Why is it Often so Difficult for Us to Change Our Minds?

One of my pet peeves with certain values and notions is they encourage us to do (or in some cases, not do) the sort of things we need little encouragement for and which are rather “base” — to use a vague term from another day and age.

The other day, for instance, a preacher in Arkansas put up a sign declaring “reason is the greatest enemy that faith has”.  Yet it hardly seems necessary in many circumstances to encourage people not to reason.  Usually, the more difficult thing for our species is to reason and reason well.

Again, a friend once asked me what I did that day, and when I told him I had sat quietly in a park observing the day, he replied that sort of “unproductive activity” was “laziness”.  It was for kids, but not grown-ups.  Yet, most of us don’t — or at least, I don’t — need much encouragement to ignore what’s going on around us.  The more difficult thing is to be aware of all that’s happening and the attempt to practice that can be arduous.

Then, too, I’ve heard several times in my life that jealousy is a sign of true love.  But so far as I know, jealousy destroys love and either replaces it with emotional dependency or is itself a symptom of emotional dependency.  Whatever the case, jealousy comes easily and naturally to our species and does not require much encouragement.  The much more difficult thing is to deal with jealousy in such a way that it does not suppress or destroy the love we have for someone.

I confess one of my greatest pet peeves, though, is the encouragement we so often receive to be of firm and unchanging mind.  That strikes me as an encouragement to be intellectually lazy, and it is advice unwisely taken by anyone who ever wants to learn something new. But more than that, it’s like approaching someone in the habit of living a sedentary lifestyle and cheering them on to sit on a couch.  In at least many circumstances, our species seems to find it far easier to stick with a long held opinion than to change our minds even in the face of overwhelming evidence that our long held opinion is wrong.

Yesterday evening, Eric — who is a graduate student studying biophysics — wrote:

We all have trouble changing our minds, even when our reasoning is destroyed by others, or [when] we learn new facts that seem to decimate our assumptions. Usually a significant change of opinion or worldview takes time even after we realize we are wrong. But why?

Why, indeed.  Eric’s answer to the question firmly depends on his understanding of the mind as a physical thing — an understanding that he and I ultimately share, although as a biophysicist, I suspect Eric knows much more than I do about how the mind is a physical thing:

I think this is yet another fact about ourselves that indicates our minds really are physical things. Our thoughts really are constrained by the connections among physical neurons. And those connections can’t be broken and re-formed in an instant, any more than you can wipe out your hard drive or patch some software in an instant. It would be unphysical if that happened. [emphasis in original]

Eric, incidentally, goes on to draw a humane lesson from this (something rather typical of him to do):

And of course this means we can’t be too hard on people if they seem stubborn in their beliefs, even when their reasoning/evidence is completely shattered in front of them….they might not be stubborn, it’s just their brains are not physically capable of re-wiring some highly reinforced circuits in an instant.

Thus, if Eric is right, one of the key factors determining how hard it is for us to change our minds is the speed and ability of our neurons to rewire their connections to other neurons.  I suspect there are numerous things that influence the speed and ability of our neurons to rewire themselves.  For instance: nutrition, age, health, sleep, practice, and so forth.  But whatever the case, I think Eric is correct.

Of course, there must be other factors at play in addition to the time it takes to rewire our mind.  To me, one of the more interesting of those factors has been revealed by Robert Burton.  According to Burton, who is a neurologist, it’s possible we can become physically addicted to the feeling of being certain:

Stick brain electrodes in rat pleasure centers (the mesolimbic dopamine system primarily located in the upper brain stem). The rats continuously press the bar, to the exclusion of food and water, until they drop. In humans the same areas are activated with cocaine, amphetamines, alcohol, nicotine and gambling—to mention just a few behaviors to which one can become easily addicted.

It is quite likely that the same reward system provides the positive feedback necessary for us to learn and to continue wanting to learn. The pleasure of a thought is what propels us forward; imagine trying to write a novel or engage in a long-term scientific experiment without getting such rewards. Fortunately, the brain has provided us with a wide variety of subjective feelings of reward ranging from hunches, gut feelings, intuitions, suspicions that we are on the right track to a profound sense of certainty and utter conviction. And yes, these feelings are qualitatively as powerful as those involved in sex and gambling. One need only look at the self-satisfied smugness of a “know it all” to suspect that the feeling of certainty can approach the power of addiction.

