Changing Your Mind

Photo: Andrew Mason

A few weeks ago at a staff meeting, I reaffirmed a policy to which several staff members objected.  To be frank, the basis of their objection struck me as trivial at first.  But later, after they asked to speak with me about it further and our conversation evolved, it became clear to me their reasons for wanting to change it were better than mine for wanting to keep it.  The policy had made sense in another context, to be sure—in another clinic, from which it had been drawn—but, they eventually convinced me, no longer in ours.  So I deliberated overnight to make sure I’d considered all the consequences to which changing it might lead, discussed it with my administrative director, and decided to reverse my earlier decision.

As I later reflected back over the sequence of events and the discussion that led to my doing so, I wondered why changing one’s mind is often so difficult.  After all, both the world and our view of it are constantly changing; circumstances never remain static, so why should our responses to them be forever locked in their initial form?

Yet we seem to demand consistency even when it makes no sense.  Politicians endure almost universal scorn when they change their minds about almost anything.  Yet why would we expect anyone to be right at the very outset of their deliberations over every issue they consider?  New information is always coming to light.  New options always come into play.  And though we tell ourselves politicians who end up breaking their campaign promises once elected never really meant to keep them (and perhaps they didn’t), it seems equally if not more likely they did (call me naive) but were prevented from doing so by changing circumstances.

It seems we like people to change their minds only when it benefits us.  Otherwise, changing one’s mind seems to suggest uncertainty, lack of leadership, lack of confidence, even weakness of character.  Few of us, it seems, like people to “waffle.”

But why not?  We may like to pretend we live in a straightforward world—our brains may have evolved to categorize it that way to increase our odds of survival (e.g., into “threat” vs. “non-threat”)—but we also know it’s not.  Every issue, even ones we’ve long ago concluded are completely unambiguous, can be argued more than one way.  Not only that, but the best answer often changes over time.  So why don’t we value instead the intellectual openness that changing one’s mind requires?  Why does the simple act of re-opening a settled question to re-examine it from another angle and of then wanting to answer it differently seem to require such courage?

Part of the reason, I think, is that we get attached to answers like we do possessions.  Once we give an answer, it’s no longer simply an answer but now our answer.  Once we commit to it, we instantly become emotionally biased in favor of it, often even becoming blind to the shortcomings we previously saw in it ourselves.  We become, in short, highly resistant to changing our minds because our answer has become part of who we are.  And any threat to it feels like a threat to us.

To remain capable of making the best decisions, then, we must remain more committed to having the best answers found than to being the ones who find them.  The ability to change one’s mind, to admit implicitly or explicitly that we were wrong, in other words, ultimately boils down to an issue of character—of our ability to transcend our small-minded ego and care more that value is being created than that we’re the ones creating it.  And when we attain that perspective, we’ll come to see a willingness to change our minds not as an indication of uncertainty but of commitment—commitment not to appearing to care about what’s best for others but to actually caring about what’s best for others more than what’s best for our egos and ourselves.

Next WeekThe Courage To Hear The Truth

17 comments to Changing Your Mind

  • Marika

    OMG, reading that I felt like “YES!” Maybe that seems a little dramatic but I work in an industry where there has been a major overhaul of the standard belief system and new research that shows the “old ways” are now outdated. It is taking a long time for that to settle in with people and so many actively rebel against it, even when the new ways are kinder, and allow us to do what we do without “getting physical.” I keep thinking “why would people want to continue practices that actively use physical corrections to teach, when it has been proven that they are unnecessary?” The only answer seems to be ego and the internal need not to be “wrong.” I hope I never get so settled into any methodology that I stop asking questions…

  • Chris

    Quoting the song lyrics from Simple Gifts:

    When true simplicity is gained,
    To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
    To turn, turn, will be our delight.
    For by turning, turning, we come ’round right.

  • That makes me feel a little better. Some days I think I wake up with a whole new set of conservative/liberal thoughts and have to go through them again. Keeps my mind active I guess. Fortunately my mind changing only affects me. I worked with a lady once in an orchard and it seemed every other tree or day she changed how she wanted the trees trimmed/thinned. I never did know how to do it. So of course I didn’t do it long.

    I look forward to next weeks topic.

  • A couple of thoughts on consistency which I think express it well……

    Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.
    —Oscar Wilde

    Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead.
    —Aldous Huxley

    Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.
    —Bernard Berenson

  • Sowmya

    “It’s no longer simply an answer but now our answer.” I love this line Alex. Truly understanding this & removing the focus on “our” can be so freeing…on many levels.

