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Every day we form opinions about a wide range of issues including personal and business situations. When we form an opinion are we open minded about changing our point of view on these issues or do we stubbornly stick to our conclusions through thick and thin? Is changing our mind a sign of weakness? Does it conclude we did not examine the components of the decision making process thoroughly in the first place? An article by Russell Blackford in New Philosopher examines why we change our minds, especially on important issues and how we can test our new ideas for validity.
We frequently change our minds. Russell, ” Most often about trivial things like the evening’s dinner plans, but sometimes about ideas of great importance to us. For example, a pacifist might find that she agrees with her country’s involvement in a particular war, and this might in turn , lead her to a more general view about the circumstances where going to war is justified. A career soldier might become a pacifist, perhaps after experiencing the terror and suffering of warfare at first hand.”
The lead up to experiences that motivate us to change our minds can come from left field and are not always anticipated by us. Or, as a general observation, it might be a slow change simply channelling through as we mature and grow older. Strongly held views often change when we realise how wrong we are as our view of the world changes. Sometimes a change of mind can be sudden, perhaps triggered by an emotionally moving experience or a new item of vital information. For some people the change can come from engaging imaginatively with a different perspective when reading a vividly realised novel or watching a compelling film.
Russell, “When we do change our minds on important issues, we tend to believe we’ve made intellectual or moral progress. That is, we think that our new views are closer to the truth than the old ones.” Not everyone’s views change at the same time. Human nature provides the ability for each of us to hold different opinions on a wide range of topics. When we change our minds it is likely that others are changing as well, often in a completely different direction. Russell, “You may have both developed more sophisticated positions and arguments, which is arguably a kind of progress, but it’s unlikely that you’re both closer to the truth.”
Because we have changed our beliefs it opens the door for criticism from others. Our previous line must have been poorly conceived in the first place. Because we seem to change our minds easily we must be flippant, not someone to take notice of, for example. And if we expect others to follow us then we had better offer proofs of why we have changed our thinking and justification of our newly ideas. We probably have an obligation to show others how we came to our new conclusions. Russell. “Unless I tell you much more about the process, you might wonder whether I changed my mind for intellectually weak reasons. Perhaps I shifted to beliefs that were more comforting than my old ones at a time in my life where I was grieving over failure or loss. Or perhaps I rejected a defensible position over anger with some of its proponents. Or perhaps I was merely swayed one way or the other by the stance of a charismatic celebrity.”
It is healthy to develop a concept that, to change views is progressive, especially when they are views of intellectual or moral importance. Because we tend to cling too strongly to whatever views we started with in the first place, always welcoming evidence that favours them while happily rationalising away evidence to the contrary. Russell, “This is the well-known confirmation bias, one of the many cognitive biases and potentially misleading mental shortcuts studied by psychologists.” The more emotionally important these are to us, then the stronger we will cling to them. Therefore we should try to develop open attitudes on everything we consider so that we can neutralise the effects the confirmation bias has on our mind changing processes. And the most effective ways of getting us to change often appeal more to our emotions than our reasoning faculties.
Because the confirmation bias will not let us take an open view on matters it’s a good idea to develop methods to rationalise those matters of consideration that can be subject to a change of mind. We need to explore the actual evidence before we take the jump which will help us consider the evidence against our existing position more fairly providing it’s the evidence and arguments that helps us change our minds. Also consider the detailed story of those who may have turned away from our firmly held beliefs to help remove the confirmation bias. Russell, “Anything that can help us open our minds to evidence and arguments against our current ideas, and perhaps in favour of ideas that take us out of our comfort zones, is potentially useful.”
One way to test the strength of our existing ideas or the new ones we have formed, is to test how the evidence and logic of it all would strike a rational bystander who does not already accept them but is also not resistant to them. Russell, “If an idea passes that test, it may be worth holding onto or adopting.” Now we have seen how the mind changing processes work or sometimes don’t work, it will help us all pursue a more flexible approach to our business and personal lives. We don’t want to get bogged down and live our lives simply believing what we learnt in the past. Even if these beliefs are well founded we now know how to test them. To learn from this story and apply what it teaches us, is to give us freedom, flexibility and a measured way to test the validity of what we already know and at the same time confidently change our minds with intelligent intent when we need to.