When Did You Last Change Your Mind?

When was the last time you changed your mind about something important?

As children we changed our minds frequently since we were continually exposed to new experiences and were encouraged to learn new things and consider different ideas. The very goal of education for children is to accelerate the reconsidering of assumptions, providing tools for asking questions and finding good answers.

But somewhere in adulthood we find a career, or a circle of friends, and the rate at which we change our minds slows. We settle in to past positions and spend more time defending our old beliefs rather than exploring for better, more refined or more informed ones. There is infinite knowledge out there, but we give up on the habit of growing and choose comfort and familiarity first.

William James said “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” It’s easy to fake due diligence in our own minds that we’ve vetted new ideas. We allow confirmation bias to mask the difference between shallow inquiry and a serious reexamination of ideas we’ve held on to for longer than we can remember.

As social creatures there is great pressure for us not to change our minds and not to keep learning. The older we get the more we and our peers value tradition, and tradition of any kind resists change. We learn to take pride in being loyal and consistent which is at odds with progress, growth and learning. We get better and better at ignoring the many wise people who believe something different than we do, dismissing them for no good reason at all.

Emerson wrote “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” and he meant that he saw little reason to stay consistent with his past self. He believed if he was continuing to learn and experience, his opinion on some matters should continue to change and he should be worried if they stayed the same for too long. Being inconsistent with who he used to be was necessary if he wanted to be wiser this year than the last.

Scott Adams recently published a list of when he changed his mind about certain beliefs:

Age 8: Superman, Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny
Age 11: God, Angels. Miracles. Money isn’t important for happiness
20s: Reincarnation, Ghosts, People are mostly rational, Unquestioned patriotism is a good thing
….

Regardless of what you think of the specific items on his list, it seems a great exercise to make a list like this of our own.

When was the last time you changed your mind? What do you do to keep foolish consistency at bay?

13 Responses to “When Did You Last Change Your Mind?”

  1. Phil Simon

    “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
    –John Maynard Keynes

    One of my faves…

    Reply
    • Scott

      It is fascinating to see how deeply embedded in our culture the notion of not changing your mind is. Politicians are supposed to make decisions about dozens of different subjects yet if they change their position on anything they’re nailed to the wall.

      Reply
      • Phil Simon

        Agreed. We celebrate people like Steve Jobs in hindsight because of his reality distortion field. Determination is key (because he was successful). When others aren’t as successful, we notice their stubbornness in light of reality. Hindsight bias is extremely prevalent.

        Reply
  2. Clint Cunningham

    I like to think I’m open minded but reading this post really challenged me to think when was the last time I really did change my mind on something. There may be small examples I could rummage up but nothing significant.

    This reminds me of how we seek out content that reinforces our current beliefs and values rather than looking for things that may challenge us and cause us to really rethink a position.

    I’ve noticed that in adulthood we take on a level of stubbornness that gets in the way of us having honest conversations with ourselves and others that may lead us down a path of accepting alternative views on topics and forcing us to change our minds on certain issues.

    Is it because we view changing a stance as a weakness, almost like admitting defeat in realising that perhaps you were wrong? Rather than taking the enlightened path in accepting a past belief was perhaps unfounded or has been disproved and moving on and growing as human beings, instead we hold on to these old beliefs for the sake of not wanting to admit we may have been wrong.

    I know, it sounds ludicrous when I put it like that.

    But as we know, we humans aren’t all that rational.

    Reply
    • Scott

      I agree and I fall into the same trap. It gets very safe to think of myself as open-minded and very easy to continue that belief without testing it. It’s just a little self-stroking thought that runs conveniently through our minds.

      Part of the problem is we spend most of our early lives struggling to find security. A good career. A nice place to live. A good marriage. Some good friends. And in the chase for those things we lock in on habits and places and commitments, never realizing that in the chase for security we might lose some of what ensures our ability to find *future* security: trying new things, meeting new people, reading different books, visiting different places, and most important of all, questioning assumptions and seeking new answers.