  • Michelle

    Isn’t it also that it was a thoughtful, considered decision? Changing your mind because of who screams the loudest, or what’s right in front of you, or you are tired of thinking about it, are all just as difficult to deal with. I liked your anecdote at the beginning because you were open to changing your mind, but also because you carefully thought it through.

  • Ondrej CR

    It is by sheer coincidence that the NYT have just published a review of a book about the mathematics of changing your mind. It looks really interesting:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/books/review/the-theory-that-would-not-die-by-sharon-bertsch-mcgrayne-book-review.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y

    Ondrej

  • Wonderful advice, Alex, and especially pertinent to me right now! I mustn’t get attached to my answers, for they constitute only one perspective. “But I am right!” I protest. Maybe, per the data at hand…but that may not be all the data there is.

    We do tend to be “collectors,” rather like squirrels gathering nuts, no? These ideas and things provide us sustenance, and I guess it’s akin to a sort of death to release them. Wow—very good idea to contemplate, thanks.

  • George Colombo

    Dr. Robert Cialdini’s classic book, Influence, deals with this subject extensively. It’s a tendency that’s hard-wired into our cognitive processes and is used extensively in marketing and politics to manipulate behavior.

    At the risk of turning this into a political discussion, I think one of the most devastating political takedowns of all time was Steven Colbert’s observation about a certain ex-President: “He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.”

  • Gene

    “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
    —Ralph Waldo Emerson (from Self-Reliance)

  • Shelley

    What an eloquent piece, articulating a favorite local bumper snicker, “SOME OF WHAT YOU THINK IS WRONG.”

    Love the blog; thank you so much.

  • Julie

    Timely, thank you. Obviously meaningful to each in their own way.

    I am struggling through my own quandary and indecision over change. I am trying to decide if this house I bought (a mortgage) in the early 90’s with the intention that it would be my last move, this would be my home forever, I now reconsider due to the economy and social circumstances and decline of the neighborhood. There are frequent burglaries a few of which culminated in homicide against the resident; not good is an understatement.

    I will be 62 next month and I find myself struggling, knowing “how” do I grow old, how do I die? I’ve never done either one before. I don’t know why I suddenly seem filled, more than anything, with fear that I will try to explain this way:

    Have you ever done anything as a child that you considered risky and/or scary, actually it wasn’t scary when you “did” it, only later? My own example is I recall getting on a merry-go-round at the park in my hometown, I’m not sure how old I was, probably 7 or so. It wasn’t mechanically operated, it was kid-operated. There were spokes coming from the center outward which left about 6 places (it would hold twice that many) that were connected in such a way that that by sitting just so and pulling on the bars designed for that purpose, and the more occupants sitting at strategic places also pulling, sort of like a rowing motion, the faster it would go. There were various ways of getting on, the easiest (and safest) was to get on when it was at a standstill. Kids rarely do things the easiest and safest way, and in this case because more than likely it was the only alternative because once started the occupants were disinclined to stop for newcomers. So you could run along side, clinging to the wooden board that made up the seats that went around and pull your self on board. I always made it but actually it did have inherent danger, if you fell and then stood to get up in the wrong place you could have been hit on the head rather severely. I was always glad I’d taken the chance because now I got to enjoy the prize.

    But eventually I wanted to get off and the others weren’t always willing to stop just so one of us could get off, so you would have to reverse the procedure and get off the same way, while it was moving.

    I can remember being torn by fear. One part of me wanted/needed to get off for if you rode too long you risked a stomach upset which is good motivation. But I was afraid, how do I get off? I’ve been riding this and now I need to, want to get off. I HAVE TO get off, my parents will be looking for me, and I just remember being paralyzed with indecision and fear.

    I see death sort of like that, life, the thrill of the ride kept us going for quite a while, we were young and agile when we climbed aboard. But now, we are growing each day older and not as strong or capable and we realize someday we must “get off.” I fear it, just as I feared getting off the merry-go-round. It would have been very foolish to give in to the instincts I felt, I didn’t want to be childish but a part of me wished to cry and call for someone to rescue me and help me off.

    I want help now, I don’t want to do this alone, yet it is the one thing that no one else can do for us. It is possible to have a joint suicide, of course, and maybe that makes a little sense, going into the unknown with someone, even though each inhabits his or her own separate body, so it may be simultaneous but it is not together.

