Understanding Attitudes, Part 2

Understanding Attitudes, Part 2

Part 1 of this essay explained how identifying and evaluating other people’s attitudes can increase our appreciation of people with good attitudes and deal more effectively with those with bad attitudes. It also, more importantly, explained how identifying and evaluating our own attitudes can improve our relationships with others and make us better human beings. Part 1 then examined the false beliefs about SELF that spawn bad attitudes. Part 2 will examine other false beliefs that do the same.

False beliefs about THOUGHTS and FEELINGS:

“I create my own truth.” We can form ideas about all manner of things and believe whatever we wish, but believing them to be true does not make them true. That is why the wisest among us have said that truth is searched for and discovered rather than created. To believe otherwise greatly increases our vulnerability to error.

“I have a right to my opinion, so my opinions are right.” There is a great difference between having a right and being right. Having a right is about being free to decide; being right is about deciding correctly. As with the false notion about truth, the false notion about opinion gives us a false assurance and makes it easier to be wrong!

“Having evidence for my opinion proves that it is right.” Having evidence is important; without it there is no way to test an opinion and avoid error. But not all evidence is of equal value. Some evidence represents the exception rather than the rule. Therefore, “having evidence” is not enough—we need to have sufficient evidence to overcome objections to our opinions.

“My feelings are more trustworthy than reasoning and logic.” Feelings and reasoning are natural and valuable aspects of our human nature, but neither of them is totally trustworthy. Even strong feelings can be mistaken; even careful reasoning can be wrong. However, there is a greater chance for feelings to mislead us because they are spontaneous and emotional rather than rational. Therefore, before embracing feelings and acting on them, we should apply reasoning to determine their value.

“I should never question my own ideas.” This idea is often touted as increasing mental strength. In realty, it denies us the use of our minds for our own good. We question other people’s ideas because we understand that they may be mistaken. We should question our own ideas for exactly the same reason. In fact, we should be more diligent about questioning our own ideas because our reputation depends on doing so.

“Whoever disagrees with me commits an offense against me.” However much our egos may applaud this notion, it remains pure nonsense. This is not mean others’ disagreement is pleasant to receive, only that it is helpful to us. It prompts us to re-examine our view and a) determine it needs to be changed or b) confirm its validity. Either way we benefit.

“Expressing my negative feelings will relieve them.” This idea was long thought to be correct. But in time Carol Tavris and other scholars proved it false. In Anger the Misunderstood Emotion she proved beyond a doubt that expressing anger increases rather than decreases anger, expressing hatred increases hating, and expressing contempt for a person or group increases that contempt. (Expressing positive feelings increases them in the same way.)

“Morality is strictly a religious matter.” Morality is associated with religion, to be sure, but not one or two religions but all religions. Even more important, though the moral principles may differ somewhat from one religion to another, they are for the most part, very similar. Also, they are regarded as rules of life for people of all religions and no religion.

“Morality is purely personal and subjective.” This idea implies that morality can be rejected or modified without serious consequences. But think about that for a moment. Imagine the immeasurable harm, and indeed chaos, that would occur if child abuse and child protection, or acting on the urge to rape and restraining that urge, were morally equal. If morality is not impersonal and objective, no one is safe.

“To be creative, I must reject established standards.”  There is an element of truth in this idea. To be creative we need to open our minds to new and different possibilities but at the same time understand that they may prove to be inferior to older ones. We should neither reject established standards nor embrace new ones until we have compared and evaluated them.

False beliefs about LEARNING:

“The teachers’ job is to make students interested.” Even the best teacher cannot “make” students interested. That is not the way learning occurs. Students must cooperate by approaching their courses with the desire to learn, the willingness to give the lessons space in their minds, and the patience to give the process time. Otherwise, learning with not occur.

“Whatever doesn’t satisfy me instantly isn’t worthwhile.” If this were true, then life itself would be worthless because life doesn’t come instantaneously; it is instead spread out over time. Similarly, some of the best and most satisfying things in our lives come about slowly. To value only instant gratification robs us of those things, and that is a self-imposed tragedy.

“Fields of knowledge are separate and unrelated to one another.” In some ways they are separate, but in others they are related.  For example, ethics is related to law, archeology to anthropology, various sciences to medicine, and history to virtually every other field. And even where there is no direct relationship, the procedures and practices of one field can provide ideas to other fields. The problem with regarding fields as unrelated is that it blocks potential insights. 

“In complex matters, there are no right answers.” On the face of it, this idea is much too broad to be meaningful. Besides, complexity is open to truth, and where there is truth, there are, by definition, right answers. (A more sensible idea than the popular one would be that right answers are more difficult to find in complex matters than in simple ones.)

“In disagreements, one side must be totally right.” Though this idea is common, it is gratuitous and therefore silly. In disagreements, it is possible that one side may be totally right and the other totally wrong, or equally possible that each side is partly right and partly wrong. Keeping this possibility in mind enables us to give the other person’s view a fair hearing and to receive one ourselves.

“My way of thinking, speaking, and writing should be respected.” This nonsensical idea was likely framed by someone who feared evaluation of his performance in one or more of these areas. Respect should be given only where it is deserved.

“Other people’s ideas are of no value to me.” The appropriate retort to this idea is, “How do you know? Have you examined all the ideas of all other people?” Anyone who dismisses other people’s ideas so cavalierly clearly wants to feel superior to others and is willing to do so without evidence. That fact disqualifies the person from consideration. 

“Expert’s views are no better than anyone else’s.” This commonly held view is a first cousin to the previous one. It is shorthand for saying, “I have no expertise of my own and am too lazy to strive for some, so I’ll just pretend nobody else has any.” 

Note: this essay is in part borrowed from my 1999 book, Thinking Critically About Attitudes.

Copyright © 1999, 2024 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero