partners are meant to be—they’re just the universe trying to teach us some important life lesson. Who are we to ignore the opportunity of a lesson the universe is offering us? Subscribing to the theory helps focus our attention on the potential to make our partnerships work.

Again, though—usefulness aside—there’s the question of accuracy, and again it depends on compared-to-what base rates.
How many dilemmas are there? If 10,000 distinct kinds of dilemmas exist, it really would be uncanny if you stumble into a relationship with someone who brings you the 1-in-10,000 dilemma you happened to deal with in your youth.

Me, I think we tend to overestimate the number of dilemmas. The dilemmas that bedevil us personally feel so vivid and stressful, we tend to treat them as unique when they’re not.

I’ve been collecting a list of generic dilemmas (wonderings of the world) for over eight years now, and I count roughly fifteen. Every time I hear about or face a dilemma, I check to see if it’s an example of one of my generic ones or whether it warrants a new category. I’ve added and redefined categories along the way—fifteen, not 10,000.

Lets say I’m underestimating a little, and there are really 20 basic dilemmas. If so, picking a partner who forces you to revisit one of the (many) dilemmas you dealt with in your childhood is only as uncanny as picking 5 balls from a bag of 20, putting them back, picking 5 again, and discovering that one of them is the same ball you picked on the first round.

Indeed, among the 15 dilemmas I’ve identified, a big one is deciding when to be open and when to be closed, when you’re still deciding and need to evaluate the options open-mindedly—overcoming affirmation bias and doing the compared-to-whats—and when, instead, you’ve made your decision and need to close in on your chosen option, employing affirmation bias to support your decision. Indeed, if there’s one dilemma we all face in childhood and again in our adult relationships, it’s this one: Daddy knows best, or doesn’t. Your partner knows best, or doesn’t. There you are, again and again, deciding whether to be open to their decision or to close-mindedly stick to your guns.

A seven foot tall gal lamented
‘I fear that my psyche’s demented
See, I keep picking guys
Who are short for my size.’
She ignored how the date pool’s segmented.