It ought to be easy to change a mind. Any mind. At least your own mind, right?
You have an opinion, which you like to think of as a fact. It’s based on available knowledge. For example, you may think that a clear sky is blue. Later, however, when new information comes in, you would quite logically re-evaluate that opinion, and change it accordingly. The sky looks blue, because air molecules scatter light in a way that our eyes process as blue. But really, the sky is black, because you are staring out into the endless void of space.
Sometimes (say, during a political discussion on Facebook), you might feel like you’re screaming into the endless void of space. In the real world, new information doesn’t change many minds. Facts, figures, and data sometimes seem to have no effect.
But why? Wouldn’t it make sense, in the context of evolution, for humans to embrace change as new information comes in? Wouldn’t seeing things clearly help people survive? Not really.
You Need A Village
Humans are social animals, and we are hard-wired to survive by working together harmoniously with our tribe. That kind of commitment to cohesiveness is what allows your team to organize quickly and effectively, for hunting, gathering, war, or almost any other endeavor.
Groupthink, not critical thinking, was the key to evolutionary success. People with contrary opinions were a danger to the system, the tribe, and the children. Even when those folks were absolutely correct, they were often the ones voted off the island.
For most of the past six million years, being ostracized was a death sentence. Humans aren’t designed to thrive on our own in the wilderness. This is why the brain reads ostracization, or social rejection, as physical pain.
To your subconscious, ostracization isn’t just about missing prom. It’s an existential threat, and one that causes profound suffering. Your brain will do almost anything to avoid it.
You really didn’t want to get voted out of this group.
So what does the tribe value? Hint: It’s not thinking outside the box.
The tribe wants loyalty, predictability, and consistency. Critical thinking may be acceptable in some contexts, say, building a better spear. (But consider the historical resistance to new technologies and techniques, such as washing your hands before surgery.)
Challenging traditions, religions, or leaders has always carried with it an enormous risk of ostracization. Not coincidentally, those are the beliefs we are most resistant to changing. “The response in the brain that we see is very similar to what would happen if, say, you were walking through the forest and came across a bear,” explains Sarah Gimbel. “Your brain would have this automatic fight-or-flight [response]…and your body prepares to protect itself.”
In the modern world, if you become an atheist, openly homosexual, or support a political candidate unpopular with your crew, you may still find yourself ostracized. In a city of several million, you’ll be able to find another tribe—eventually. In a small, rural community, social rejection could seriously undermine your options for work, recreation, and romantic options in the long term.
And no matter where you live, your brain evolved to work with relatively small groups of 150 people or less. Which means that if you and your friends share the same political party, religion, or related belief, your brain will resist changing those beliefs as if it were a life or death matter, no matter what new information comes in.
In fact, you’re more likely to double down in support of the shared belief when presented with challenging new information. Your brain reads that data as if the entire tribe were under attack. If you’ve publicly stated your support for a belief—and who hasn’t, in these halcyon days of oversharing on social media—changing your mind becomes even more difficult.
But I Want to Be Able to Change My Mind. How Does My Brain Keep Me Clinging to False Beliefs?
Your brain doesn’t think you can handle the truth. It may be correct.
Your brain wants to protect you from changing your mind, and has dozens of different strategies for doing so.
For example, there’s cognitive dissonance. If you are considering two contradictory ideas, you may feel physical discomfort, anxiety, and other unpleasant symptoms of your fair-minded attempt to consider other points of view. For example, you find out that your favorite smoothie has more calories than three cans of your favorite soft drink. Reading about it makes you feel bad. Maybe even foolish.
Part of your discomfort may be the sunk-cost bias, the fact that you’ve been enjoying something that was branded as healthy and made you feel virtuous. If your skinny friend advised you to go with the lower calorie, cold-pressed juices instead, and you stood up for the smoothie, you’ve publicly declared your position. It is therefore consistent to continue defending it.
At some point, you have to decide. Are you going to change your mind about the smoothie, or not? Probably not.
Common sense is another tool your brain uses to keep you in line. In psychology jargon, it’s called heuristics, the mental shortcuts your brain creates to save you time and energy as you go about your day. The problem is that they only work in familiar environments. What’s common sense in New York City could get you in trouble in Costa Rica.
In New York City, for example, you’re expected to stand up for yourself and speak your mind—that’s how things get done. In Costa Rica, this is seen as rude, and makes people defensive and irritable. But your brain loves common sense, and will interpret the reaction to your brash behavior incorrectly. Instead of, “My heuristics are not applicable in this environment,” your brain will tell you, “Costa Rica has terrible service.” If you decide to never go back to Costa Rica, you’ll never have to change your mind.
And those are just the beginning. Here is a list of dozens of cognitive biases, just a sample of the ways your brain protects itself from specific threats to the status quo.
So How Do I Change My Mind? Or Anyone’s Mind?
The truth is out there.
It can be done, and we’ll cover that in a future blog. In the meantime, there’s plenty of advice backed up with scientific evidence available online. The short version, however, is this:
Give yourself—or the object of your attention—all the relevant information. Don’t be confrontational, even with yourself. This is where the power of story can be useful. Instead of focusing on an overwhelming canon of information, find stories from real people who are exploring healthy lifestyles and who share your tastes (and maybe fears of green juices), and struggle—just like you—with finding healthy meal replacements that actually taste delicious, too.
Let people save face. If your friend is consuming a day and half worth of calories in a smoothie, focus on the fact that they are trying to cut out the fried foods and focus on a healthier lifestyle. There’s no need to repeatedly point out the calorie count. Remember, your brain is hiding plenty of truths from you, too.
Finally, most importantly, give yourself time and space to change your mind. When presented with new information, the brain immediately ramps up its defenses and gets ready to argue. Only later, when things are calm, are most people comfortable confronting their cognitive dissonance. And, perhaps, changing their minds.
It still may not happen. Happily, most of the incorrect beliefs we cling to are fairly benign, otherwise the tribe would have already corrected itself. As it is constantly doing, one mind at a time.