Is changing your mind a good thing or a bad thing?
On the one hand, change is everywhere. Seasons change regularly and weather can change hourly. As Disney called it in The Lion King, the circle of life is universal with constant comings and goings. Anthropologically, human beings survived by changing with their environment.
Today, opportunities to change seem limitless. We change jobs, living spaces, partners, playlists, phones, clothes, hairstyles…and our minds, regularly and often without much consideration. What we thought was the best movie ever when we were 10 isn’t even in our top 20 today. The religious tradition we grew up doesn’t suit our needs now. Buying products online was unseemly 15 years ago, but today, we live and die on Amazon Prime. Driving to work or school, we change routes based on traffic. We change our minds about an endless number of things every day and don’t give it a second thought.
However, most of us act like we don't like change. We prefer consistency. Changing our mind requires us, at some level, to concede we once held the "wrong" position on something. Changing our mind about a product or a political candidate can be undesirable because it signals to others that “I was wrong” about that candidate or product.
The act of change introduces an odd juxtaposition of natural forces: on one hand, our survival depends on mind-changing; on the other, we resist it in favor of consistency and the status quo.
Forgiving Galileo After 360 Years
Changing a mind is hard enough for one person and is exponentially more difficult and complex in institutions where decisions are often made by committee, or at least involve many people. Those changes are made as a product of every individual making personal changes that allow a group change to take effect.
Let’s look at an example that illustrates the challenge of change. In 1632, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Galileo Galilei because he promoted his belief that the earth revolved around the sun. This contradicted the Vatican and the common belief that the stars and planets revolved around the earth, so they punished Galileo by putting him under house arrest for the remainder of his life. At the time, both the common belief and Galileo’s punishment were uncontroversial and “normal.” Yet, science kept marching forward amassing more evidence.
In 1758, the Church opened somewhat to new facts, and they began to see that prosecuting those who didn't agree with the Vatican's position wasn’t such a good approach (without admitting past failures in this area). They allowed schools to teach heliocentrism, the science of how the earth and planets revolve around the sun, so long as it was taught alongside geocentrism, the incorrect (but still Church-sanctioned) belief that the earth is the center of the universe.
Not until 1822 did the Church acknowledge that heliocentrism was correct and removed geocentrism from its curricula. Remarkably though, the Vatican still held that it did the right thing to persecute the great scientist and astronomer nearly 200 years earlier. Mind changing at the Vatican made snails appear like they were jet fueled. It took another 170 years to get to the next level. In 1992, after 360 years, the Church finally recognized that the inquisition and excommunication of Galileo was wrong.
While it’s good that the Church finally accepted the realities of the science and the historical blunders it made, it took generations for them to do so, even when the facts contradicting their position were clear and widely recognized.
The Church didn’t want to change, knowing it would reveal they were wrong, and they worked earnestly to protect their position. But they took baby steps – over centuries – and progressed toward the right side of the issue, eventually getting there. The media coverage around their final act of contrition in 1992 was scathing and one can’t help but wonder if they would have been better off ripping off the bandage years earlier. Waiting so long only made the situation worse.
One lesson is that once we have a line of sight to a better position, act on it and change our mind. Another is that, even in the face of facts and reason, changing minds is hugely challenging.
Consistency & The Status Quo
If our life’s struggle with change were made into a song, the chorus would be about consistency. Over and over, the chorus would remind us that consistency is the theme for changing our minds.
Consistency bias means we remember our past attitudes and behaviors as more closely resembling our present attitudes and behaviors; and reflexively, incorrect memories shape our present attitudes and behaviors.
This tendency is closely linked to our desire for the status quo. We want our present (the 300-millisecond snapshot that scientists refer to as “now”) to be consistent with our past.
Most people answer the question, "Are you a better than average driver?" affirmatively. "Of course, I am," they tell themselves and their friends who want to believe the same. In the United States, 88% of drivers (77% in Sweden) say they are better than average (which is statistically impossible). Remarkably, similar results were found when asking people who were hospitalized due to automobile accidents: more than half indicated they're better than average drivers. Yes, the unavoidable happens, but our need for consistency and strong preference for the status quo make us want to believe it was the other driver that caused the crash.
