1 I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites, and having had a knowledge of the land of Nephi, or of the land of our fathers’ first inheritance, and having been sent as a spy among the Lamanites that I might spy out their forces, that our army might come upon them and destroy them—but when I saw that which was good among them I was desirous that they should not be destroyed.
2 Therefore, I contended with my brethren in the wilderness, for I would that our ruler should make a treaty with them; but he being an austere and a blood-thirsty man commanded that I should be slain; but I was rescued by the shedding of much blood; for father fought against father, and brother against brother, until the greater number of our army was destroyed in the wilderness; and we returned, those of us that were spared, to the land of Zarahemla, to relate that tale to their wives and their children.
3 And yet, I being over-zealous to inherit the land of our fathers, collected as many as were desirous to go up to possess the land, and started again on our journey into the wilderness to go up to the land; but we were smitten with famine and sore afflictions; for we were slow to remember the Lord our God.
An important part of our mortal experience is dealing with imperfect information. Psychologists use the term “mental models” to describe the simplified representations of the world which we use to make decisions because our minds are not capable of perceiving or comprehending every detail. In theory, we update those mental models whenever we encounter information that contradicts them. But in practice, we resist changing our models, either because we need a stable worldview in order to function, or because we simply don’t want to admit we are wrong.
In the passage above, Zeniff encounters new information which conflicts with one of his established mental models. He has traveled with a group of people on a mission to reclaim the land of their ancestors (Omni 1:27). Believing that the Lamanites, the current inhabitants of that land, are beyond reclamation, he accepts the assignment to spy on them to gain intelligence which will help his group to destroy them. But after watching these people, he is forced to change his mental model. “When I saw that which was good among them,” he says, “I was desirous that they should not be destroyed.” Unfortunately, the leader of his group, “an austere and blood-thirsty man,” is unable to change his mental model, and the resulting battle claims the lives of the entire group except fifty (Omni 1:28).
Zeniff now has a new mental model. He believes that the Lamanites can be trusted. Excited and even “overzealous,” as he later concedes, about this new paradigm, he convinces a new group of people to travel to the same land and enter into a treaty with the Lamanite king. Unfortunately, this proves to be a catastrophic mistake. The king’s intention is to find a way to bring Zeniff’s people into bondage (Mosiah 9:10-12).
So both of the mental models were inadequate. The Lamanites were not so bad that they deserved to be destroyed. But neither were they entirely trustworthy. Just like his former leader, who had been unable to adjust his overly harsh view of the Lamanites, Zeniff was unable to alter his overly optimistic view of them until it was too late and his people were in terrible danger.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf discussed the human tendency to ignore or reject information which challenges our worldviews:
The “truths” we cling to shape the quality of our societies as well as our individual characters. All too often these “truths” are based on incomplete and inaccurate evidence, and at times they serve very selfish motives.
Part of the reason for poor judgment comes from the tendency of mankind to blur the line between belief and truth. We too often confuse belief with truth, thinking that because something makes sense or is convenient, it must be true. Conversely, we sometimes don’t believe truth or reject it—because it would require us to change or admit that we were wrong. Often, truth is rejected because it doesn’t appear to be consistent with previous experiences.
When the opinions or “truths” of others contradict our own, instead of considering the possibility that there could be information that might be helpful and augment or complement what we know, we often jump to conclusions or make assumptions that the other person is misinformed, mentally challenged, or even intentionally trying to deceive.
Unfortunately, this tendency can spread to all areas of our lives—from sports to family relationships and from religion to politics (“What Is Truth,” CES Devotional, 13 January 2013).
Today, I will strive to be humble and teachable as I come in contact with new information or opinions of others which contradict my mental models. I will make an effort to swallow my pride, to evaluate the new information fairly, and to make adjustments to my models as needed, even if it means admitting that I was wrong.