How do we change our minds? I find this question fascinating and important. To start: only fools never change their mind. Secondarily, it is surprisingly hard to remember on what I actually did change my mind, and equally difficult to pinpoint why. Finally, understanding how and why our opinions change is of fundamental importance in political discourse, because of the obvious link to the art of persuasion. [A delightful tangent arises also when considering history and philosophy of science: apparently, it’s not all about logic and “facts”.] In this post, I’ll start building a list of things on which I have changed my mind, I encourage every reader to do the same: it’s a fascinating endeavour.
Some time ago Adam Elkus tweeted a self-challenge: he would tweet one thing on which he changed his mind for each “like” he received. [Unfortunately, the impressively long thread that resulted appears to be deleted.] Shortly after, Artem Kaznatcheev directed my attention to it: we ended up agreeing that it’s a good idea to keep such records.
I am not aiming at producing a complete list, instead, I’ll try to stick to subjects I do care about. The “strong feelings” filter is important to me: on one side, I’m convinced that our core beliefs are the least likely to change.On the other, it’s in our interest to change our views, if/when they happen to be wrong or harmful.
To try impose some order in an otherwise messy list, I’ll group entries by broad topics, starting with what feel like the most important changes. I’ll conclude with a summary of what seem to be the most frequent elements that appear in the disparate instances. In time, I hope to extend the present list with new entries, and perhaps with “feature-length” posts about one or the other specific case.
Big, world-view changes:
I will start with the most remarkable flip-flops, where changing my mind required to re-adjust a significant proportion of linked beliefs. Unsurprisingly, it’s a short list. Moreover, only one change in this section did start well after reaching adulthood.
What it means to be an adult: with effects on my understanding of competence.
As a child, I displayed a remarkable case of cognitive dissonance. I believed that:
A: Being an adult means “knowing what you are talking about”, and
B: Most adults are idiots, commanded by their emotions and unaware of this fact.
Growing up, I tried hard to achieve A, striving to learn what felt important and trying to develop reasonable ways to know when it was OK for me to express my thought (e.g., when I wasn’t risking to be badly wrong). Growing old, I’ve realised that nobody knows what they are talking about – instead, some rare and noteworthy individuals are able to express opinions while acknowledging and accounting for their own ignorance. In the process, I’ve developed a keen interest in epistemology.
This change is interesting to me on multiple fronts. First and foremost, it’s a prime example of why the ability to concurrently hold incompatible beliefs is useful: cognitive dissonance is, at least sometimes, an asset – in my case, what I now consider a false belief (A), helped me to become what I am now (in what feels as a useful way). Secondarily, this change consolidated my idea of competence: you have achieved competence on a given domain when you can attach reasonably reliable confidence intervals to your own predictions. It’s a view founded on the acceptance that what we don’t know always surpasses what we do know. Finally, it’s the reason why I maintain this blog: I write to test, clarify and improve my ideas – trying to be mindful of my own ignorance.
Overall, this change initiated during adolescence (if not before), as I became articulate enough to try expressing beliefs like (A) and (B). Since I grew more and more convinced that (B) is fundamentally correct (as a rule of thumb – we are all slaves to our emotions), (A) had to give way.
Apparently, this path is quite common, here is proof (recommended soundtrack for this post):
Politics – how to achieve change and the role of radical positions/rhetoric.
For as long as I can remember, I always preferred building bridges to winning. I like to compete, but on the condition that the confrontation is seen by all participants as a mutual way to help each other at becoming better at whatever it is that we’re competing on. I think this is a useful attitude to maintain, but in my case, I can claim no credit for it: it’s not something I’ve learned with effort and dedication, it comes natural to me – I’ve got it for free. As a result of this inclination of mine, I always had an instinctive dislike for radical and uncompromising political stances. In many cases, I still do. However, in recent years I’ve changed my stance by introducing a very important class of exceptions. Specifically, I’ve realised that when a given group of people is marginalised, deemed irrelevant, and/or otherwise oppressed, the power imbalance that sustains the situation makes it impossible to change the status quo by deploying only persuasion and bridge-building strategies. This change of mind may be subtle, but has remarkable consequences. For example, as a young adult, I loathed radical feminism: I thought it was unquestionably counter-productive in that it facilitated a self-sustaining and fruitless confrontation. The same applied to probably most positions (see quote in the picture above: it’s really hard to remember what I thought before changing my mind) where the weak side in a power struggle advertised itself as combative and intransigent.
