The Paradox of Changing Our Mind

charlie manuel

A few months ago, I sat on a couch in a friend’s apartment. An old friend of mine (different guy) and I were engaged in a lively conversation about the sharing economy, more specifically UBER. At the time I was pretty open to these sorts of things. I understood there were regulatory issues that needed to be adapted to new types of business, but I generally felt that as the way we work continues to change, we should be open to new ways of doing business to foster innovation and encourage competition. My friend completely disagreed and very clearly outlined the nightmare a company like UBER caused in so many ways for labour laws, workers rights, consumer protection, wages and on and on and on. I wasn’t particularly invested in this, but since I fancy myself progressive, I’m not about to just kill an upstart idea if there might be something to it. So I asked some questions, looking for little things that maybe could factor into some sort of hybrid solution or a different iteration of ride sharing. My friend had an answer for everything I asked, and I decided that I had all this new information and I felt completely different about the issue. He never yelled at me or talked down to me or made me feel stupid. He just gave me facts and well constructed, rational thoughts. He changed my mind.

People love to describe themselves as open-minded. It’s a mainstay in your answer for that “Tell me about yourself” interview question. It’s in your personal summary on your online dating profile. Maybe it’s in your LinkedIn headline, or maybe you just tell people a lot when you’re drunk (or sober). The way people usually use open-minded is a polite way to proactively tell people you’re not racist or that you believe in equal rights (That’s good!). Other times it’s a less shameful way of saying you’re indecisive. Usually it’s true about things you don’t particularly care or know about, which is more like saying you’re cool with learning things, which is also good but kind of misses the point. Being open-minded is a lot more about allowing your beliefs, core and otherwise, to be questioned and challenged with enthusiasm, which is difficult.

Changing someone’s mind isn’t usually as amicable as my example. It might be the most energetic common pursuit of most people. Whether it’s a friend, co-worker, parent, sibling, in-law, stranger, customer service rep, member of parliament etc., all of us have tried to make someone see it another way – our way – until we’re blue in the face. The kind of instant confrontation presented doesn’t make for a super welcome environment where the kind of vulnerability necessary for challenging a belief, let alone one that’s especially ingrained, is encouraged – it’s pretty much the opposite of that. So what’s with the expectation that we’re actually going to make headway when every bit of common sense says otherwise? Discourse and debate about things we believe in are important and positive activities. The understanding of what those are though, has devolved from respectful exchanges of thoughts in a mutual pursuit of truth to, basically, a pro wrestling promo where it’s all about who can best run down their opponent on the mic.

The curse of knowledge is the problem of being unable to imagine not knowing something once you’ve learned it. Imagine not knowing what numbers are, or what a taco is. It’s impossible, right? This makes it very hard to structure messages on important stuff for people unacquainted with the material and makes us blind to the challenges they might face. I think we often confuse belief for knowledge, or at least forget that facts and information can change and grow, and it causes the same kind of problem. Once we have a set of information, whether observable facts, opinions, inferences, assumptions, biases, etc., it’s pretty hard to imagine not thinking that way about something. It’s nothing new – of course conditioning a habit, in action or thought, makes it harder to stop the longer you practice. That’s problematic though, for things that aren’t set in stone. It’s all well and good to lock in constant stuff like 1+1=2 or the moon being in the sky. It’s not the same with murky ethical and social concepts like gun control, migration, economics, environmental policy or other things where the conditions can change drastically and require adaptation over time.

The way beliefs become enmeshed in how we view our respective identities is totally understandable, but it’s also a barrier to allowing those beliefs to change. Viewing a challenge to a belief as a challenge to the merit of your identity is cause for digging one’s heels in even more. “Does this mean I’m not a good worker, a good parent, a good citizen of my country, a good member of my religion etc.?” It’s easier to see these questions as threats instead of opportunities to enrich an identity or value set with new information or perspective. We have no problem allowing our identities to evolve with additions of new career experience or promotions, seeing ourselves as managers and then executives, or girlfriends or boyfriends and then husbands or wives, or parents and then grandparents, or students and then teachers. Why don’t we view development or maturation of values as the same kind of progress instead of a prospective failure or defeat? We don’t fight tooth and nail to be sedentary in any other aspect of life. Nor should we be satisfied with the status quo when it comes to how we think about important issues in our lives.

Social media throws another wrinkle into how we exchange views on issues. There are plenty of debates in comments on articles and Facebook posts and Twitter timelines, but sadly, most drop the conversation for mudslinging pretty quickly, reminding us about how terrible Internet discourse is. This makes a lot of people, myself included, just avoid engaging in this stuff altogether. The more serious issue of how these views are exchanged on social media is the dangerous one-way mentality it breeds. People are more likely to express more extreme stances on issues online than they would in person. There’s also far less scrutiny in choosing the material that supports your point. If you’re looking to make an extreme anti-taco statement like ‘all tacos should be banned’ (you monster), you’re less likely to find support in a credible publication, so you use an article on “banalltacos.com”. This is obviously problematic and undermines any credibility someone would hope to achieve in his or her argument. What’s even more problematic is when the priority shifts from credibility to proliferation and you’re just sitting there pumping out blatant anti-taco messaging to everyone on your newsfeed with no regard for context or complexity of the issue at hand. What’s really dangerous is when that proliferation works, and we confuse visibility with credibility. This is what happens with those shitty memes about how to live your life. We get fooled into thinking the people posting them are an example of the desirable behaviour, when, more likely, they’re just more public about what they suck at and are trying to change.

Maybe the biggest problem (and just an all around dick move) is that often, people are chastised for changing their position on something, cast off as flip floppers, and taken down for not “sticking to their guns” or something else ridiculous. Granted, examples of this sort of thing are almost always political, and it’s really just about scoring some PR points and getting another jab in the day’s soundbites. It might be superficial and commonplace in the context of the political arena, but it’s important that we recognize the dangerous example this sets for all of us. It’s one thing if someone proclaims their love for tacos one day and their hatred for them the next, (even an especially negative taco experience shouldn’t effect such a change of heart). It’s an entirely different thing when there’s a shift in thinking over a period of months or years. That’s a long time to be introduced to different information and, while an explanation is welcome and should be required in some cases, there’s no need to persecute someone whose thinking has changed.

Someone changing his or her mind based on new information or new perspective should never equate to someone changing their story to avoid consequences. It’s not something we should meet with disdain or ridicule. It’s a brave thing to say “Hey, I might not have been right about this.” Maybe if people felt a little more comfortable thinking and saying that,  instead of being disengaged for fear of being shouted down, we could spend a little more time about the facts and a little less time being afraid. That’s really what it all comes down to, inferiority and the fear of being made to feel less than someone, and the drive to make ourselves feel superior. As intrinsic as that competitive aspect is, it really sucks in this context when things would be much better with cooler heads examining the available facts. We’re all trying to understand this crazy existence of ours just a little bit more. It’s a shame we’re often the greatest threat to others and ourselves in achieving that.

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