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.