The common connection — By striving to understand one another, people can separate beliefs from identities


People don’t like to have their views challenged. Often when someone’s view is challenged, they take it as a personal attack.

Professors at Northwestern University found that when people’s confidence in their beliefs is shaken, they become stronger advocates for those beliefs. Although it is natural to assume a persistent and enthusiastic advocate of a belief is brimming with confidence, the advocacy might signal that the individual is filled with doubt.

If someone isn’t completely sure about something they believe, they tend to convince themselves it’s true by convincing other people of the same thing. It’s easier to believe something when other people believe the same thing.

When someone, like a protester, is protesting and advocating something, maybe they are doing it to justify their belief — maybe they aren’t fully convinced, so they protest to assure themselves that they are right. Protests generally don’t change minds, but they do allow others to learn about the protesters’ beliefs. This can lead to passively teaching the protestors about the other people, if the other people were actively listening — so protests are not always completely useless.

Psychologist Jones T. Kaplan recently found in a study that when the participants were challenged on their strongly held beliefs, there was more activation in the parts of the brain that are thought to correspond with self-identity and negative emotions.

This evidence suggests people take ideological challenges as personal insults. This means that to change minds, people need to separate opinions from identities.

How does one separate their opinions from their identity? Everyone has their own opinions about things, but their opinions aren’t them.

Debates are great examples of two opposing views being challenged, each side with the intent to convince the other side that they are right. Most debates are pointless because both parties are only interested in stating their own opinion and furthering their own cause. They don’t want to actually listen and put themselves in the other person’s shoes — that’s too much work. So they get angrier and angrier and get offended for no reason.

People like to convince others to believe what they do, but most people don’t like to be convinced of anything — they want to choose for themselves. People don’t like changing their minds. It’s either too much effort or it’s too uncomfortable.

What if individuals attentively listened to others and genuinely tried to understand them? They might find that it’s OK to disagree and they might even discover they are more similar to each other than they thought. By listening and understanding, people can realize that everyone is more similar than different. Differences make people beautiful.

The reason people stereotype others is because it is challenging to truly understand another human — each one is incredibly unique. But if people place others in a box, they can wrap their mind around the other person, even though their understanding of the person is incomplete and often entirely false. If people spent time to truly understand the humans that surround them, they may be pleasantly surprised at what they find.

It’s not easy to understand other people, but through listening and understanding, people will find a connection that they never knew existed: everyone is human.

Andrew Brand can be reached at or on Twitter @theandrewbrand


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