Being Right Is An Emotion

The following is a post I wrote much earlier in the week, but I’d decided not to publish it because I felt.. oh I don’t know, like I didn’t want to get involved in the madness of the referendum. And then that poor politician, Jo Cox, was shot and stabbed yesterday by someone who – so it looks at present – was completely carried away by an opposing political conviction. And so I’m posting after all, because we really do need a sea change in how we stage public debates.


It’s bad enough that we have to live in a world full of gun crime and futile EU referendums, what’s really depressing me at the moment is the quality of debate surrounding them. I am continually horrified by the sheer awfulness of the example being set by people – politicians, the media – who are supposed to be in authority. You might think that the importance of the issues at stake would encourage those doing the debating to put their best brain in gear. But no. If there is some information to be had out there, it’s usually drowned out by the hysteria and the posturing.

I’m not about to tell anyone what to think. But I am going to ask you to consider for a moment how we think. How we might be brought to the best, most sensible and viable decision.

And here’s my first point: if we’re having a public debate, it’s because we need to make a community decision. Not a decision based on what I want, what I think, but a decision based on what’s best for a disparate group of people. A healthy community seeks difference – everyone thinking and acting the same all the time is called a cult. So people are being asked to do a really difficult but necessary thing. We all need to think outside our own personal concerns. We have to think about the young person we love the most, who is most different to us in terms of desires, interests and beliefs, and figure out how to keep society fair, safe and open as far as we can see into the future for both of us. That would be a really good outcome to our thinking processes.

Which makes the personalised and emotive nature of all current public debates a disaster from the outset. The more emotional a debate becomes, the more entrenched people become in their sense of what’s right. Because the sense of being right is an emotion. It’s a wonderful emotion. All that horrible feeling of uncertainty that existence brings, all the nagging fear and low self-esteem are wiped away in a great wave of pure conviction. The more others try to wrestle it away from us, the more tenaciously we hang onto it.  This makes it almost impossible for people to hear opposing points of view – literally, we can’t even hear them.

You may have come across the term ‘cognitive dissonance’, which was coined by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1959. It refers to the extreme psychological discomfort we feel when we hold two contradictory beliefs, ideas or values at the same time. This is such a painful position that we pretty much do everything we can – any old trumped-up (and I use the term advisedly) rationalisation will do the trick – in order to resolve the conflict. In fact the brain anticipates such awkward situations and heads them off at the pass using the strategy known as ‘confirmation bias’. We block all information that contradicts what we think and listen only to information that confirms us in our views.

But this makes for terrible decisions. We stop learning. We actually stop thinking altogether and just move into a defensive state. All to protect that gorgeous, delirious emotion of being right. Because in all honesty, we’re hardly ever ‘right’ in the accurate sense of the word. Most of the time, in most of our speculations, beliefs, choices and analyses, we’re only partially right at best, because life is a complex thing and we will insist on being right even in matters that have no factual basis. And let’s face it, even science, that great foundation of factual certainty, is constantly revising, updating and surpassing its knowledge. We have lots of convictions and fantasies based on hopes and fears and best estimates, but we ‘know’ very little indeed.

So! How do we make good decisions when we finally get our heads around the reality of our patchy and uncertain knowledge? How can we do the right thing, rather than the narcissistically-right thing? I have six guidelines (media, politicians take note) for creating a good and helpful debate:

1. The only arguments that carry real weight are those backed up by evidence. We need evidence.

2. Not all opinions are equal. In making a good decision we need reliable information, and that comes only from the most reputable, most unbiased, most experienced sources.

3. Speculation is not an argument. (This is the one I have trouble with Mr Litlove over.) Oh there will be speculations, for sure, but we must take them with a pinch of salt. I’m on fairly safe ground when I say that no one has yet figured out how to foresee the future.

4. There is the problem, and there’s how we feel about it. The chances are these two separate things are going to be continually entangled. But how we feel about the problem is probably going to be completely unhelpful when it comes to finding a solution. We need help to hold them apart.

5. Conclusions are what we end up with, not the place where we begin.

6. Doubt is sanity and absolute conviction is madness. Reality is always going to be more complex, dynamic and unguessable than any of us can imagine. Keep doubting.




32 thoughts on “Being Right Is An Emotion

  1. Oooh, how I like this! The level of ‘debate’ is appalling me too. Ironically, I have been training people in companies every day this week to step down from their ‘ladders of inference and certainties’ and talk about things in the shared pool of meaning. But alas, alas, much easier to talk about this theoretically in a training room than to actually live it out!
    The people I really fear are those who never question themselves or their opinions. And therefore never feel the need to listen to any other opinions, except if they happen to coincide with their own (‘see, everyone feels like that…’).

