I hear this a lot from readers: “I like your columns but I don’t agree with you.” When I ask why they disagree I get stonewalled. “I just don’t.” People just aren’t open to changing their minds. This is a dangerous evolutionary relic which trumps reason and logic. It divides us into critical thinkers or sheeple. Which are you?
I hear this a lot from readers: “I like your columns but I don’t agree with you.” When I ask why they disagree I get stonewalled. “I just don’t.”
This is something I think about a lot.
People just aren’t open to changing their minds. Which makes it difficult to convince someone of something. How can that be when the ability to reason is a prime qualification for being human? Being a reason-logic-fact kind of guy, I find that rather frustrating.
Why is it so hard for folks to change their minds?
It all comes down to an evolutionary trait that helped us to survive as a species: getting along with our group, family, clan, or tribe. It seems that hanging in with your people gives you better odds of survival than just reason and logic. If your views are in opposition to your fellow clan members, you will not be tolerated. In primitive societies where survival is tenuous, cooperation is valued more than your own damn opinions. As a result we have developed some emotional traits that allow us to disregard facts and embrace whatever the group believes. “Go along to get along.”
In modern times we tend to choose our own social groups, less so the tribe. These groups help create our identity. To maintain our identity and acceptance in a group, we conform our beliefs to those of the group regardless of the facts. Our common beliefs are “badges of membership” in a group (religion, church, political party, country club, etc.). Changing your mind may require changing your identity. Not so easy for we humans.
The result is that we can hold two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time. What an amazing, singularly human trait. One would think that would drive us nuts. And it sort of does: the “mental discomfort” it causes is what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”.
“I know expert scientists say the earth is billions of years old, but I believe it is less than 10,000 years old.” In other words, “I’m going to believe what my group believes, screw the facts. That’s just who I am.”
In order to get through the day we have developed emotional aids to manage our “mental discomfort”. For example, we have a tendency to only believe information that supports our beliefs; we reject conflicting ideas (“confirmation bias”). And there is the “backfire effect”: the more our beliefs are challenged, the more we dig in. Also, the desire to fit in with our group is a powerful emotion and we conform our beliefs to the group’s to get acceptance (“cultural cognition”). The bottom line is that ignoring the facts is easier than changing our beliefs.
Unfortunately, these evolutionary relics have become a problem in modern societies. It has led to negative behaviors like “groupthink” where dissent from majoritarian beliefs is not accepted or is prohibited. Or, the “sheeple” effect where blind adherence to a group ideology allows leaders to easily manipulate people to sometimes horrendous behavior.
Can you change someone’s mind? What does it take if reason, logic, and facts are overridden by emotion? From my perch, one of policy, this is a problem. If a policy is demonstrated over time that it doesn’t work and has negative consequences, why do people continue to support policies that are harmful?
“I’m a Democrat [Republican], my family were Democrats [Republicans], and I’ll always vote Democrat [Republican].” We’ve all heard this said. These are the people who will probably never change their minds. Facts are ignored. It is all about who they are. Politicians are especially adept at this since party identity is where votes come from.
The other problem is that modern societies are more complex. The issues are complex. Most people are not capable of discerning good policies from bad policies. That is, until it gets so bad that it can’t be ignored. In failed states like Venezuela where bad policies grind people down, they vote with their feet and leave.
Here in America bad policies abound. We hear Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez promote disproven, even harmful socialist-chic policies. Yet they have strong support among Progressives.
You would think in a country with more than one-third of adults holding college degrees that bad ideas would be rejected. But as economist Thomas Sowell says, “The fact that we don’t have people who are educated to be able to analyze arguments but who are swept along by rhetoric is one of the reasons that allows people to get away with these kinds of things.”
It comes back to cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, cultural cognition, and another human trait: the lack of intellectual discipline to try to figure things out.
So you leave me no choice. I give up on you folks who think Bernie-Liz-AOC are fabulous. I’m not going to change your minds because you refuse to listen to contrary ideas. Ditto to those of you who think free trade is bad and Latino immigrants are destroying America—I’m not going to change your closed minds with facts.
I believe there are those of you out there who see themselves as independents, not bound up in rhetoric and bad ideology, and that are open to ideas, facts, and reason. I think you do listen and can change your opinions or at least you are willing to consider something other than the conventional wisdom. It’s for you I write.