Reading things we disagree with

Quite often we read texts we disagree with. Our brain is hard-wired to ignore this sort of information and occasionally react in anger. This is not the most effective approach. In this article, I  show several alternatives. As always, you are welcome to read more here, here, here, here, and here.

Why we shut down when we disagree

There are several known cognitive biases that cause us to ignore the information we dislike. Our confirmation bias searches out for information reconfirming our previous decisions. Our need to belong, makes us ignore ideas that will not go well with our friends. We have sunk cost in our current projects, and the last thing we want to do is discontinue them.

So basically it is in our best interests to ignore the information that we disagree with or to learn it with the full intention of discrediting it. However, it just may be so that we are wrong and we miss the rare chance to correct our position.

Dealing with negative emotions

Reading something we disagree we are locked in some strange dialogue. We can stop reading any time we want, but we probably do not have a chance to tell the author what we think about him. Like any heated discussion, it is important to stay cool, calm and collected.

For many of us, criticism evokes strong emotions, particularly anger and anxiety. These emotions trigger flight-or-fight effect and we lose our mental agility. There are several simple tips:

  • Monitor physical reactions. If the breathing becomes intense, the pulse rises, we get impatient the body is triggering fight or flight effect.
  • Exercise. If you get too agitated it is best to stop reading and do some exercise. At work a short 5 min walk typically does wonders. At home, we may prefer pushups or another strength exercise.
  • Breathing. If you focus on your breath instead of the text you may calm yourself down. Try to lake slow deep breathes. Do notice your negative thoughts, but do not try to pursue or change them.
  • Relaxation. You may want to sit in a comfortable quite place or visualize yourself being in such place.

It is important to remain relatively passive, not force yourself to react but wait till the relaxation happens.

Even when the document you are reading directly criticizes you, never take the difference of opinions personally.

Value the diversity

To really appreciate different positions, we should value the diversity. Diversity is a wonderful phenomenon that makes our world richer, provides wonderful discoveries, gives us a support network when we are vulnerable, and allows us to avoid the worst kind of mistakes. We do have to pay a small price: some annoying miscommunication and disagreement, and it is well worth it.

Open mind when dealing with others is very important. Other people may come to very similar conclusions using different arguments, or a very different conclusion evaluating our own arguments. All assumptions should be evaluated. Different hidden assumptions may break the communication.

Just like in conversation, try to find the common ground and think before taking a position. Maybe the disagreement is not as deep as it seems? Maybe you are the one mistaking?

Sometimes there is simply not enough information to decide one way or another, and it is perfectly good to agree to disagree.

Look for mistakes

Look for mistakes: rhetorics, bad facts, faulty logic both in what you read and in your own logic. When we try to find mistakes we focus on details and learn the arguments deeper.

What made the other person take his position? What are his hidden motivations and psychological tendencies? Is he a trend follower or contrarian? Are the arguments logical or emotional? What methodologies did he use? What facts did he supply?

Analyze what you read on several levels. Disagreement on one level may be accompanied by learning on other levels.

Modify your beliefs

Be optimistic but cautious regarding what you just learned. Maybe you can do something better, but unless you tried it there is no way to know. Maybe you are right and the text has a mistake, but you do need a peer review. The feedback should be ongoing. Maybe as you learn more, you will reevaluate your approach.

Get informed and active in communication. Learn the facts better, do some sort of independent research, maybe even write a letter to the author inviting a dialogue.

Practice polarity thinking. Two equally strong and contradictory positions may have the right to coexist at least until a new information is available.

When we read something contradictory to our beliefs, it is our intuitive defensive behavior to fortify in our belief. We may consciously turn the level of belief down, to allow better collection of the relevant information in the future.

Allow yourself to change your mind. No decision should be the final decision unless your profession leaves you no other choice.

Do not get hypnotized

Sometimes the most outrageous and unlikely opinions backed up by good rhetoric and utter conviction tend to hypnotize us. Our strong original response may be transformed from hate to love. Great manipulators often use this effect. Do not get carried away, stay skeptical and critical. Even if you do not understand how a magic trick works, it is just a trick. There can always be some hidden mechanism in action.


Stay calm and technical. Try to open your mind and learn new things. Allow yourself longer pauses and reread the text. Test your beliefs. Do not get carried by rhetorics.

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