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.

How to veganize Sam Harris

For those who don’t know him, Sam Harris is an author on philosophy, religion & atheism, rationality and a lot of other topics, and has quite a large following. In his latest podcast, Sam Harris talks with psychologist Paul Bloom about “the dark side” of human nature. One of the topics under scrutiny this time is vegetarianism/veganism.

I have written before about Sam Harris’ dietary choices and his at the time not very convincing arguments for not being vegan. I don’t require people to be vegan, but in his case, as someone really adamant about following rational argument to wherever it leads, I couldn’t help pointing out some inconsistencies.

Listening to this recent podcast (from min. 1.14 to the end), I was impressed and moved by Harris’ statements and philosophizing on our behaviour towards and thinking about animals, however. Harris wants to take the idea of going vegan seriously. I’ll go over some of the ideas exchanged between Harris and Bloom below, before drawing some conclusions.

Harris and Bloom both both agree that future generations will see us the way we see slaveholders today and that they will consider our present treatment of animals as monstrous. They both agree about their own complicity “in the horrific suffering of many many creatures”, and that they “are participating in a system that is on some basic level indefensible.” Bloom: “We can ask ourselves what it’s like to knowingly do evil. And this is what it feels like”. Bloom doesn’t want to call it hypocrisy but rather weakness of will.

While Bloom seems to be willing to defend “humane” meat, saying the suffering is the problem rather than the killing, and that the world would already be a much better place if we only produced humane” meat, Harris doesn’t want to buy into that so easily. He says:

“I know that I’m not going to kill a cow to get my next hamburger… and the fact that I participate in a system that does this knowingly more or less condemns me as a hypocrite. (…) I know I wouldn’t kill them myself, and I wouldn’t like myself if I became so callous as to be ok with doing it. I don’t want to be that person.(…) My first ethical concern is: if you know that you would find it ethically repugnant to kill animals, day after day so as to secure your protein (…), if you much rather pet a cow than kill it (…), if you know you are that kind of person and you wouldn’t want to be any other kind of person, doesn’t it seem just transparantly unethical to be willing to delegate that process to others and just keep it out of sight, out of mind and just go on eating meat however raised?

sam harris

Bloom believes that if Harris thinks this way, if he finds it morally repellent to kill animals, then yes, he shouldn’t delegate it.

Harris seems to be entirely aware of both the suffering going on and of the inconsistency between his beliefs and his actions. He names two factors that keep him from being vegan: “(1) the pleasure to which I think I’m marginally attached (…) and (2) the feeling that we don’t understand human health and nutrition enough… ” Harris doesn’t want “to have what I eat and what I feed my kids such a life consuming project. It’s just easier to eat meat and fish sometimes.” He admits, however that “that laziness, given the magnitude of the suffering we are imposing on animals, is a horrible thing about me. That laziness is not justifiable if you actually look closely at the details.”

Both Harris and Bloom agree that it would be a lot easier if some things were imposed from the top down. Bloom compares it to the following: he isn’t really prepared to give away a big part of his income, but is in favor of taxes taking a share. Harris, in this respect, talks about “getting up each day and having to rely on your own heroism and commitment and some sort of discipline.” Still, he acknowledges that “we obviously can’t keep killing and emiserating animals with a clear conscience until some benevolent despot passes that law for us. We can’t abdicate personal responsibility here.”

I think we can draw several lessons or conclusions from this dialogue:

  1. People who are committed to rational thinking can come to the conclusion that eating animals (at the very least factory farmed animals) is wrong.
  2. They won’t necessarily put that belief into practice.
  3. Some of the ways to bridge the gap between attitude and behaviour (at least in this case) are 1. showing the nutritional adequacy of vegan diets (preferably in a rational way and without exaggeration) and 2. as a movement, by stimulating the development of alternatives.
  4. What’s also clear is that Harris seems to think that it is all much more complicated than it really is. Most people who have been vegan for a mere couple of months will realize that it doesn’t require much “discipline” or “heroism”, even though getting there might be less easy or obvious.
  5. We can see that they haven’t done much thinking (especially Bloom) and are probably quite misguided about “humane meat”. I am definitely not saying that there are no differences between different ways of raising animals, but as far as we can see, “humanely” raised meat (if we would agree that it exists at all) is very hard to come by, would be very expensive and its production is not generalisable. What Bloom has in mind when he talks about “humane” meat is probably a far cry from an actual improvement.

I leave the word to Harris before drawing conclusion number six:

“We are two people [Harris and Bloom – VS] who have admitted to participating in a system that is not only in some sense objectively bad but perhaps so bad as to be the kind of thing that would be on the short list as to be an embarassment to our descendants. (…) We’re both conceding that the way we raise and treat and consume anmials is probably a moral scandal (…) analogous to slavery and yet we are to some degree participating in it and not really signalling much of a willingness to change. I’m gonna signal my own willingness to change. I’m appealing to my listeners to send me some streamlined info on how to idiotproof this process.”

So here’s conclusion number six: sometimes change is a slow process (I know it was for me) but, even though Sam Harris hasn’t reached the vegan “nec plus ultra” yet, change seems to be possible for everyone. It would be good not to write off anyone on the basis that they are not vegan yet, and encourage them, especially when they are showing intellectual honesty, and are mustering the courage to honestly examine their belief and draw honest conclusions. Sam Harris wants to really investigate what he can do. I applaud him for that and wish him good luck. I’m sure he’ll soon be a formidable ally to the movement for compassion for animals.

On effectiveness vs. emotion

I think the effective altruism movement provides us with useful and much needed tools to asses the value of actions, strategies and organisations in the animal rights or any other movement. I like the idea of estimating what the impact of a certain organisation or campaign is. I like the focus on measurable goals, and of comparing input (time, money and other resources) with output (impact) in order to get an idea of the ROI (return on investment). In a way, we owe it to the beings we want to help to look for the best ways to spend our resources.

Today I visited a sanctuary for wolves, somewhere in New Mexico. While there, I suddenly felt sad, somehow, and I didn’t really understand why until the next morning (we camped at the sanctuary), when it hit me: considerations of effectiveness forbade me to give a donation to this sanctuary. It’s not that it looked inefficiently run or that the people working and volunteering there didn’t seem motivated – on the contrary. But it was the idea that supporting an operation that tried to give a new life to a couple of   dozen abused or abandonned wolves was just not the best use of the limited money I have to donate. Moreover, the wolves are predators, living on many pounds of fresh meat every day.

That’s what I had been thinking in the back of my head, and that’s what had made me sad. Because while I realized all of this was rationally true for me, it also felt like some kind of betrayal to these animals, who were so real, lying before me and having kept me up during the night with their awe-inspiring howling. I felt my rational reasoning was somehow callous, and I found the thought that i would somehow ignore these wolves unbearably sad.

In the end, we left a donation – on top of the money we paid for meeting a wolf face to face. I am still convinced it wasn’t the most effective use of our money, that it wasn’t the most rational thing to do. We may have done it to make ourselves feel better. But then again, we were there. The sanctuary was on our path. The wolves were looking at us. And the wonderful people working there looked like they could use anything they could get. And also, in spite of the lack of rationality, I think it is a strength and a good thing that one can be touched by the eyes of the beings you’re looking into. Part of me thinks the world would be a more dangerous and less caring place without that. Maybe without this direct empathy, there would be nothing in us that would want to measure anything at all.