“A stubborn person has no opinions, they have him”, wrote the poet Alexander Pope to refer to the deadly trap we can fall into when we become victims of stubbornness, which prevents us from changing our mind, contemplating others possibilities and ultimately grow as people.
There is no a single way to interpret life and the world. Everyone gives meaning to the events according to their points of view, life experiences and expectations. It is normal. However, there are mentalities more rigid than others. There are stubborn people who cling too much to their world view and do not have enough mental flexibility to take into account other points of view that differ from theirs.
Perhaps one of the most iconic examples of stubbornness is that of Hiroo Onoda, an intelligence officer of the Imperial Japanese Army who remained hidden in the Philippine jungle for 29 years after finishing World War II, because he was convinced that the battle was not yet finished. Although they tried to persuade him on several occasions that his attitude did not make any sense, he did not surrender until 1974 when his former commander announced him the revocation of his 1945 order to stay behind to spy on US troops.
Without a doubt, it is an extreme example of stubbornness, but in everyday life we can also become very stubborn. And that can bring us serious problems, both in our interpersonal relationships and when making decisions. Clinging to solutions that do not work or ways with dead ends is condemning ourselves to unhappiness, dissatisfaction and failure. Nietzsche had already said: “Many are stubborn when it comes to following the path they have chosen, but few show the same stubbornness when it comes to achieving their goals.”
How is a stubborn person?
A stubborn person is one who refuses to change his mind about an idea or action that is about to be undertaken, even if they provide sufficiently logical and verifiable reasons to make him notice that he is wrong.
Generally the stubborn person prefers to surround himself with people who think and react in the same way, so that they do not put his opinions in discussion. The real problem is that that person identifies extremely with his ideas and feels that his identity is in danger when someone challenges his vision of the world.
– Fears change. Stubborn people often fear changes, although they do not always recognize it. However, they perceive new situations as threats that they must avoid at all costs. Anyone who tries to impose a change in their routine or way of thinking could be seen as a danger. There is no doubt that it is important to follow certain patterns and habits, but we must also accept that life is not always predictable and that our mental health depends to a large extent on our ability to accept and adapt to constantly changing circumstances. A stubborn person usually faces change by resorting to maladaptive strategies such as denial or evasion. However, the truth is that until we accept the change, no matter how bad it is, the healing process will not begin.
– Argues about everything. Living with a stubborn person can be extremely exhausting since he usually argues about everything that goes against his world view. The worst thing is that he involves too much his ego in those discussions, which turn into pitched battles in which the objective is to win at all costs. In addition, he refuses to acknowledge being wrong. This attitude tends to create many frictions in daily life since often after discussions there is no agreement.
– Does not deviate a millimeter of his mentality. The stubborn person has a dichotomous thought, thinks that things are white or black, and that he is always right. Everything that moves away minimally from his conception of the world and life is wrong. He usually clings to his beliefs to protect himself from the changes because wants to remain in the comfort zone where he feels safe. In fact, behind the stubbornness is often hidden a deep fear as accepting different ideas and behaviors involves leaving that safe area to explore new things. And that always implies uncertainty.
– Attacks in a personal way. Many times the stubborn person is aware that his arguments are not enough to convince the others, so he does not hesitate to resort to personal attacks. Since stubbornness makes him think that everything that does not match his vision is a personal attack, he decides to strike back. This person will not resort to facts, figures or scientific studies to support his idea but will use strategies such as the fallacy of the red herring or any other tactic to undermine his interlocutor, attacking his credibility or self-esteem. It is not strange that uses also insults or value judgments, which makes arguing about a topic with a stubborn person so complicated that it will soon slide into personal territory.
– Avoids information that contradicts his beliefs. A stubborn person will only read the news from the sources that confirm his vision of the world. He does not take the risk looking for other sources because it would create a conflictive situation regarding his identity, which has been built and sustained based on those beliefs. The problem is that in this way, the person ends up isolating himself in a reality that only confirms his stereotypes, so that he finds it practically impossible to accept the facts that deny it or put it into discussion.
Why are we stubborn?
A stubborn person would prefer to surround himself with people who think and react the same, so that they do not discuss his opinions and worldview. The real problem is that a stubborn person identifies extremely with his ideas and feels that his identity is in danger when someone defies his vision of the world, as proved by a study published on Nature Scientific Reports.
These neuroscientists recruited 40 self-proclaimed liberals who claimed to have very deep convictions. Then they were presented with historical facts of neutral nature such as: “Edison was the inventor of the light bulb” or “Einstein elaborated the theory of relativity.” And they presented statements that called into question or were contrary to their strong political convictions.
