How Do We Change Our Minds?

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Photo source: Ethan Lofton/flickr

Mercurial would be a nice way to describe me.

Another way to describe me would be completely, utterly, nonsensically erratic, impulsive and flighty.

… I would prefer you used the first approach.

Given my penchant for digging in my heels over things that simply don’t matter and, conversely, changing my mind on a dime when I really should give something more thought, I’ve long been fascinated by what motivates us to change our minds.

I’m not stupid. I know my about-shifts stem most often from selfish personal desires and entrenchment usually follows someone else’s opinion. In other words, I’m far more likely to change my mind when I want to.

Science backs my irrationality up. Dartmouth Professor Brendan Nyhan recently led a study in which parents of school-age children were sent various types of pro-vaccination information to see whether different approaches – facts, science, stories or emotions – had different effects.

The result? Nothing.

Neither facts, nor science, nor even stories of really sick kids motivated parents to vaccinate when they didn’t want to (and sometimes even had the opposite effect). Facts, quite simply, didn’t change their fundamental beliefs.

This makes a sad kind of sense. Humans are notoriously change-averse, comfortable with the familiar, and fans of control. Unfortunately, changing our mind usually involves a loss of control, accepting different circumstances or kowtowing to the opinion of another.

Despite our cognitive recognition that this is stupid and wrong, politicians are routinely lambasted for changing their minds … which is why they now “evolve” instead.

Yet it does happen. We change our minds all the time. And the impetus can sometimes be surprising.

Where you might expect it to come from a loved one or, you know, a fact … no dice. But Hollywood?

Indeed. In fact, says New York Times writer John Guida, movies may have a significant effect on our opinions, especially those of young people. Even older folks may be motivated by movies with strong themes to discuss difficult issues, he explains, citing a study in which college students’ opinions about government were swayed by viewing the movies “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Unfortunately, we can’t yet see what’s going on inside our gray matter at the moment of an opinion shift. But given that science can now snap pictures of how meditation changes our brainwaves, it’s safe to bet that someday, we’ll be able to.

For now, like science, I remain mostly ignorant about my own motivations. But I still prefer the term “mercurial.”

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