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Episode Info: In my 30s, I was involved in an organization that promoted Nonviolent Communication, a self-help practice that helped me gain self-awareness, empathy, and conflict resolution skills. Unfortunately, my involvement in this group had an unintended side effect: over the course of a decade, I gradually lost my ability to think critically about Nonviolent Communication itself, and I eventually became somewhat of a true believer; I go into more detail about this experience in an article titled “How I Became a Zealot (Then Freed Myself).” During this time, I had similar experiences—though to a lesser degree—with various spiritual and environmental groups, too. Eventually, I noticed a pattern. After encountering helpful ideas, I was getting involved with groups of people that were promoting those ideas. In some cases, I got very involved; that was the case with Nonviolent Communication, which was my main vocation for a while. In other cases, I was involved to a lesser degree, as a student and spectator; for instance, I might study a group’s ideas, listen to their podcasts, and so forth. Whether or not I got highly involved in these groups, over time, something disturbing was happening: I was losing my ability to think critically about the ideas being promoted by these groups—almost as if I’d been brainwashed. I now believe this pattern affects many people involved in many types of groups, including political groups, spiritual groups, religious groups, self-help groups, and even professional groups. Having had a number of years to reflect on this pattern, this article is my attempt to shed some light on it and explore what we can do about it. How True Belief Limits Critical Thinking What does it mean to be a true believer? You’re a true believer in a set of beliefs when those beliefs seem like facts or obvious truths to you. True belief limits your ability to think outside the box of your belief system, because when your beliefs seem like obvious truths, you’re less likely to seek alternative ways of understanding things, and you’re more likely to dismiss other beliefs that conflict with yours. I used to think that people become true believers by choice—by consciously, voluntarily choosing to put their faith in a belief system. However, I’ve come to realize that true belief is more like a habit than a choice, and that true belief can arise unconsciously and involuntarily through the influence of a group’s culture. In other words, you can become a true believer by accident when you’re under the influence of a group. In the sections below, I explore how this can happen and what you can do about it. How We Become True Believers If we start using some belief system to make sense of life and guide our actions on a regular basis—and if we stop considering other perspectives—viewing life through the lens of this belief system can start to become a habit. At first, learning and applying this belief system may have been a voluntary ...
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