From closed mind to open mind

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Do you consider yourself an open-minded person? Most people would say yes. Which, paradoxically, shows a form of closed-mindedness by failing to consider your own shortcomings. 

Closed-mindedness in the inability or difficulty to consider different ideas or opinions. While it is easy to spot in others, we are all guilty of closed-mindedness depending on the topics and situations. So how can we identify and manage this behaviour in order to go from closed mind to open mind?

Closed Mind versus Open Mind

Pinning down the closed mind

There are many forms of closed-mindedness. The most extreme ones include religious fundamentalism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny. But closed-mindedness is more pervasive than many people believe. It hides in the corners of our internal beliefs, from cultural values to interpersonal judgements. Every time we use mental models, rules of thumbs, or first-level thinking to form an opinion, we are prone to closed-mindedness.

At its core, closed-mindedness is rooted in fear: fear of being wrong, fear of the unknown, fear of change. Being open-minded opens the door to potential embarrassment, and it requires more effort to constantly adjust one’s worldview compared to sticking with predefined opinions. To be open-minded means to embrace complexity, and that alone can be scary enough to push us to stay in the comfortable zone of our simple—sometimes simplistic—beliefs.

Closed-mindedness is a typical example of the Dunning–Kruger effect, where we don’t know what we don’t know. So how can we go about identifying closed-mindedness in ourselves and others?

Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater, identifies seven key signs of closed-mindedness in his book Principles. Go through the list and honestly ask yourself: do I sometimes behave this way? Which topics or situations tend to trigger this behaviour?

  1. You don’t want your ideas challenged. Closed-minded people are more interested in being right than in learning others’ perspectives and asking questions. You feel bad about getting stuff wrong, and you are frustrated when you can’t get someone else to agree with you.
  2. You are more likely to make statements than to ask questions. Open-minded people tend to ask a lot of questions.
  3. You focus more on being understood than on understanding others. When someone disagrees with them, closed-minded people will often assume that they aren’t being understood, rather than considering whether they are the ones who are not understanding the other person’s perspective.
  4. You say “I could be wrong, but…” Ray Dialo calls it “a perfunctory gesture that allows people to hold their own opinion while convincing themselves that they are being open-minded.”
  5. You prevent others from speaking. Closed-minded people tend to not leave enough room in the conversation for other people to participate and share their opinions, effectively blocking them.
  6. You have trouble holding two thoughts simultaneously in your mind. Open-minded people tend to not struggle as much to hold several conflicting concepts in their mind and to go back and forth between them.
  7. You lack a deep sense of humility. Of course, many people consider themselves humble. But we often let our ego get in the way of our thinking. Humility comes from experiencing failure, and closed-minded people tend to avoid failure by sticking to what they think they know.

Of course, it is unlikely your behaviour matches all seven signs all the time—if it was the case, you would be very unlikely to be the kind of person currently reading this article. What makes these signs useful to know is to detect closed-mindedness in ourselves and others in specific situations or around specific topics.

For instance, you may be open-minded on immigration and closed-minded on abortion, or you may be open-minded when chatting with friends about plans for your next gathering, but more closed-minded when arguing with one of your parents about a sensitive issue.

The benefits of open-mindedness

Being open minded is a continuous effort, but it’s well worth the work. For instance, research suggests that being open minded shapes your mood and makes you more creative. “Openpeople are more curious, creative, and motivated to explore the world and engage with possibilities,” write the researchers.

It’s not hard to imagine why: open-mindedness fosters curiosity, which in turn results in better creative input. It also fosters metacognition, so open-minded people will tend to make more space for self-reflection and interesting questions. Finally, open-minded people may be less driven by fear of failure compared to closed-minded people. The creative process involves learning through trial and error, which includes many failures before arriving at the desired result.

Another research study conducted with 340 college students found that open-mindedness may be linked to higher cognitive abilities. We don’t know if being open minded makes you smarter, or being smart makes you open minded, but these two traits seem to go hand-in-hand.

There is little doubt having an open mind is better in terms of creativity and cognition. So how can you go about fostering open mindedness in yourself, and encourage it in others?

How to foster an open mind

Looking at the seven key signs of closed-mindedness identified by Ray Dalio and designing counter-strategies is a good way to foster an open mind.

  • Manage your emotions. Don’t get angry when someone disagrees with you. Understand that there is always the possibility that you might be wrong, and that it’s worth it to consider the other person’s opinion in order to be sure you are not missing something.
  • Ask lots of questions. Asking good questions is one of the best ways to learn. Avoid leading questions. Keep them as open as possible to give the other person enough flexibility in their answers.
  • Use the two-minute rule. Ray Dalio recommends giving the other person at least two minutes of uninterrupted time to explain their thinking before jumping in with your own. The longer, the better.
  • Focus on listening. When discussing a topic with someone, truly listen to them. Don’t start forming an answer in your head before they’re done speaking.
  • Diversify your content diet. The content of your mind garden is largely based on the seeds you plant in it. Make sure to consume content from various sources so you can compare various opinions instead of sticking to your default ones.

Going from closed mind to open mind is a continuous effort. It is likely you will often catch yourself being closed-minded, and that’s fine. The first step is to recognise our natural tendency to fear being wrong, and to try and adjust our behaviour when we see it happening.

Hello! 👋 I'm Anne-Laure Le Cunff. I write about what I learn as an entrepreneur and neuroscience student. Do you want to make the most of your mind? Subscribe to Maker Mind, a weekly newsletter with neuroscience-based insights on decision making, continuous learning, thinking, creativity, and productivity.

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