      Reply
  3. Sean Crawford

    Such timing.
    Hey Scott, you like essays, and you have an association with art:

    I am currently becoming willing to change my mind on art. Although I once took a night school course on history of art, I am now becoming willing to say I don’t even know yet how little I know.

    I am taken aback, I stagger, at reading (still not finished) “Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery” by Jeanette Winterson. She makes a convincing case, from different angles, that art, including prose, (she’s a writer) gives us a view outside our comfort zone, outside our current ideas of reality… and hence—such a new thought for me—we don’t get involved in experiencing art… Because we don’t want to change our mind… Easier to skim.

    Scott, you once pointed out how nobody tweets about finding a literary short story (or fine art) on the web. Like I said, easier to skim. It’s too bad.

    As it happens, in December a young art gallery staffer raved to me over an exhibit in the next city, nearly two hours away. I went, and sheepishly reported back that I didn’t like it, there wasn’t a single piece pretty enough to put up in my home. Well. She explained that her gallery sells pretty, but the exhibit in the public gallery was about new ways of seeing. All I could say was, “Oh.”

    I wonder what my life will be like when I am able to open up and see?

    Reply
    • Scott

      My wife and I used to go to Seattle’s art walk often and I found, even if I didn’t see a thing I “liked” I was always provoked into thinking and asking questions. Looking at art is great fun with a group of people as there are always differences of opinion worthy of exploring that force you to reconsider assumptions (what’s pretty, what’s meaningful, what is art, etc.)

      It’s time for me to start doing art walks again I think. Thanks for mentioning the A word.

      Reply
  4. Jeremy

    30…That education is not necessarily something that comes with a certificate or vice versa.

    Reply
  5. Allison

    Has anyone clicked on the Scott Adams link provided in the essay? He sounds like a sad bitter man who took his creativity for granted. Some people don’t change their minds because their values have deep meaning and the country looks to be shifting into something unrecognizable.

    Reply
  6. Jane

    I remember reading an article once on the lack of civil discourse in our current age. It made a good point about how now, more than ever before, we attach our entire identity to our opinions about things. So much so that if faced with a new idea or bit of information, we squirm and even become irate in the face of it because we think it will destroy our whole identity.

    From foodies to Christian conservatives to environmentalists to dog lovers. We feel so threatened personally if a new idea or way of looking at something crops up.

    But we’ve all sort of allowed ourselves to be divided into camps. How do we break free from that?

    I’m having to reexamine some long-held thoughts about some people in my life. Like looking at them in a more balanced way. Very challenging stuff. We assume that if we have to rethink our perspective, it means giving a piece of ourselves up or away. But sometimes it just frees you from unproductive thoughts or actions. It sort of becomes a shift in responsibility. It can also be empowering.

    Reply
    • Scott

      Interesting. Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t know what the answer is. My experience is divided about division :) I still find the majority of people I interact with in real life or online to be reasonable. It’s the people who are most successful at getting attention that seem to be the most radical and divisive – it creates drama, even if it doesn’t contribute anything else and we’re attracted to drama. A TV show or podcast that had 2 people with different opinions calmly and respectfully exploring the news seems so obviously valuable, yet it’s believed it could never be popular enough to work as a show, at least not at profitable one.

      I always wonder about the notion that we used to be more civil. How can we measure that? I’m not saying that we weren’t, it’s just it’s convenient to have certain beliefs about the past – the fact that they’re popular doesn’t say anything for or against their truth.

      Assuming it is true, and we used to be more civil, the logic of Neil Postman lines up nicely. The rise of consumer marketing after WWII centered on placing consumers in the role of stars. We’ve been told a thousand times in every ad how important we are and why we deserve just about everything. I have to believe there is some effect on our nature when we’re exposed so persistently to messages about our self-importance. There’s no counterbalance of messages about community, duty or even democracy.

      Reply

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