Stranger Things

My youngest son and I watched all three seasons of the Netflix series, Stranger Things, and eagerly anticipate the release of season four. If you have not watched or even heard of this award winning and critically acclaimed masterpiece, I am truly sorry for you. However, I can easily give you enough background for the rest of this musing to make sense without spoiling it for you (since I am sure you will now correct your omission and binge watch it as soon as possible.)

In Stranger Things, several kids become aware of dangerous and supernatural things happening due to experiments being performed at a nearby national laboratory. As is expected, most people don’t believe them, which leads them to take extraordinarily dangerous risks as they attempt to fight the conspiracy alone. Even when the people around them are faced with overwhelming and visceral evidence, often they still don’t believe anything is happening. The few adults who do believe are rapidly marked as crazy.

While I would love to spend this time talking about Stranger Things, what I really want to discuss is one underlying reason behind the way we choose to believe or not believe things. The term for this is Intellectual Character. Viewing why someone believes something (or doesn’t) through this method is different than a rationalizing explanation of a belief. When you explain why someone believes something by exploring their reasons, you are using rationalizing explanations, which can only take you so far.

Using character explanations helps us understand the intellectual style or mind-set of a person. In other words, it shows how they go about trying to find out things about an event or situation. U.S. philosopher Linda Zagzebski, in her book Virtues of the Mind, called things like gullibility, carelessness, and closed-mindedness “intellectual vices,” and traits like humility, caution, and carefulness “intellectual virtues.” Other “vices” Zagzebski lists are negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail.

The kind of thinker someone is causes them to believe (or not believe) the way they do. In fact, what we believe is rarely based on how much relevant information we have. Conspiracy theorists have vast quantities of information at their disposal. They end up believing what they do because of how they interpret and respond to the information at their disposal. This is fundamentally a result of the way they are.

Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking. While we each may have some predilection toward certain intellectual character traits, most are learned behaviors. If we care about people, then we should care about equipping them with the intellectual means to arrive at the truth and avoid falsehood. Education is the best way of doing that. The aim of that education should be to cultivate intellectual virtues and curtail intellectual vices.

It is also of note, that while “virtues and vices” has a “good vs. bad” vibe to it, the motives of people with intellectual vices need not be bad. They may have a similar motivation for knowledge as the intellectually virtuous person yet be misled by their way of thinking. Therefore, we should not create an “us vs. them” situation, but rather act in kindness and tolerance toward everyone, regardless of their style of thinking.

Additionally, everyone’s intellectual character is a mixture of virtues and vices. Worse, many of the vices are very hard to self-diagnose. It is rare to find someone who knows and understands that they are closed-minded. Prejudice is hard to recognize in ourselves, and who hasn’t been a little dogmatic at one time or another? In this, as in many other things, a little humility goes a long way. Being aware that intellectual vices of one sort or another are at play, in at least some of our thinking, is the mark of a healthy mind. 

As leaders, we have a responsibility to serve those we lead in ways that improve and enrich their lives, like helping them increase in intellectual virtue and decrease in intellectual vice. There are several ways we can support this:

We can create a safe and supportive environment. Transformation of our beliefs, attitudes, and feelings occurs most readily in the context of trusting and caring relationships. If people feel respected and cared for by us and others, they will be more open to revising their fundamental habits and styles of thinking.

We can create opportunities to practice intellectual virtues. We grow in intellectual virtues, in part, by practicing the skills and abilities that define them. These include asking thoughtful and insightful questions, thinking for oneself, acknowledging one’s intellectual limitations and mistakes, probing for deeper understanding, noticing important details, considering alternative perspectives, persisting in the face of intellectual struggle, and taking intellectual risks. Giving our team opportunities to practice requires that we take a risk, too.

We can provide virtues-based feedback. This can take many forms but the most effective is noticing and naming virtuous actions. When someone practices one of the skills above, we should acknowledge the action by name to reinforce the positive thinking style. Negative feedback should be used sparingly and given after a time of reflection, not in the moment of action.

We can make risk-taking and failure safe. Allowing for risk-taking, and the inevitable failures that will occur, creates opportunities for growth. We need to value and create opportunities for people to take intellectual risks to grow in virtues like intellectual humility, intellectual tenacity, and intellectual courage.

Finally, we can (and should) model intellectual virtue. We should do ourselves what we wish others to do. It we do not model these thinking styles, it is hypocrisy. When we model qualities like curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual humility, and intellectual thoroughness, we provide others with a concrete and inspiring example of the kind of intellectual character we are inviting them to cultivate.

There is so much confusion in the world today, and much of the misunderstanding is due to habits of thinking that lead us to believe things that are erroneous. Practicing intellectual virtue helps us find our way through the fog and lead others to clarity, compassion, and openness. A community of critical thinkers who value and respect each other sounds like a wonderful place to live and work. It sounds like The Kimray Way.