To Cultivate Open-Mindedness

Johann Koehler impressed me the other day (a common occurrence) by explaining why he no longer reads The Economist: “I came to the point where I could predict what they would say about everything”. This struck me as admirable because I think most people who had such a realization would promptly renew their subscription rather than end it.

Much of the audience of political/cultural media products is composed of people who adore having their expectations met (e.g., “Tonight on the show our investigative reporter shows that, once again, you were right about everything!”). Indeed, if their biases are not reinforced, for example if their favorite outlet presents some evidence that challenges their views, such consumers will react quite negatively. More than once I have started following an independent-minded, original, unpredictable blog and seen it be battered into predictability over time by hostile comments from readers in search of comfort food.

This reflection reminded me of wonderful quote passed along by Andy Sabl in an excellent post about life at Harvard:

I’d always thought there were two Harvards: one that was about intellectual inquiry and expanding one’s horizons, and one that was about exactly the opposite.

As a professional educator and more generally as someone who wants our democratic republic to function properly, I despair at the tendency of so many people to use the wonder of the Internet mainly to search out whatever narrow slice of the media world will never surprise them, never being them into contact with competing views/facts and never teach them anything that they don’t already know. I wish I knew how we could produce more people who saw value in consuming the unfamiliar, the challenging and the off-beat rather than living on the empty calories provided by predictable confirmation of their own prejudices.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.