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Beware of Your Internal Lawyer!

By on October 24, 2008 – 10:00 am  2 Comments

Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.

Presidential CandidatesAs I am sure you have, I recently witnessed a heated argument between two neighbors who disagree over the  Presidential campaign. Perhaps you found yourself in this very same situation? If your relations with people supporting the opposing view have been more difficult as of late, please pay attention!

The Confirmation Bias and Our Internal Lawyer

Studies of everyday reasoning show that people tend to make their decisions instinctively and then try to find evidence to support their point of view.  We are typically much better at noticing and remembering information that supports our position rather than information that proves us wrong: that’s our confirmation bias. When our perception of the world is challenged, we are more likely to distort and reinterpret events so they fit our original perception than we are to reevaluate our position – that’s a process known as assimilation. If confronted with opposing views that are difficult to turn to our advantage, we are perturbed. In this case, to diminish the dissonance, cognitive science tells us that we quickly find loopholes in the other party’s argument.  This is what Jonathan Haidt cleverly calls our “internal lawyer”: when we create the reasoning to support our views that already fits our emotional beliefs in our views.

Confirmation biases, assimilation, and internal lawyers are all processes that we use quite frequently.  They are in action at work, at home, at our kids’ soccer game.  They protect our self-esteem, but impair our judgment. They make us feel better, but do worse. The result? My neighbors’ disagreement.

Both Information-Seeking and Bonding

On another line of thought, I also attended this week the naturalization ceremony of a new American Citizen. After he swore allegiance to the country, a video was presented. The message was simple: we were all created equal, and we all have the right to freedom and to pursue happiness. It is through our individual contributions that we’ve built this country, and contributing starts with our neighbors and communities.

In this time of presidential elections and economic uncertainty, this was a neat reminder. As humans, we are information-seeking and bonding creatures. Information-seeking and bonding are both ubiquitous and fundamental. These dispositions are good news as they certainly contributed to much of the country’s and the world’s advancement.  But of course, we have to use them.

I’d also like to remind us of the strength of wisdom. In the VIA Classification, strengths of wisdom and knowledge are paired together. VIA also associates wisdom with perspective, which “represents a superior level of knowledge, judgment, and allows the individual to address important and difficult questions.” In other words, it is through information-seeking that we can achieve wisdom.

So here’s where it all comes together: next time you strike a conversation with someone who supports “the other” presidential candidate, I’d like to suggest you put your internal lawyer away and pull on your natural tendencies as information seeker and bonder to achieve a wiser process. Listening to what your neighbor has to say rather than instinctively and defensively trying to prove your point is not only a more mature way to approach the discussion, but also a strategy more conducive to the country’s advancement. And in the end, that’s likely what we all want.

All the best until next month!




American Naturalization Ceremony – October 22, 2008, Philadelphia, PA.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

Schulman, M. (2002). The Passion to Know, A Developmental Perspective. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 313-326). New York: Oxford University Press.

Images: Presidential Candidates


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