When we think about learning, it’s mostly as an additive process. And, it can be argued that’s correct at times. You’re building a collection of new pieces of knowledge, perhaps about different areas in life. And, for the most part, once you’ve got that bug, it feels good doing it.
Yet there’s another type of learning that is far more uncomfortable. But it’s far more powerful. It’s called unlearning. It’s where you actively replace displace your existing knowledge with more accurate information. That could be thanks to a very basic correction – where you somehow picked up the wrong details in the first place. For example, you thought that 2+2 was 5. The moment you realised your error, the new, accurate knowledge entirely replaces your original beliefs.
But then there’s also a second type of unlearning. Here, you uncover far more detail around a subject than you ever knew existed. The context changes and so your understanding evolves alongside this. So perhaps it’s not the case that all people who do X get Y – it depends on their location, history, biology – whatever.
This concept of unlearning is important to understand because as humans we all suffer from a number of biases. One of these in particular is the Confirmation Bias. The Scottish moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith described it well in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:-
“The opinion which we entertain of our own character depends entirely on our judgments concerning our past conduct. It is so disagreeable to think ill of ourselves, that we often purposely turn away our view from those circumstances which might render that judgment unfavourable.”
Confirmation Bias makes it harder for us to unlearn what we previously believed because we each have an inherent desire to be seen as consistent. Generally, we believe that people who change their minds are displaying a weakness of character. So if someone presents you with information that totally contradicts your existing knowledge or worldview, it often feels like an attack – and we are likely to respond negatively. Just take a look at the echo chamber of social media or, increasingly, academia to see this in action on a daily basis. We fight hard to repel any evidence that shows we’ve been wrong in the past as a result of our constant desire to present a robust, consistent image to the outside world.
Of course, it’s one thing when such biases affect individuals who are making personal decisions. But the reality is that this behaviour absolutely translates (and I believe arguably is made far worse) when you have a group of individuals in aggregate all making decisions together – for example, in an institution. That’s then exacerbated by other factors, such as groupthink.
For me, political parties are the epitomy of such failures of learning.
So, lessons to take away? Seek knowledge that contradicts your own. Become more self-aware and practice leaving your biases at the door. And most importantly, don’t ever be afraid to change your mind. So you told the world you were going to be a multimillionaire entrepreneur by the age of 25? When six months later you wake up hating the lifestyle, and leave to join a circus – don’t feel guilty when people call you a flake. Maybe you’re putting smiles on people’s faces. And maybe you’ve just unlearned the most important lesson in life – how to move closer to what you actually want.