Being open-minded is an excellent predictor of workplace success, increasing engagement, satisfaction, and innovative behaviour. Being open-minded means that you’re willing to consider a variety of perspectives, values, opinions, or beliefs, even if they contradict your own. When people are open-minded, their information processing is less biased, meaning they tend to select, interpret, and weigh information in a way that’s unbiased by their prior opinions or expectations.
Being open-minded means that people are willing to learn new things, step outside their comfort zone, and think about problems in new ways. In work environments, open-mindedness helps you work well with others, especially those who are different or think differently that you do. It also leads to better judgments and decisions.
However, open-mindedness does not come naturally to everyone. Do you find you often have trouble thinking about things in different ways? Do you (or others) consider yourself to be stubborn or strongly opinionated?
If so, you might be someone who engages in black-and-white (dichotomous) thinking–the opposite of open-minded thinking. Although beneficial for making quick decisions and simple understanding, a dichotomous thinking style can sometimes be interpersonally problematic when people who tend to think in black and white encounter others who hold different opinions.
Dichotomous thinking has also been linked to negative psychological outcomes, such as perfectionism and intolerance for ambiguity. In short, even though people like to be right, it’s not helpful to think in black-and-white by only looking at one side of an issue.
The good news is that open-mindedness is something you can practice and improve upon over time. “Active” open-minded thinking is one way to combat dichotomous thinking. One of its central components is avoiding cognitive biases. By actively thinking in an open-minded way, people take multiple perspectives into account rather than simply looking at something from their own point-of-view.
Test Yourself–How open-minded can you be?
Openness challenge. Not sure whether you’re an open-minded thinker or not? Follow the steps below to test yourself.
- Pick a current, controversial issue going on in the world that has been subject to debate and that you have an opinion about. For example, the death penalty, abortion, global warming. The issue should be something that would be easy enough for you to debate based on knowledge that most people could be expected to have. For instance, “Would providing more money for public schools significantly improve the quality of teaching and learning?”
- Decide which side of the debate you’re on. Write it down so you can’t change your mind later on.
- Make two lists. One list should be arguments in favour of the issue, and the other should be arguments against the issue. It’s up to you which list you make first. You do not have to personally agree with any of the arguments–the important part is thinking about the different arguments and writing them down.
- Take as much or as little time as you need. This doesn’t require you to do any research, simply draw from your existing knowledge.
- Count. Take a look at your lists. How many arguments were you able to come up with for the pros list? What about the cons list? How does the number of ideas you listed relate to your personal stance on the issue?
- Generate more arguments for the other side. Take some additional time to add more arguments to the side you don’t personally agree with.
If you had trouble coming up with arguments that did not align with your current feelings on your chosen issue, you were experiencing “myside” bias. This means that you were favouring evidence in support of your own personal beliefs, and under-valuing evidence that goes against your beliefs.
If you didn’t have trouble coming up with ideas arguing that go against your personal views on the issue – congratulations! You may be a more naturally open-minded thinker. However, the key to actively open-minded thinking is not only being open to alternative points of view, but actively seeking them out. This enables you to combat common cognitive biases that get in the way of rational thinking and decision making.
Understanding the biased brain and how it impacts your open mindedness
Before we jump into how to improve our open-mindedness, it’s helpful to see what happens in the brain when we interact with new situations or problems.
When we are put in a social situation or need to make a judgment, our brain scans our memory for relevant information so that we can respond appropriately. However, people tend to focus on the first thought or conclusion that comes to mind. This quick way of thinking might have been helpful for our ancestors 1000s of years ago when deciding how to respond to imminent danger, but it isn’t always helpful nowadays.
When we jump to conclusions, we can become stuck on one answer, idea, or belief and fail to look for or consider alternative information.
This is referred to as cognitive bias. Some of the key cognitive biases that make open-minded thinking difficult are:
- Confirmation bias: The tendency to obtain or evaluate new information in a way that is consistent with a person’s own beliefs. For instance, if someone believes that vaccinations are bad, they will be focused on information that supports this belief, and interpret potentially ambiguous information in a way that also supports this belief.
- Knowledge bias: The tendency to assume that others have the same background knowledge as you. For instance, if you are debating vaccinations with someone who has a degree in immunology, then you are probably less knowledgeable than he or she is. However, he or she might incorrectly assume that you have the same information.
- False consensus bias: The tendency to think that people hold the same beliefs as you. For instance, if you support vaccines, you are more likely to believe that other people you know also support vaccines.
All of these biases are natural and common, but they hinder our interactions with those who are different from us and can lead us to make poor decisions. The following three tips are designed to help you overcome these cognitive biases by increasing your open-mindedness.
Combatting cognitive biases with 3 tips for being more open-minded:
Tip 1: Practice thinking outside your box
Actively thinking about things from different perspectives is one of the best ways to improve open-mindedness. The following exercise provides an opportunity to practice challenging yourself and your beliefs. Not only will this help you practice open-mindedness, it will help you defend what you believe in, or possibly even reconsider it.