In so far as we are addicted to the feeling of certainty, we might be reluctant to do anything — such as change our mind — that would threaten or destroy that feeling of certainty.

I’m reminded here of something the psychologist and researcher Robert Altemeyer notes about people with authoritarian personalities (.pdf). In researching how such people think, Altemeyer discovered they, like everyone else, sometimes doubt their beliefs.  When that happens, folks who score high for authoritarian personality traits tend to seek out people and information that will reasure them they were right all along.

Yet, folks who score low for authoritarian personality traits, when facing the same challenge of doubting their beliefs, tend to investigate alternative views.  That is, they look for something better than the beliefs they doubt, instead of merely trying to reassure themselves.

If Altemeyer is correct, then authoritarians might be seeking that rewarding and possibly addictive feeling of certainty that Burton speaks about.

Besides the factors mentioned by Eric and by Burton, I think there must be others that taken together account for why it is often so difficult for us to change our minds.  So what are those other factors?  At this point, I think I’ll open the floor to your views on that.   And I would also be quite interested if you have any advice you wish to offer on techniques that can help us meet the challenge of changing our minds when doing so is warranted by reason and evidence.

8 thoughts on “Why is it Often so Difficult for Us to Change Our Minds?

  1. I try very hard not to have opinions about things. If I don’t have an opinion, I don’t have to change my mind. Clearly, I’m reading your “change the mind” discussion as alluding to opinions and not well-thought-out conclusions of fact.

    As for the preacher who says reason is the enemy of faith, he’s right. Since I’m feeling generous of spirit this morning, I’ll go so far as to say that the preacher is admirable for his honesty. He does not, at least in his short, Lutherian, statement exhort his flock to abandon reason in general. “Faith” as the term applies to religion is not a matter of logic, and those who try to argue for religion based on “facts” and “reasoning” are disingenuous, and, in my view, get into arguments they cannot win.

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  2. Hi,
    I often come to your blog for inspiration, and was wondering if I could add a comment.
    I wonder if the fear of uncertainty is different from the addiction of certainty? Sometimes people could be in denial because to accept would mean to change, and that would mean to move away from what they though was a solid ground. To some it could be similar to removing an important card from the bottom deck in a carefully constructed card castle. Would the need of a boat mean that one is addicted to it or could it talk an inner fear that that the one using a boat is afraid that he might drown before he learns to swim?
    Meenakshi

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  3. You bastard! you made me think for a moment there.

    Then I had to go on Dinesh D’Souza’s old blog(up to 5205 comments now!) and give the Christians supreme shit for being magical thinkers and being just like their greed, genocidal, narcissistic GOD!

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  4. @ Twoblueday: Yet, even well thought out conclusions of fact can sometimes be mistaken. And when they are, it’s often extraordinarily difficult for us to recognize the fact they are mistaken.

    @ Thoughtroom: Welcome to the blog! I am grateful to you for your kind words and for leaving a comment. Whether the fear of uncertainty is different from an addiction to the pleasures of certainty is a fascinating question. I would hazard the two are entwined. The more pleasure we take in something, such as certainty, the more we might fear to lose it when our certainty is threatened.

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  5. I’m not sure how relevant this is but this topic reminded me of a social psychology experiment done in the l970’s in which people were paid to give speeches on topics that were the opposite of their beliefs and asked questions before and after the speeches testing the strengths of their original beliefs. People who were paid a quarter changed their beliefs in the direction of the opposite beliefs more strongly than those paid five dollars on the theory that those paid less felt that they must really believe to some degree what they were saying to be saying it for such a small sum of money. That is, just the act of saying it convinced themselves to some extent that they actually believed what they were saying even though they started off not believing it. They were essentially brainwashing themselves. Some religions believe that practice comes before belief: that if you go through the motions, you will eventually believe. Social psychological theory backs this up. Go through the motions of changing your mind, and your mind will be changed.

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  6. This may explain why older folks seem to have a harder time changing their beliefs, think of the old racist that the family rolls their eyes at.

    It yet again shows why we should focus harder on teaching science and becoming more of a scientific society. It may allow us to be more open to reason, debate, and new ideas.

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