Right now, my view could not be more different. When one wants to eliminate a long-lasting power imbalance, if historical precedents are an indication, it seems to me that it is necessary to deploy a fair amount of intransigence. Specifically, it’s necessary to have a group of people who very clearly, and very publicly, won’t accept anything less than the complete elimination of such an imbalance (even if, or maybe especially when a complete resolution is manifestly impossible). If such a group is very visible and stubbornly refusing to be silenced, only then a separate group of more conciliatory activists (those who will accept or even seek small improvements as a form of progress) can become effective. I still believe that the first group will have the negative effect of fostering confrontation and entrenching, and that in most cases it is the second group is the one which can more effectively achieve desirable results. However, I now think that activists of the second kind can be effective only if, when and while the first kind is well established (crucially: when their common opposition believes that the radical activists will never cease and desist). Thus, even if my own predispositions force me to deploy and/or endorse the second strategy, I’m now fully convinced that the first approach is necessary and has to coexist with the first. (There is a parallel here with my views on Cognitive Dissonance, perhaps worth a future post).
How did I make this change? This story is too long to fit in here, but I’ll tickle my readers’ curiosity by mentioning the two crucial elements that contributed: the new atheism movement (yes, I know!) and the patience of many women, especially Abeba Birhane.
Science and epistemology – objectivity.
I presume that when I started my BA I thought I was in the business of understanding how the world works in a fairly straightforward manner. However, I can’t really be sure (see pic on top): while I was changing my mind on competence, I am now guessing that also another change was happening. Right now, I don’t believe in objectivity as normally understood, and it feels as if I always held this view. I doubt that’s the case. I do know that when I started blogging the big revolution had already happened, as it’s clear by reading this early post. I also know that my view has kept changing, but it seems that it’s merely becoming richer, not changing in a radical way. To spill my beans in full, right now I believe that any single method to understand the world around us must have limitations. It will be suited to pick out certain features of reality, but will also hide some other ones. Thus, by necessity, no single assertion about the world out there should be considered “objective” to the point of being unquestionable. As a result, I’m developing a deep dislike for the canonical writing style in science and philosophy. To my eyes, it looks designed to hide the elements of subjectivity that inevitably inform any piece of research (or thinking). In other words, it requires authors to deceive, which feels counterproductive to me.
All these changes contributed to something that continues to puzzle me. I once believed that coherence was a genuine indicator of value – in practical terms, I still do. However, I’m also growing more and more convinced that cognitive dissonance is a necessary ability of well-formed human beings. Without the ability of holding incompatible beliefs, humans would find it very hard to thrive. This topic is huge and controversial: hopefully I’ll find the energy to write about it explicitly. For now, it’s amusing to notice that “changing one’s mind” implies a break in coherence across the time-domain, which, I argue, is both necessary and generally a good thing.
Music is important to me. To remain sane, making and listening to music helps me a great deal.
Until my late twenties, I was convinced that light, apparently simple and mainstream pop songs had no value (not even those which resisted the test of time). I then started playing in a band: as it happens, most of us wanted to play the stuff I thought wasn’t interesting. Playing it made me change my mind. In short, I now realise that much of the value of music is that it makes people happy, at a negligible cost. Even the things I (still) don’t like make someone happy. Overall, I can’t imagine what could be considered as more useful than making people happy. Thus, suddenly, the awe inspired by some performers of mainstream pop, starts making sense. A better understanding of the technical skill, the sophisticated sensibility and the performance discipline helps solidifying my current view.
In my early teens I lumped them amongst the “pop, pointless” lot. My best mate disagreed, and kept telling me I was wrong (for probably a couple of years, or perhaps less: time flows slower when you’re young). He succeeded in changing my mind, but only obliquely: he persuaded me to give them a chance. Listening to their music, especially their less famous tunes, did the rest. I am now convinced they were and still are underestimated. I mention this because it’s the only case I can recall where I was actively persuaded by someone else.
People and society:
As my professional career meandered in new directions, it forced me to change my mind in quite spectacular ways, twice. These are both special cases, because I can link these changes to specific situations.
“Bad” people are inevitably unhappy.
I used to believe that selfish, vindictive and mean people (Jerks, if you prefer) must be living in a never-ending nightmare. Despised or, at best, feared by most, they deprive themselves of what truly matters. I now think that I was (badly) wrong: genuine psychopaths don’t give a toot and can be (often are?) as happy as any human can be.
