Changing your mind about changing your mind

I’m a big fan of changing my mind – of updating my opinion/position as new information becomes available.

It’s not an easy process, personally or socially, as changing your mind can be an incredibly humbling experience. But it’s something that we all have to get better at. Given the polarity of opinions on hot button issues, at least some people are going to have to change their mind if we hope to reach any kind of consensus.

In that respect, the ability to change our minds, especially about emotionally-charged situations is fundamental to resolving some of the world’s stickiest issues.

The problem we have is that changing our mind is often perceived, both by ourselves and others, as a sign of weakness, when it should be our greatest strength. Politicians are lambasted for “flip-flopping” on issues, and even us mortals can get a roasting, especially from those who’s position we abandon.

I (currently:) believe that the ability and will to honestly and publicly change our position on key issues is a super-power which we should cultivate as broadly as possible.

There are few who willingly undertake this process publicly, Sam Harris being one of the notable exceptions. Regardless of what you think of Sam’s ideas or politics, you’ve got to admire the way he will wade into a discussion, prepared to update his position, and to openly acknowledge that he has done so. It’s an admirable approach, but you can see that it is costly for him (although it’s admittedly difficult to discern how much flak he gets from changing his position on inflammatory issues as opposed to being vocal on sensitive issues in the first place).

This is a rather long way of saying that I really enjoyed the latest episode of The Knowledge Project podcast which spends quite a bit of time focussing on the benefits and mechanics of changing our mind.

The Knowledge Project is made by Shane Parrish who runs the excellent blog Farnam Street. Each episode is a deep dive into the world of an expert whose work touches one of Shane’s areas of interest. The guest for this episode was Julia Galef who hosts her own podcast (Rationally Speaking) and is a co-founder of the Centre for Applied Rationality.

This episode is full of cool insights about influence and persuasion and the ethics of both, but the best bit (at least from my point of view), was the brief section where Julia and Shane discuss actual tactics for being open to having your own mind changed.

It sounds like something that we should be able to do as humans without tips and tricks from experts, but we’re so hard-wired to hang on our beliefs and reject conflicting information, that sometimes we need a helping hand.

One of these tactics is to have a Trigger Action Plan. This kind of plan, is a deliberate attempt to take a specific course of action in a situation in which would otherwise have a more automatic response.

An example of this might changing your automatic response upon hearing some information which seriously conflicts with your current world view (e.g. the sky is made of marmalade). Instead of automatically dismissing the information out of hand or seeking out answers which support your view, your deliberately seek out information which supports the conflicting viewpoint. In this way, you will be able to get a better understanding of the arguments and evidence supporting this claim and be able to make a better assessment of whether the claim is valid.

Another useful tactic was specifically geared towards hearing information from people we don’t like. In this case, our feelings for the person will prejudice our perception of the information, usually for the worse. The intervention here, is to imagine that we are receiving the same information from someone we like and/or respect, with a view to noting how much of our resistance is due to our personal feelings.

This second tactic seemed particularly useful in situations where you genuinely want to make progress with difficult people, a situation which I think we all find ourselves in.

There is a lot more in the episode which is worth checking out, but at the very least, I hope that I’ve given some food for thought on the value of having a more open mind about changing your mind.

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