Changeable minds

Minds change rarely. I wonder a lot about what happens when they do, and I often ask people this question:

What’s something you believed deeply, for a long time, and then changed your mind about?

This often doesn’t go well. You’ll ask me, naturally enough, for an example — some belief that I once held and then revised. But since any topic I offer as an example intersects with your existing belief system in some way, we wind up talking about that topic and my original question goes unanswered.

It’s easy to discuss positions you support, or oppose, within the framework of your existing belief system. It’s much harder to consider how that belief system has changed, or could change.

Facebook has become a laboratory in which to observe this effect. I’m connected to people across the continuum of ideologies. At both extremes I see the same behavior. News stories are selected, refracted through the lens of ideology, and posted with comments that I can predict with great certainty. These utterances, by definition, convey little information. Nor are they meant to. Their purpose is to reinforce existing beliefs, not to examine them.

Echo chambers aren’t new, of course, and they have nothing to do with the Internet. We seek the like-minded and avoid the differently-minded. On Facebook, though, it’s not so easy to avoid the differently-minded. I regard that as a feature, not a bug. I’m open to re-examining my own beliefs and I welcome you to challenge them. But if you’re not similarly open to re-examining your own beliefs then I can’t take you seriously.

See also the Edge Annual Question for 2008: What Have You Changed Your Mind About?

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8 thoughts on “Changeable minds

  1. I used to think that modern civilization was about working through our adolescence — insert some random Clarke or Asimov reference — and that “If we survive the cold war, we’ll enter a time of rational governance focused on the long-term.” I now no longer feel that decade-by-decade, humanity moves towards a broader, longer-range perspective.

    1. I’ve gone the other way on that. Which isn’t to say I see signs of rational governance focused on the long term — I don’t. But only to say that as people we are on the whole, and over the long span, becoming better people. Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature solidified that belief.

  2. I find Facebook just unreadable. It’s post after post of people repeating some angry thing they read on DailyKos or heard from Rush Limbaugh.

    You talk about “belief”, but I think “faith” is closer. If you cross them, they don’t act like you got a question wrong on a test, or even like you’ve bet on the wrong side of a horse race. They act like you’ve said there is no god.

  3. Over I have discovered (to answer your basic question) that I now believe it takes awhile to develop an opinion. I didn’t used to believe that. It can make argumentation difficult, since stating a bit of fact or experience is all too often quickly taken as an expression of an opposite opinion. But what if you don’t necessarily disagree?

  4. For years, I believed Lance Armstrong was clean. After I read the US ADA report, I certainly changed my mind. While I felt angry and deceived, I noticed a small part of me that was disoriented for a few days by the revelation.

  5. I used to think the Obama administration did not push hard enough, that if they’d only let themselves be driven by the hard left they’d be able to get more traction (for example get single payer or a public option in ACA). So I was part of the crowd that was yelling at them to be more bold with these policies (and posting such things to Facebook). I think I’ve come to realize that things like ACA are in fact the best we can do now.

    I mention this because it’s interesting how it changes so much — I’m reading reactions to the new higher ed plan, and I see that viewpoint there — why can’t we just have a SIMPLE system instead of this technocratic boondoggle? And it just assumes that there really is a solution out there that could be passed if we just had courage, or talked a lot about it, or something. And I remember feeling that way, but I clearly don’t anymore.

    Why did it change? I think it was the endless series of contrived crises by the House and Senate, the craziness of 2010, and the election of 2012 as the final nail in the coffin. But I also remember one article (I think by Ezra Klein?) that really hit me hard. Basically he said so — if the President is doing so horrible with getting stimulus into the economy, point me to the first world leader that’s doing better.

    And that kind of stunned me — because all the European nations (which we typically think of as more favorable to government intervention) were deep into austerity measures, and hadn’t gotten a fraction of what Obama got for stimulus. Britain starved its way into a double or triple dip recession for apparently no reason at all. But what stunned me most was that I had never asked myself that question over years — which I know is *always* the first question you ask is stats. “Compared to what?” is basically a three-word stats and public policy seminar. So that blew my mind open, and the rest followed. It’s hard to read people now that take my former point of view.

  6. Buddhist tradition has possibly useful questions: Who? Whose mind? Change?

    Having seen Brand (WEC) and Herman Kahn (mutual assured destruction) together on stage (mid seventies) for a “debate,” I was greatly impressed by the capacity of some of us to “change our minds.” (Kahn didn’t seem to have changed a whit).

    The Buddhists always seemed to have a bit more productive a way to understand self, mind, et cetera.

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