How did this change happen? At the start of my professional career, I was in close contact with a genuine, highly successful psychopath: very smart, extremely charming and completely a-moral. When things worked for him, he was genuinely happy. He did care for his family, so did have a source of human warmth, and apparently that was enough: for all the rest, personal success was all that mattered – on top of that, exercising power, for the sake of it, appeared to give him genuine pleasure. Having professional success and a reasonably stable family, he was as happy as any human can hope to be.
Selfish and ruthless people are those who inevitably end up with managerial roles.
In the first 10+ years of my professional life, this rule held true. I then started working in SSRU and changed my mind. Since moving to London, I’ve been managed by extremely smart, caring and well-rounded human beings. Within the limited reach of my current work-environment, managers actually care for the people they manage: thus, I have to admit that my belief was wrong. I still can’t really figure out what makes it possible, though. With a consistent pattern involving multiple individuals and lasting 10+ years, I’m pretty sure it isn’t chance, but the necessary and sufficient conditions are eluding me: it still feels a little bit like a miracle.
Perhaps surprisingly, I usually change my mind about people in a fairly predictable way. I do, as most people, instantly form an opinion about everyone I meet, in the super-rapid, “automatic” way. If this opinion is negative, I am usually aware that I might be wrong, so it happens fairly often that, by learning more about the person in question, I will succeed in changing my (conscious/explicit) initial judgement. However, with surprising frequency, over time I frequently re-switch back to a negative view. This is another pattern that might be worth considering separately.
I’ll use Corbyn as the paradigmatic example of the process I’ve observed numerous times. I met him almost a decade ago: he did a short intervention at a rally I was co-organising. My immediate reaction was: this chap reasons by applying rigid ideological positions to everything – i.e., he does not think, he merely applies pre-existing rules to new situations. I didn’t like the man at all.
Sometime after his election to the leadership of the Labour party I changed my mind. Finally, there was someone saying what needs to be said: he was the only politician I’ve known in my lifetime able to expose the failing of Neoliberalism in a way that could actually reach the masses. I did like that, and I still do. So I concluded that there must have been more than what met my eye in the first encounter. Since then, I’ve flipped back, with a vengeance: I do accept that his intellect is more elastic than I initially thought, but now I also think that he is self-interested much more than is generally appreciated. I can make sense of his political actions over the last three years only by accepting that he’s not as interested in the common good as he would like us to believe. He appears to be happy to act in ways that are designed to preserve his position in the Party instead.
As a kid, for one or two years, I hated him – couldn’t watch him play. For reasons I’ve forgotten, I then forced myself to watch an entire match anyway. A couple of hours later I had flipped, and enjoyed watching his tennis ever since. I mention this here because it is perhaps the older instance of a change of mind (on something I cared about) that I can recall – it is also the only abrupt change that I can actually recollect.
Given my original interest for cognitive science, even if I always disliked his way of presenting himself, I did have a bit of an intellectual crush for his views and work on cognition. I now think that he’s a self-righteous impostor, because he’s not at all interested in intellectual honesty. In his case, I know exactly what made me change my mind: it’s this discussion, in which he uses rhetorical tricks to obscure and deceive – the opposite of intellectual honesty. He then started working on his more popular books, and all my bad impressions got confirmed multiple times. This change did take some time: I was already contemplating it quite seriously when the discussion in question was published. In my mind, the specific trigger counts as the classic “last straw”.
That’s it! This is my provisional list, limited to some of the things I actually do care about. The most common element in the big and small changes listed above is that, aside for one case, all of these changes took time. Years, to be precise; ten or more, for the bigger ones. This matters to me, because it informs my actions, especially online. It makes no sense to debate anyone with the aim of changing their mind. On the internet, by definition, it all happens too quickly. I do debate online, every now and then, but I try to do it when I have a genuine interest in understanding what justifies a position I disagree with. I do hope that (my) online/offline activism can change some people’s mind (for the better, hopefully!), but I’m also convinced that if it does work, I won’t be there to witness the change. Significant rethinks simply take too long.
Another common element is that many of the changes above have a simple (and somewhat reassuring) ’cause’: learning. As I learned more and more about a given subject, my views changed. Sometimes radically; more often, subtly. This is probably healthy (and is perhaps uninteresting), so I suppose I should be happy about it, even if it’s disappointingly predictable.