Have You Ever Noticed?

In life on March 2, 2009 at 8:19 pm

… how two people can meet for the first time, disagree on almost everything, and go their separate ways, each inflexibly convinced that they are in possession of absolute and immutable truths, each thinking the other a bit stupid, and each believing that what they have disagreed about is among the most important issues of their lives.

Stranger still, if those same two people are thrown together again after the passage of time they often continue the argument, but now on opposite sides of the same issue, unaware of the influence each has had on the other. Usually, neither recognizes the fundamental issue; more likely, each immediately seeks out friends who re-enforce what each already believes (and is miserable if none are available).

This is as true of scholars, teachers and their students as it is of garbage collectors or children. One can be intellectual in private, but one has a vested interest in a world-view when in public. And if either is persuaded to the other point-of-view they honestly think it has been theirs all along.

A variation on this theme: sometimes an individual sees the argument of your enemies most clearly until he and that enemy have a falling out, at which time he begins to realize how cogent your argument was. Suddenly you were right all along, but “I just didn’t see what you were getting at.” He honestly believes you were both always in accord, but that you both were tripped up by that old nemesis, Mr. “Semantics.”

Still another variation: sometimes the individual is compelled to defend everything issued forth from his own lips simply because he said it (without waiting for further data, or in heated argument, or foolishly because he was tired, hungry, or perhaps not feeling so well), though a wiser man would chalk it up quickly to a temporary mental aberration, recognizing that given the right conditions, all men are fools.

One last variation: if the same two people are of different sexes, they very often see the other in the disagreement phase as somewhat unattractive, if not downright ugly. But as their positions merge and they discover that they “were in agreement all along,” each seems more attractive than the first time they met. Unchanging physical features suddenly change right before our eyes!

Copyright © 1971, 2009 by Tad Laury Graham

  1. I first wrote about this in 1971, but recently rediscovered it on a trip through my personal notebooks. It seemed all-the-more true today, based on the massive amount of brain research accumulating over the last 10-12 years. I’m looking forward to each new discovery as they come to light—and wouldn’t mind hearing more of your views, as well.

  2. Funny, we’ve been thinking along the same lines. I wrote this several months ago:

    I’ve notice that no matter where I stand on politics, or on religion, or on other volatile issues, that the people who dispute my convictions appear to be ignoring facts that cry out in support of my beliefs. These people stand firm in their certainty, no matter what evidence I present.

    These people, more often than not, feel the same about me. We can look at the same pool of evidence and draw different conclusions. This observation has puzzled me for years, until I stumbled across a book (1) by the neuroscientist Robert Burton. He believes that feeling certain isn’t necessarily due to deduction and the evaluation of evidence, but from the brain’s primitive limbic system. In short – certainty is emotion just as love and anger are emotions.

    This would explain the blind spots we all seem to have when someone tries to confront us with evidence that contradicts our most cherished beliefs. This, of course, does not mean you can’t be correct if you’re certain, but it does mean you should be aware of the possibility that how you feel could be trumping how you think.


    1.(1)Burton, Robert A. (2008). On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. St. Martin’s Press, NY. ISBN-13: 978-0-312-35920-1

  3. I discovered this phenomenon fairly early in life but it was years later before I had it confirmed. It turns out that we don’t see what we think we see. We see the outlines and the gross features of an object, in this case a face, and our brain fills in the rest. That’s why physical features can seem to change: if I like you, my brain fills in a more attractive face; if I don’t like you, my brain fills in a more negative face. There is a lesson in here somewhere.

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