    I have panic attacks now, thinking about how to “get off/out of life.” Will I do it gracefully or will I look for someone to help me and thus admit my weakness and fear. I do not wish to leave behind as part of my epitaph that I was a coward. I cannot talk to my children about these fears, its not fair for one thing, and for another I doubt they could “go there” where my mind is, I don’t think I could have when I was younger. We all know we will get old but the actually doing of it is something we put off in our minds facing.

    I’ve been thinking about leaving my house, my home behind. Just walking away. Due to the economy I am “upside down” as they say. The equity I had disappeared. I can walk away to a safer place, a more peaceful place, but my plan to save and pay for this house and thereby leave my children with my final gift, a very poor inheritance but something because they have always had to struggle and never really owned anything.

    But I fear going backward to an apartment. It would be easier, not so much work, no plumbing to repair, no furnace repairs or maintenance, no painting, no this and no that. But then I remember when I lived in apartments in the area before when I was younger with possibilities yet ahead. Now I feel if I make this change it will be admitting failure, giving up my dream to leave my children something. And now I have these horrible panic attacks where, again the merry-go-round analogy, I wonder how to get off. How do I leave my home and admit I failed and that I have no more possibilities but to die.

    I think I am getting very depressed, very much afraid and anxious. I see a counselor but she is off for 3 weeks. I talked to her somewhat about this but it has been getting worse. She is gone, I cannot say these things to my children, and I feel afraid and lonely and panic stricken, how do I get off?

    I hope this makes sense to someone, and not foolish. I can’t move forward and I can’t move back either the way I am. I am locked here not knowing what to do. I see now I qualify for a “senior” apartment, OMG, I have never done any of this before, this getting old, moving into seniors places or God forbid, a nursing home. I do not want to lose my independence. I realize I am trying to see into the future, maybe getting ahead of myself, but it is where my head is and my heart. I feel like a little girl who wishes so much that my father would come and save me and show me how to do this. He’s gone, he made it “off” to whatever is beyond.

    What is wrong with me? I don’t think all people have these kinds of moribund thoughts, just another way that I am strange and different as I have always been.

    I feel totally lost and I want to cry for help but who would hear me?

    I am still the cowardly little girl who doesn’t know how to get off gracefully. I cling for dear life to what I know even though I know it isn’t where I need to be ultimately. I do not think I know how to die gracefully. I think I will die a coward’s death and feel very much alone and frightened when I leave this world for the unknown. It’s what I have feared my entire life, my greatest fear—the abyss, heaven or hell or nothing? Alone, then, beyond all hope of help for eternity.

    Julie: Panic comes from feeling trapped in a potentially harmful situation, figuratively or literally, from which you see no escape. You’ve constructed this situation in your mind by imposing limitations that don’t necessarily exist but that you think do. The problem isn’t your situation but the way you’re framing it. You must find other perspectives. I would suggest a support group. You’re not the only person your age having these thoughts or struggling with these issues. Find a group of like minded people and talk with them.

    Alex

  • Chris

    Julie, you have described your dilemmas so eloquently . . . even your analogy is so poignant and relatable . . . have you ever thought about submitting to a publication? Your local paper, a magazine aimed at senior living issues?

    Alex has suggested that you confront the issues head-on via a support group. In addition, perhaps you could turn your head around and give yourself a shot in the arm by trying and accomplishing some new skill—such as writing—or by going to the workout classes at your local “Y” or gym. As you build your physical stamina, your spiritual stamina also increases. At least this is what I’ve found for myself. I am a couple of years older than you are.

    I, too, think of breaking away . . . but I feel as if I still have choices—and my choices are more varied than yours seem to be.

    I was speaking to an age mate the other day (by the way, do YOU have some peer friends to confide in?) about women our age, retired or on the brink of retirement, who would do well to find one another, band together, share housing arrangements, perhaps, or just have lunch or tea together, or go on walks or day trips together . . .

    I wish you peace. You CAN be at peace about death, and about your circumstances. Do you meditate?

  • Giselle Massi

    Alex,

    Your response to Julie is gloriously succinct, beautiful and spot on. As is the essay.

    Julie is asking for help and she may contact me if she would like mine. http://www.gisellemassi.com and gisellemassi@gmail.com.

    She’s also a talented writer. I love the carrousel story and remember those contraptions vividly and fondly!

    Thanks for generating a wonderful trail of reader responses from your insights on the topic of changing one’s mind and heart.