The desire to be seen as a better-than-average-driver is enabled by our memory's ability to be both incomplete and selective. We need to keep score in a way that enables us to feel consistent (notable on the golf course, too). In doing this, we favor our self-image by stacking it on top of, and in front of, the facts. Like the Roman Catholic Church, our brains are trying to keep the present (now) consistent with our ideal image (the status quo). Keeping things the same and consistent are easier and requires less mental effort.
So, if changing our minds is natural and important, why is it so difficult? Neuroscientists, anthropological psychologists, behavioral psychologists and economists are digging deeper to answer that question, and others like it. At this time, the published literature points us in the direction that overcoming consistency and status quo biases can be done with the thoughtful application of baby steps. It’s difficult, but not impossible.
Robert Cialdini, PhD has indicated that persuading someone to do something new will be more successful if we start by persuading them to do smaller, less invasive and less controversial steps first. Remember when Richard Dreyfus’ character told his patient in the movie All About Bob, “take baby steps”? The same approach works when changing our minds. We don't even need an explicit goal or mental destination. Just begin. Take the first step by asking the part of ourselves that has changed its mind before whether the thing we changed our mind about might be reconsidered in light of new information. In other words, ask if something we changed our mind about some time ago deserves revisiting.
Easier said than done, of course. It requires intention and attention to the process. And, of course, being open to change in the first place.
We might think that changing our mind is like playing a three-chord rock song. The song would start on the first and basic chord (where we consciously take in the facts), move to the second chord (render the relative utility of new facts), then turn to the chord that will transition us back to the first chord (make the choice).
But that’s not even close. It’s more like conducting what Koen Smets calls a jazz symphony, where many instrumentalists play and react to an ever-changing situation with only the loosest adherence to structure.
In reality, we view new facts through melodies of conscious and subconscious voices that sing along to the situation, emotion, self-identity, community-social influences, goals and objectives, among others. Then we draw conclusions based on these considerations. Our mind will change, or not, based on more influences than we can easily govern.
Believing that a single dose of baby steps will cure our ills is a pipe dream. Too many aspects of decision making, memory, and context are at play and they rarely, if ever, line up like a musical score that can be analyzed and edited. Psychology and neuroscience are making progress in helping us understand the inner workings of our brains, but at this time, all we can do is try to know the key of the song before we begin to sing the solo.
That said, baby steps can be meaningful. Throw an optimistic log onto the fire to celebrate the simplistic way baby steps can change our minds. (“Fake it ‘till you make it.”) As a beginner on the journey, you are not required to replicate the solo from “Stairway to Heaven.” Start with something more accessible. Changing your mind can begin by asking a simple question of yourself or others. As Cialdini indicates, if the baby steps are to be successful, you have to be open to what happens.
A half-full (or half-empty) glass still has water in it. And Steven Pinker, PhD's claims that the world is significantly better than it was 1,000 or 200 or even 50 years ago is worth celebrating. His evidence is compelling. The human race continues to advance on many fronts, in many cultures and many places. Progress is being made to help us counteract our daily biases. It’s possible to take on a new concept and overturn what was held dear the day before. Don’t give in to hopelessness, even though it may feel that way.
Another reason to be optimistic that we’re on the right path as a society is Kal Turnbull's Change-My-View community in Reddit. Change-My-View asks members to be open to changing their minds when they log in, and requires that arguments don’t pile up like the guitar solos in “Freebird.” One 'pro' comment must be followed up by only one 'con' argument, and so on. Change-My-View continues to grow dramatically. Last year at this time, the site maintained roughly 500,000 members compared to more than 730,000 today.
I am still perplexed, though. Why do we perceive such high costs to changing our minds? Why do we assign such tremendous value to our beliefs about some things and not others? Why are the benefits of changing our mind beyond our reach when we need them most? I’m searching for the answers and welcome your thoughts as fellow sojourners.
In the meanwhile, consider a toast at your next meal to shed hope on our limited understanding: May today bring new light to an old belief.
About the Author
Tim Houlihan is the founder and chief behavioral strategist of BehaviorAlchemy, LLC, a consultancy using a behavioral lens for improving the actions of workers, customers and policymakers. He co-founded Behavioral Grooves, a meetup and podcast with listeners in more than 80 countries. Previously, Tim was Vice President of Reward Systems at BI WORLDWIDE where he was responsible for a $300 million global portfolio of reward systems, acted as the firm's thought leader in behavioral sciences and was the chief liaison to research partners around the world. Tim believes people underestimate the role of the unconscious in our behaviors. The application of good behavioral science can remedy that.
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