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Monday, February 9, 2015

How Do You Form a Point of View?

We all have very distinct viewpoints. Our point of view, or angle from which we observe something, can interfere with our complete understanding of the things we encounter. Attaining only partial knowledge, then forming a viewpoint seems logical and natural -- a good way to perceive the world around us. Yet, we must remember many things may obscure our view or cloud it while we make judgments about what we see and eventually believe.

The story of the blind men and an elephant from India has been used to illustrate a range of truths and fallacies. The world-famous parable implies that our subjective experience can be true, but that such experience is inherently limited by its failure to account for other truths or a totality of truth. It is used to illustrate the principle of living in harmony with people who have different belief systems, and it underscores the importance of considering all viewpoints in obtaining a full picture of reality.

The story says that a king asked six blind men to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant's body. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

The king then explains to them:

"All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned."

("Elephant and the Blind Men. Jain Stories.

Often, we tend to develop an attitude, or a manner of appraisal, that solidifies our particular approach to viewing our world and to the manner in which we deal with most of the things that we encounter. This attitude supports a personal belief system.

For example, consider the point of view of veteran professional athletes. These ultra-skilled individuals possess tremendous confidence and will power. They have beaten out thousands upon thousands of others to claim their right to be professionals. Some are simply phenomenal human beings who perform like flawless machines. They demand so much from themselves as they enter fierce competition.

Yet, despite their ability to play at peak performance attained through years of coaching, practice, and experience, they still do sometimes encounter frustration that seems to make things worse. They can slump and find themselves unable to perform to their own satisfaction, and they simply "hit the wall" and give up.

A strange thing can happen then. Sometimes, at that point of capitulation these athletes experience a sudden relaxation in their muscles, a clarity of thought, and the freedom to simply trust their tremendous skills. It is ironic that their peak performance can return at the point of not caring whether they contribute to a win or to a loss. With the loss of anxiety and pressure, they feel free to trust their talents, and the slump dissolves.

I believe when we loosen up, open our closed minds and relax to widen our narrow viewpoints, we often allow ourselves to discover new information and experience novel situations, and we can better "see" the path that lay ahead. As straight and good as our convictions may be, we also need to force ourselves to consider oppositions while we acknowledge change and find that newer methods may be necessary roads to a better existence.

And, what a challenge it is to view the entire scope of anything near and dear to our hearts. It can frustrate even those with the best of intentions. Very often in our research, we find so much "gray" in what we initially conceived as "black" or "white." Our basic knowledge of a thing develops into wisdom as we learn other perspectives. In fact, sometimes in our journey of discovery, we find our own approach to living is full of initial misconceptions. Learning the truth can reveal we had been living in a "bubble" of isolation meant to insure immunity from stark reality.

Biased means "one-sided," or "lacking a neutral viewpoint and not having an open mind." Bias may typically be found in matters concerning race, disability, and sexuality. Human bias can stem from specific cultural norms and beliefs. It is a fact that we human beings exhibit particular inherent errors in thinking when we process information.

These errors can even be the result of genetic predisposition that has arisen over time as we have evolved. For example, the negativity bias causes us to give more weight to negative experiences than positive ones. In the dangerous environment in which our ancestors lived, avoiding negative outcomes likely meant life or death; being especially concerned with avoiding the bad made our ancestors more likely to survive.

Bias can also be attributed to our desire to take unconscious reasoning shortcuts -- simple mental rules termed heuristics -- and the limited processing power of our brains to analyze complex information.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics states, "In general, heuristics are useful, but sometimes they lead to severe and systematic errors ...The clearer an object, the closer we perceive it to be. Although this heuristic is usually correct, it allows haze to trick us into thinking that objects are more distant than they are. The effect can be dangerous. Studies show people often drive faster in fog because reduced clarity and contrast make going fast appear slower. Airline pilots are similarly tricked, so pilots are trained to rely more on instruments than on what they think they see out the cockpit window."

(A. Tversky and D. Kahneman. Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. 1987)

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely says, "We usually think of ourselves as sitting the driver's set, with ultimate control over the decisions we made and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires—with how we want to view ourselves—than with reality."

Becoming adept at recognizing our own biases and the biases of others allows us to

I believe we need people with a wide, vast array of viewpoints willing to come together, to share, and to compromise in order to move our society toward much-needed change. The tendency of people to align themselves with specific political and social groups while accepting, without question, the "groupthink" mentality serves to polarization human beings -- the result is less cooperation and less critical thinking.

Like blind men grasping but a part of an elephant, many of us want to limit ourselves to understandings we can easily fit into a comfort zone of shared beliefs. We read and learn from sources that feed our "right" point of view. We ignore or denounce anything to the contrary.

I believe no serious  problem can be solved as long as we erect fences to keep out foreign ideas. America thrives on independent thinking and liberty of action. The ever-changing threads of difference that run through the national fabric are necessary to preserve the strength of our union.

Instead of worrying about how to maintain steadfast, polar views, we should worry about how to
blend our unique viewpoints and learn from each other -- all of us sharing all points of view in a workable harmony of action. We may just come up with solutions that rival the size of the mighty pachyderm.
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