The Other I

July 18, 2017

Why don’t I change my mind?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:24 pm

I have often wondered – sometimes in this blog – why people are sometimes adamantly convinced they are right, even in the face of little corroborating evidence, or sometimes no evidence at all.  Politics and religion seem to be the two areas where feelings run deepest, and where it seems to me rational thought is least in evidence.  But even when we make outright mistakes with obvious consequences, sometimes dire economic consequences, whether they are personal or across the entire society, we often refuse to admit that we have made a mistake.

It has recently occurred to me that the place to start to get at least a little insight into this question is with myself.  I have values and convictions which I can hardly claim are as scientifically or rationally justified as even Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Last month I stumbled on a developing framework within which to examine this problem.  Roland Benabou of Princeton University and Jean Tirole of the Toulouse School of Economics suggest some interesting hypotheses:

  • Some beliefs help us make good decisions.  If I think I’m a good teacher, engineer, salesman, or almost anything else, that belief tends to give me confidence, and I’m apt to work harder at accomplishing it than if I believe I’m unskilled in that area.  Similarly, sometimes religious beliefs help build the kind of self-discipline that can increase productivity and healthier life styles.  I remember as a child giving up candy during the six weeks of Lent before Easter.  I didn’t do it to learn will power, but that is certainly one of the things it helped me accomplish.  I’m sure that is true of many other religious practices.
  • But there are other times when we engage in what Benabou calls “strategic ignorance,” avoiding, ignoring or even denying evidence that does not support our views.  Paradoxically, mass communications makes this easier.  We can choose which news we want to listen to, and rarely listen to people we know we disagree with.  I rarely listen to Fox News, for instance, or read tabloid papers.  In the worst cases, I suppose I dismiss what I disagree with most fervently as “fake news.”  (Though if you’ve read this blog at all, you can probably guess that is not the term I would use.)
  • Other times we engage in “self-signalling.”  Better-educated people are particularly good at this.  We look at a narrow set of experiences or scientific research, or even just rationalize our beliefs, and convince ourselves that this “proves” we are right.  I have a dear friend who has convinced himself he has a genetic make-up which enables him to smoke without fear of it causing lung cancer.  I don’t smoke or abuse alcohol, but I do perhaps argue that chocolate “in small doses” is good for you.  Right.  But how much is “small,” my dear?
  • Finally, there is the influence of “groupthink.”  To the extent that my sense of self-worth, or perhaps the success of my career, or even my very survival, depends on belonging to a particular group, then the influence of the group will be far more tenacious than under other circumstances.  It’s hard, it’s scary, even dangerous, to be a whistle-blower.  It can often be hard to stand up and admit that one has changed one’s mind and face accusations that one can’t stand by one’s convictions, especially if the price, as it so often is, that the group itself will turn against you.  When I was a nun, we were not permitted to have any contact whatsoever with nuns who had left.   That order has now dramatically reversed this stance, which I deeply admire.  But churches, political parties, university faculties, social groups of every kind, often block out people who disagree or who are merely different. The world itself today is convulsed with violence based on these kind of disagreements.

If we are going to survive as a species, we need to learn to listen to points of view other than our own, and understand, even though we might not agree, why they are convincing for others.

And we need to learn to say about our own opinions sometimes “I was wrong.”

Image result for I was wrong

I think that might include me.  Hmmm.   ME!??







  1. A practice that’s both easy and difficult!!


    Comment by tskraghu — July 18, 2017 @ 3:51 pm | Reply

  2. I agree wholeheartedly!


    Comment by theotheri — July 18, 2017 @ 4:02 pm | Reply

  3. Thanks, Terry. Great ideas!


    Comment by Thomas J. Hubschman — July 18, 2017 @ 6:26 pm | Reply

    • Thank you, too, Tom. Seriously.


      Comment by theotheri — July 18, 2017 @ 7:14 pm | Reply

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