While people read those statements, researchers scanned their brains. Thus they found that when the statements challenged their beliefs, there was an intense activation of the areas of the brain linked to identity and negative emotions.
This suggests that stubbornness is a defensive response that is activated when we believe that certain ideas challenge the identity we have built. Then there is an answer in the opposite direction to protect that “ego”: we cling more stubbornly to our ideas.
How to deal with a stubborn person without losing your emotional balance?
- Introduce the doubt with delicacy. It is important that the stubborn person does not see you as an adversary or a person who wants to destabilize him. It is much better that you introduce the doubt in a subtle way, so that it is he who comes to the conclusion. That strategy is usually much more effective than showing a thousand facts that confirm your idea. Avoid phrases like “you’re wrong” or “you’re not right” because they’ll only make that person goes on defensive and, from that moment on, any rational discussion will be impossible.
- Discuss with respect and empathy. We should never forget that everyone is free to maintain their beliefs and opinions. Therefore, we should not put too much pressure on the stubborn person to change, but rather discuss with respect to his opinions and trying to assume an empathic attitude. In fact, it is much more effective to argue from his position, understanding his arguments while trying to dismantle them. When everyone discusses parapeted in his point of view, it is difficult to reach an agreement or that the conversation is enriching as it will become monologues for the deaf.
- Focus on the issue, do not take it to the personal level. It is likely that when the stubborn person runs out of arguments, tries to take the discussion to the personal level. Do not allow it because at that precise moment you will have “lost” both. Try to keep the discussion focused on the issue that concerns you and, if not possible, postpone it for another time. Remember that a stubborn person may suffer a “temporary hearing loss”: the only opinion he hears is his. Therefore, it is much easier if you share the opposite opinion so that each idea is easier to digest.
- Abandon the need to win. If you want the other person to be open to your ideas, you must also be open to his, however crazy, illogical or old they may seem. That means giving up the mentality that you must win the argument. In a discussion, when you really win is when you learn something new or explore another point of view. Do not forget it. That change of mentality will be reflected in your attitude and will make the discussion flow better.
- Remember that stubbornness is also positive. Do not forget that many of the great inventors of the past were stubborn people who were determined to make their dream come true. The obstinacy also has a positive side, which will help you to see the stubborn person as someone much richer and more complex, and allows you escape the labels and stereotypes that you just put on them.
Can stubbornness be positive? Adaptive perseverance
Stubbornness, or rather perseverance, has its moment and place. Staying firm on issues that are important to us can help us defend our rights so as not to let others impose ideas on which we disagree. That means that while in certain circumstances stubbornness can become an obstacle, in others it can be positive.
In fact, a study conducted at the University of California and the University of Rome La Sapienza suggests that a disposition to perseverance, backed by a positive outlook on life, can help us live longer since this attitude makes us less prone to worry about what the others think of us, developing a locus of control internal, so that external circumstances will affect us less.
However, the researchers point out that stubbornness is accompanied by the understanding that we need to adapt to the changing circumstances of the world, which implies that it is not about blind stubbornness but rather an adaptive perseverance.
Another study published on Developmental Psychology in which 745 children were followed for 40 years from the age of 12 until they turned 52, revealed that stubbornness in the infant stage was a factor that could predict good professional development in adulthood.
These psychologists believe that stubbornness is a feature that helps people say “no” when they disagree with something or believe that it violates their rights, allows them to negotiate better and keeps them focused on their goals, so that stubborn people are more likely to get more success throughout their lives.
That implies that stubbornness is not always negative, but it can become a problem when:
- It keeps us tied to wrong ideas or crazy plans that lead us astray.
- It generates a state of frustration and anger because we experience the need to argue with the others to impose our views.
- It prevents us from growing and adapting to the changes that occur around us, keeping us tied to an old way of doing things that is not the most effective nor brings us the most happiness.
Therefore, a bit of stubbornness can help us achieve our goals and reaffirm our identity, but we must ensure that we are flexible enough to change our position and have the necessary intellectual humility to question our own ideas. We have to stay open to new possibilities and be able to admit that we are wrong.
Scelzo, A. et. Al. (2018) Mixed-methods quantitative–qualitative study of 29 nonagenarians and centenarians in rural Southern Italy: focus on positive psychological traits. International Psychogeriatrics; 30(1): 31-38.
Kaplan, J. T. (2016) Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence. Nature: Scientific Reports; 6: 39589.
Spengler, M. et. Al. (2015) Student Characteristics and Behaviors at Age 12 Predict Occupational Success 40 Years Later Over and Above Childhood IQ and Parental Socioeconomic Status. Developmental Psychology; 51(9).