Why changing (our) minds is so hard

Our ability to change our mind is a beautiful thing. Of course, sometimes minds are too easily changed: people can be under the sway of dictators, gurus, marketeers and just buy whatever those people are selling, without any critical thinking. But for many other people, changing their mind is a lot harder, especially when we’re talking about deeply held and cherished beliefs. These can be moral in nature (questions about whether GMOs, eating meat, spending a lot of money on going to other planets… are ok or not…), or factual (whether eating meat is healthy or not, whether there’s alien life on other planets, etc).

I love it when people, after having given an issue or question their consideration, suddenly say that they have changed their mind about it and now hold a completely different, sometimes diametrically opposed, opinion on it. In this post I wanted to give you my thoughts on why this is actually rare. I will touch on three issues involved in changing minds (ours or other people’s):

1. changing our mind about something is hard
2. we don’t like other people to change our mind
3. we don’t like to admit we changed our mind, and we definitely don’t like to admit that it was other people who changed our mind

(c) thebigriddle.com
(c) thebigriddle.com


Changing our mind about something is hard

Why is that? Basically, we like to see confirmed the opinions and ideas that we already have. We want to justify what we are already thinking, and we don’t like any information that contradicts what we believe. Therefore we will be much more open to even notice information that confirms our ideas and opinions (this is called confirmation bias). Put simply, if you believe A rather than B, you’ll be more likely to seek out and find and believe stuff that confirms A. It goes without saying that this confirmation bias makes it a lot more difficult to change your mind. Just do the experiment: how likely are you (as a vegetarian or vegan) to read (and seriously consider) an article called “Three arguments against veganism”. Maybe you say you won’t read it because you know what is in there and because in the case of veganism there are no good arguments against it. But that would exactly prove your confirmation bias, I’m afraid.

Changing one’s mind about whether it’s right or wrong to eat animal products is especially challenging, because this is an issue with concrete, real world consequences (not everything is: we may never be confronted with an issue like abortion, for instance). Suppose we’re omnivores, who suddenly come to the conclusion that eating animals is wrong (i.e. we just changed our minds). We are then suddenly experiencing that our behavior doesn’t match our beliefs. The friction that we feel as a result of this is called cognitive dissonance, and the theory of cognitive dissonance says that we will try to resolve this “dissonance” (it’s not a nice experience). There are two ways to do this: 1. we follow up on our new belief and reconcile our behavior with it (we become vegan). Or 2. we don’t want to go vegan (we like meat), so we adapt our belief so that it matches with our behavior. We say things like: eating animal products is not that bad, animals are raised for this, the meat I eat comes from animals that didn’t suffer, etc. People who want to avoid going vegan would do best to ignore all the pro-vegan information altogether. This way they can avoid to change their mind and their behavior. So, another answer to the question why changing our mind is so hard is: we often have an active interest (a stake, or a steak!) in not doing so.

Let me offer one suggested solution to this quandary: we must make it easier for people to change their minds by making sure the negative consequences of changing one’s mind are as small as possible (see my talk Making Compassion Easier). In other words, we’ll need to provide people with great alternatives to animal products, which are available everywhere, at competitive prices.

We don’t like other people to change our mind

All of us like to think of ourselves as adult, mature individuals, who can make up our own mind about things. We do not like anyone to tell us how to think, and value our – real or perceived – autonomy. I remember being in a bookstore with a friend, and pointing to a book that I thought he should read. He picked it up and when he read on the cover “this book can change your life”, he snorted, said “I”ll change my own life, thank you very much”, and put the book down.

Already 350 years ago, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that “people are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others”. You may have experienced that when you tried to influence or convince someone of something that you believe in, they just dig in their heels even deeper, and the distance between you and them only becomes bigger.

Our task, then, would be to help people discover the arguments to change their minds by themselves, rather than us offering them those arguments (and telling them their opinion or arguments are incorrect). One way to do this is by mainly asking them questions, as is done with the so-called Socratic method. Socrates, in his dialogues with others (as written out by Plato), didn’t offer his discussion partners his own opinion, but teased out their own arguments, doubts, assumptions etc. by asking them questions. When someone defends eating meat on the basis that it’s what predators do in the wild too, rather than telling them that these predators don’t have the moral apparatus or the alternative in terms of veggie burgers to help them behave differently, we could ask something like: can you see any difference between humans and lions in this respect?

