When we talk to one another, we aren’t just communicating but we are forming and evolving our own set of beliefs over time. Through practice, or recitation, beliefs take shape, and become more firm.
In my extended social circle, sometimes people will refer to “emotional processing” to mean just needing to have the ear of a friend to work through some things. If you’ve had these kinds of conversations with your loved ones, you’ll probably notice that when they need to talk, their emotions are confused and out of order, and they often don’t know what to do. And if you’ve been that person yourself, maybe you can identify with feeling better afterwards. Did you communicate? Or did communicating change your mind? It’s both.
The Conviction Scale
Any belief you have, you might think of as being “hard” or “soft” according to your level of conviction in it. There is a measure for this called the Brown Assessment of Beliefs Scale (BABS) which allows psychologists to measure how much conviction a person has in a belief. And a “conviction score” looks like this:
This basic scale can apply to any belief, from the mundane (whether your favorite sports team will win this week) all the way up to issues like belief in Deity. Looking at belief in Deity, we can see that we already have cultural “labels” for the different spectra of religious belief.
Most people who are lost are wondering about something find themselves in the middle. And the middle is a difficult place to be:
- Lack of certainty is itself painful to some people
- Others in your circle on either end of the spectrum (0 or 4) will typically be shouting and trying to pull you their way, so you can be a bit like the rope in a tug-of-war match.
- If the belief in question is about an important issue in your life, like whether you are a good person or a bad person, or whether you should take a new job, you must decide to inform necessary later actions.
Moving up the Conviction Scale
In the previous post Say My Name, we talked about how naming emotions can give them shape and definition. This is part of the process of moving your beliefs. In fact, it is one of two key mechanisms that help you change your mind:
- Through talking, you find names for things. What was once fuzzy comes into sharper focus, which allows you to form an opinion
- Feedback from the other person “pushes” you. They will inevitably either reinforce what you think, or cast doubt upon it, by bringing their beliefs to the table
- Through conversation, you “try on your own idea” as you watch a reaction reflected back to you in real time by your partner
No matter how the person you are talking to reacts, the conversation will create in you some emotional “pressure” or “push” — in the direction of either hardening belief or hardening disbelief.
How Quickly Will You Move?
Aside from “Conviction” there is a separate idea of Fixity, or how fixed in your beliefs you are. This is the same 0 – 4 scale, but with a different focus: if you are at the bottom of the scale you are eager or totally open to reconsider your beliefs, and at the top of the scale you are completely unwilling to reconsider that your beliefs may be false.
As you might imagine, lots of conversation with someone who is at a 4 on the fixity scale isn’t going to move them. Even worse is when two people who are at “level 4 fixity” with opposite viewpoints get into an argument. In our Deity example above, Richard Dawkins and the Pope were given as examples of people at opposite ends of the conviction scale. But they probably both share a score of 4 on the fixity scale. This would likely make for a frustrating conversation that wouldn’t move anyone!
To even be able to evolve our beliefs, we have to be less than a 4, since evolution is sheerly the opposite of being fixed and standing still. I’ve had a fair number of experiences with psychotherapy through time. And while therapists probably wouldn’t describe it this way, I think one of their core functions is to “undermine high fixity”. People arrive with a problem, and need to change, but cannot. To enable change, therapist interactions focus on moving their fixity down at first. This is perfectly captured in the old joke:
Q: How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? A: Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.
Use This for Personal Development
These scores are not simple, or even easy to measure unless you’re a psychologist. But they are a useful construct to look at how our beliefs are shaped. And if you know this about yourself, you can use it as a tool to change your mind, away from negative & destructive patterns you may hold.
When you are uncertain about something, or have a difficult conversation, it can be interesting to look at these attributes about ourselves. Understand where we are, where the other person is, and why communication is working or failing.
The best conversations I have with friends and loved ones are ones where I can bring this kind of mind, in the picture below. I come to the conversation with some opinion and conviction, but without too much fixity, staying open to the possibility that I’m wrong, or that the other person has something to teach me. This enables me to “move” or to change my mind.
On the other hand, we’re all humans, and I have also had conversations where I was bringing this kind of mind:
You see these kinds of conversations all the time when it comes to hot-button political and religious discussions. A person shows up to the conversation sure of their position and not looking to consider anything else. If the two people share the belief, they form an echo chamber where they further harden one another’s position. If they disagree on the belief, they talk past one another. There is nothing there for conversation to effect. Conversations where the table is laid like this are best avoided, until one or both people can soften their fixity to permit change to be possible.