    Giselle

  • Linda from NM

    Thanks for this essay, Alex. I’m probably a prime example of what scares people about changing their minds and what may keep them from respecting others who change theirs. My extreme disdain for certitude and dogma from a young age was supposed to make me a free thinker, an admirable and courageous intellectual. Now in my late forties, I see that taking free thinking to an extreme as I have done became a slippery slope to nihilism, an unintended consequence to be sure.

    Julie’s missive is powerful. I had the misfortune of attending the funeral of a 19-year-old suicide, the daughter of one of my closest friends. At one of the viewings, my friend looked out at the throngs of people in attendance and turned to me saying, “Among all of these hundreds of mourners, was there not one single person my daughter could have talked to instead of doing what she did?” I was stunned by this rhetorical question and have reflected on it many times since then, particularly when I have felt a strong desire to “get off” my own living merry-go-round. The answer to that question is no; unless you want your mind changed, you must die in shame and secrecy. I’d like nothing more than to have someone who cares for me help me plan for and carry out my own death in the least traumatic way for my survivors. Instead I face betraying everyone who has asked me how I am in the last year, and to whom I answered, “I’m okay, thanks, how are you?”

    I created this overwhelming philosophical quagmire for myself by never being afraid to change my mind and I honestly thought I was one of the brave few who could live successfully without a belief system of any kind, a true independent. Now that I’ve talked myself out of positively everything I could possibly be sure of, I am left without any convictions whatsoever. I can see why people hold fast to their decisions and beliefs, for fear of becoming like me: vacuous and amorphous and without truth. As it happens, changing one’s mind, like with most things that can be taken to extremes, is probably best done in moderation.

    Thank you for this forum and may peace be with you all.

    Linda: Excellent comment, thank you. Balance in this is critical.

    Alex

  • Julie

    It is very nice to realize I don’t live in a total vacuum and that there are others here to whom my words ring true, and hopefully not as a whining foolish child but just as someone scared about where to go from here. I don’t think its going to help me much that next month I will be another year older, although obviously we could just as well say that every day we are a day older, instead its separated into a larger “year” thing. Maybe I should try concentrating on the smaller day increments.

    While I appreciate your comment Alex and your intentions to help me, I do think I am trapped and not in something of my own making. I have such a short time, comparatively speaking, to finally accomplish something. And in my mind now “accomplishing something” is tied to finding a way to leave my children with something. Love is not money and money is not love. My children know I love them. However, my feelings are that once I die I can no longer offer them the comforts I do now, of a friendly ear or a kiss, however fleeting. So there is nothing I can do about that; many who have gone before me have tried (the frozen ones for a later time) with greater resources than mine and if they have not discovered a way than how should I or if they have, I cannot afford to be frozen and I’m not sure I would want to be anyway since I have never liked the cold. So with my separation from my children I would feel so much better knowing that when I’m gone I have made a material difference in their still-worldly selves.

    What are the limitations I have imposed on myself? A decision about what to do but the limits have been set in large part because of the economy that I am powerless to change.

    Incidentally, my neighbors house was broken into today and items stolen. Mine was last year broken into. The house broken into today (through a basement window and out the back door with the stolen items) was broken into about 4 years ago, that time by kicking the front door in. All these thefts occur in broad daylight. Each and every one between the hours of noon and 4 p.m. What would they do if they decide to change to nighttime hours? The neighborhood looks friendly enough in the daytime but I know now its not and looks can be deceiving.

    Thank you for sharing your email address, Giselle.

    I’m glad to see that my writing, on however a moribund topic, “reaches” people. Even from here then I can touch someone. If only I could so clearly convey in the “real world” where I am.

  • Nancie

    Julie, this is to you my dear. I am 58 and am in very much the same situation you are in. Your post touched me deeply and I find I have asked some of the same questions, however not in such a poetic way. I too loved and can relate to the carousel story. Fear is a powerful mind eraser…it will clear out any other thoughts. You seem to be living in fear and I feel empathy for you. I can understand your fear of the neighborhood and your need to leave it…truly (I work on the south side of Chicago), and I don’t have really have any advice except to convey that you are not alone. I too want to leave my son my house for the exact same reasons you stated (precious little but that’s all I have), but with the economy the way it is, I wonder if that will be a gift or a unwanted burden. If you want someone to talk to, my email is n.tharp@att.net

    P.S. Thank you Dr. Lickerman for allowing us to use your blog to connect however tenuously it may be!

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