- Take some time to think about the things you most strongly believe in. Where did these beliefs come from? Is this a topic you’ve researched, had personal experience with, or were raised with?
- Pick one of your strongly-held beliefs and write down 3 reasons why you hold this belief and what makes it so strong. This belief can be anything, as long as you feel strongly about it.
- Next, take some deep breaths and do your best to set aside your current thoughts and feelings on the topic.
- Create a new list and provide three arguments against your belief.
- Think about why other people might believe something that contradicts your own belief. Make sure you actually take the time to consider the merits of these arguments.
- Re-evaluate your original position. Even if you still feel the exact same as when you started, you’ve now approached the topic in a more open-minded and measured way. As a bonus, you can be more confident in your ability to argue your position now that you’ve considered some counter-arguments.
This approach can help you better understand where other people are coming from, and provides an opportunity to evaluate your beliefs.
Tip 2: Realize your fallibility
People often hold different beliefs. As people, we each hold hundreds of beliefs about various issues, such as religion, ethics, politics, art, economics, business, etc. Not to mention all the beliefs we hold about more mundane things. Consider the fact that for every belief you hold, there are many others who disagree with you. And at least some of the people who disagree are also intelligent and informed. Given these facts, it stands to reason that at least some of the beliefs you hold are false or incomplete.
- Take a moment to think of smart, well-informed people who disagree with you on different issues.
- What do they think?
- Where do you think their beliefs came from?
New evidence can turn old beliefs on their head–even when the beliefs are commonly held. Now think about some of the beliefs held in the past that have been disproven. People once believed the earth was flat. They once believed that the sun revolved around the earth. Over the years, scientific and technological advancement have provided contradictory evidence, and we now recognize that the earth is a sphere, and that it rotates around the sun, not vice versa.
- Take a moment to think about a time in history when beliefs changed.
- Consider a time you learned new information that changed your opinion or conclusion.
Beliefs are shaped by our environment. Beliefs are also tied to social context. Perhaps many of the beliefs you hold resemble those of people you are close to. Family can be an important factor in shaping what we think. People come from a wide variety of backgrounds that contribute to highly diverse points-of-view.
- How might you have different beliefs if you lived in a different place or had a different background growing up?
Overall, our beliefs are highly personal, and we can often be reluctant to think about things that might go against our current perspectives. However, one of the keys to keeping an open mind is being open to the possibility that it might be changed by new information.
Tip 3: Think about the middle ground
When people think in black and white, they tend to categorize things as all good or all bad. One way to start thinking in a different way is to consider the middle ground in relation to extremes.
Follow these 4 steps to practice thinking in the middle:
- Get a piece of paper and a pen
- Make a list of the following word pairs. Put the first word on the left part of the page and the second word on the right part of the page.
- Black and white
- Large and small
- Easy and hard
- Good and bad
- Happy and sad
- Clean and dirty
- Calm and anxious
- Shy and outgoing
- Start with the first word pair. What is in between black and white? Write the middle word for each pair between each end of the spectrum. For instance, “grey” is between black and white. Do this for each pair of words. Try your best to come up with something for each pair.
- When you’re done, take a look at the words you came up with. Were you able to think of a middle ground for each pair? You might have found it more difficult to come up with words the farther down the list you got.
This activity requires you to think about common dichotomies in a continuous way. Rather than looking at two boxes – one black and one white – you had to look at a spectrum, which included shades of grey. The whole point of thinking about the middle ground is to realize that things are often not as extreme as we may think.
For the rest of the day, notice whenever you use extreme words. Write down both the word you used and its opposite. Think about an appropriate middle-ground word. Then mark where you actually fall on this continuum from one extreme to the other. Going forward, try to use more moderate descriptors unless the extremes are a true representation of what you’re thinking or feeling. This can help people break away from dichotomous thinking.
Recap of “Expand your psyche: Contradict yourself to broaden your perspective”
People often get stuck in closed-minded thinking patterns, such as black-and-white thinking or failing to consider all relevant information. However, it is possible to increase open-mindedness by consciously reflecting on our beliefs and viewpoints. Actively increasing your open-minded thinking can, in turn, improve your decision-making, problem-solving, and interpersonal relationships.
Next time you find yourself falling into the trap of black-and-white thinking or other cognitive biases, take a step back and think about the three tips provided in this blog post to get more open-minded.
- Practice thinking outside your mental box. Think about others’ perspectives, what information they might be considering, and why they might have different ideas.
- Realize your fallibility. Be aware that even if you believe something very strongly, there are many other people who think and feel very differently. Consider the fact that there may not be a right answer and be open to different points of view.
Think about the middle ground. If you find yourself thinking in black-and-white terms, try to find the middle ground by examining things on a spectrum rather than as a dichotomy.