  2. It’s the definition of a closed mind, isn’t it? You have been at the cliff face this week, my friend! But it’s excellent work that you do. If we can start to think differently in an environment where there is less personally at stake, maybe that thinking can be extended to these sorts of difficult, public issues. Got to hope.

  3. I wish this post could be plastered on the front of every newspaper in the land, such good advice (or at the very least, plastered over Farage’s awful posters). Really I despair at what’s been going on, both the lies and the nastiness.

    • It doesn’t HAVE to be this way, does it? There are so many choices as to how this could all be done – I just wish politicians and the media didn’t repeatedly choose the worst!

  4. Although, trying to be cheerful, I notice that you have ‘The Essex Serpent’ on your sidebar. Can’t wait to start reading that, it looks splendid. 🙂

    • Ooh yes, I was so pleased when that one popped through the door. I’m really looking forward to it – and so doing that daft thing of ‘saving it up’. I should get started on it, and distract myself from the rest of this week! 🙂 Books are always an excellent reason to be cheerful!

  5. Fascinating post. If I had actually heard any *real* debate or discussion over the last few months I thinkI would have fainted with shock. All there’s been is hysterical mud-slinging, no reasonable discussion and no facts. People are entrenched and will react with emotion and no thought – very depressing…

    • It really has been awful, hasn’t it? I did laugh when you said you would have fainted with shock – ha, I know just what you mean! You’d think someone, somewhere might say to themselves, idk, perhaps this isn’t the best way to run a campaign? How can there be all those politicians and only one idea???

  6. An excellent piece. We have similar debased ‘political discussion’ in Australia. Worse now there is an election happening.

    • Oh I am so sorry to hear that. It does seem to be a global phenomenon. Wouldn’t it be astonishing if a party simply focused on its policies… you’d think they’d win out of sheer shock tactics if nothing else!

  7. It makes me so sad that this referendum has brought public discourse in the UK to a level that I know well from living in the US. Half the reason I’m still here is in an attempt to try to escape that kind of constant shouting.

    Frankly, I can’t fathom why we’re having this referendum at all. Cameron’s gambled the future of his country on an attempt to placate his back-benchers, for which he should be ashamed; consequently, no one on either side has much interest in hard-facts arguments, which is why the “conversation” around this is so emotive; and now an MP is dead. It’s a ridiculous, futile process from beginning to end.

    • Oh you hit the nail on the head. I don’t know why we’re having it either (except of course, as you say, it’s for political reasons that have now backfired). Scarcely anyone living in the UK understands the entirety of the relationship between our country and the EU. It’s a vast and complex thing. So how can we choose, apart from emotional reasons, which will never be good ones. And as you say, can get people killed in horrific ways. So the US is the same, eh? It’s a worrying global phenomenon. Children under five behave more politely when they need to make a decision…

      • The US is worse, I think, since it’s been going on for years – here it’s just beginning. And we’ve had the threat of gun violence against politicians in the States for a long time, too (the shooting of Gabby Giffords, for one thing, although she survived.)

  8. Such a good post, lady. I try really hard to keep my mind open. In particular, if I see data that seems to back up one or the other side of a contentious political issue, I try to give that data an eye of very intense scrutiny. And I try to make that true whether I agree or disagree with what the study is supposedly proving. MUST KEEP MIND OPEN. PRIME DIRECTIVE.

    • It’s really hard to keep an open mind. The very nature of the human condition is to like to settle down comfortably with what we know and what feels familiar. So an open mind is a process and one that we have to kick ourselves into every time it seems necessary (even recognising the necessity is hard!). It sounds to me like you have an excellent procedure for doing that!

  9. Good reminder, on how to think. I have been much more closed in my mind in the past, but it’s never good to be complacent about where we are now. Interesting points to keep in mind.

    • The thing about closing the mind is that it feels secure and reassuring. There’s so much uncertainty in life that we can just run out of capacity to deal with more, I think. Which is why I feel we ought to be helped to keep open minds, not encouraged into entrenched positions!

  10. This post is inspired and rightly (!) thought-provoking. I am particularly struck by this:
    ‘… the sense of being right is an emotion. It’s a wonderful emotion. All that horrible feeling of uncertainty that existence brings, all the nagging fear and low self-esteem are wiped away in a great wave of pure conviction. The more others try to wrestle it away from us, the more tenaciously we hang onto it. This makes it almost impossible for people to hear opposing points of view – literally, we can’t even hear them.’
    Thank you for posting it. I too am about to share it.

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