We don’t like to admit that we changed our mind

I started this post by saying how I admire when people change their minds. I admire it also when they can publicly acknowledge this. However, the latter is very hard to do for most people. We believe that showing that we changed our mind is the same as admitting that we made a mistake, and that this makes us look weak, stupid, or whatever. This is a matter of self-preservation and saving face.

How often do you hear a public figure, like a politician, say that they changed their mind? They have good reason to avoid saying that, because their audience tends to think of politicians who change their mind as wishy-washy people with wishy-washy, unstable opinions (if this person changed their mind about this today, will they not change his mind again tomorrow, about the same thing or another thing?). We expect people like politicians to be well-informed from the start and to never change course once they have chosen one (though of course we will be happy if they change their minds in a direction that we applaud). The result is that people will rather hold on to an opinion, long after they’ve been convinced it’s not a correct one. This goes for politicians as well as in our own relationship disputes.

Suggested solution: given that it’s hard for people to admit that they changed their mind, we can try to avoid them having to admit it. What I mean is that, if we would love a person to change their mind from x to y, it is good not to have them defend x too much. As soon as we start a discussion with them about x or y, and they defend x, the more difficult it will be for them later to choose y. And if we present ourselves all the more as champions of y, it becomes even more difficult for them to change, as y will be associated with someone else. It will be the opinion of someone else that they copied (the second issue I discussed above). What’s happening is known as polarization: two parties having opposing viewpoints, just getting even more opposed, digging their heels in. The more one party defends their position, the more difficult it will be for them to change their mind. I think this dynamic will be the most explicit where two people already have some kind of competition going on: siblings, roommates, partners… who debate a lot.

Basically the other should have the idea that once they change their mind, we won’t be there to tease them with things like “See! See now that you were wrong before?!” or “ha, finally you listened to me (and allowed me to influence you)!”. Try to help make sure that the other person will not lose face. Try to make sure they don’t have to admit defeat because there was no battle to begin with. This means trying to not present an issue as a conflict of arguments, as two different positions being opposed to each other. Show how it’s not a black and white matter, how the other party already shares some of your opinions and how you already share some of theirs. This way once a party changes their mind, it will not seem as if they switched camp (and should therefore be afraid of losing face) but just integrated some of your arguments and are now seeing things differently.

Another thing that can help people avoid losing face when changing their mind is when there is another factor (which is not you) that they can attribute their change to. People might be wary of changing as long as they fear having to acknowledge your influence on them, but they might more easily do so if they can attribute it to for instance a change in their health situation (the doctor told them something), or because there’s now an organic store nearby, or they discovered they are allergic to dairy… All of these and many more factors can offer good reasons or excuses (it doesn’t matter) to change their mind. If you discover that there might be such a reason, by all means, let them use it, and don’t insist that it was *you* who was the determining factor in changing their mind.

Needless to say, the ability and readiness to change one’s mind will vary a lot among individuals. Some people may be extremely stubborn. Or people may be able to easily change their mind in some domains, but not in others. Some people will be good at changing their mind across the board. These people are 1. very rational or 2. very mature, or both. The rational people just go for anything that seems correct to them. They are to a large extent aware of their possible biases, and they know that it’s not because *you* gave them some arguments that these arguments are not true and that they shouldn’t carefully evaluate them. Maturity helps them to acknowledge your influence without feeling in any way humiliated or inferior. Mature people are not afraid of looking weak.

In general, it is safe to assume that on big issues like eating meat, changing minds is not easy. Still, it is possible. I think our role is ideally the one of a kind of coach that helps tease out arguments and ideas that others already believe, rather then telling them how to think.

5 thoughts on “Why changing (our) minds is so hard

  1. This post prompted me to think about more effective approaches to activism. I especially like the suggestion to try a Socratic approach.

    I’d be interested to know what others think, but in my experience, it’s a bit easier to change people’s minds when you’re advocating for animals as part of an animal-protection organization, as opposed to approaching people just on your own–as a roommate, or friend, etc. I’ve noticed people seem considerably more open to changing their minds when it doesn’t require them to admit that a single person persuaded them. I get a lot more done with an organization. That has been my experience, anyway.

  2. This is written, in usual vegan fashion, with the implication that the vegans hold “the truth” and must influence the heathen non-vegans to the good news. The fact that there are millions of very intelligent non-vegans that would have various reasoned based objections to vegan ideology, well, let’s push that under the rug.

    The underlying psychology discussed applies to vegans as well….just saying.

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