We’re hardwired to resist changing our minds

Jenni Russell

The Times

Gerry Gajadharsingh writes: Whilst this article is about Brexit, I found the subject interesting on a clinical/patient management level:

why is it that so many people are reluctant to follow your advice, at least initially?

It is because it often requires changing our mindsets/beliefs and reframing what we think is actually wrong with us. We have a saying at The Health Equation, adopted from my friend Dr Brian Roet: Everything is about something else.

Most people find change difficult, we need a reason (say a health problem), an understanding of the problem, help to change (by a clinician who understands the patient), to be brave (change is sometimes initially painful) and patient (it sometimes takes time).

One of my conclusions after 32 years in clinical practice is that for most people with complex health issues, that are not resolving, is that there is (at least on some level), an issue with what the patient actually believes is causing their problem.

Just giving the patient information does not seem to be the answer as theneuroscientist Tali Sharot, author of The Influential Mind, points out that “data has only a limited capacity to alter the strong opinions of others”. Emotions usually override them, not because we are stupid or stubborn but because our survival for millions of years has depended on trusting our fears, hopes and desires. Our brains are built to prioritise them. Data came later. For most people better the devil we know (even if that means the continuation of the health problem).

Studies of how the brain works suggest that badgering Brexiteers with dire warnings won’t work

The big question at this instant of Brexit, when the country is split, voters may have to choose again and we all long for some resolution, is: how and why do people change their minds on major issues?

All of us in the Brexit debate talk both casually and urgently about changing other people’s minds. But we expect of others what we rarely do ourselves. I’ve hardly altered my view on anything significant in 40 years. A couple of my friends have made fundamental shifts but each paid a high price for it.

Rohan Silva was a Marxist postgraduate student at LSE when he read the philosopher Karl Popper and found his entire belief system overturned. Everything he had thought about human motivation was wrong. “It was a night of genuine epiphany, so saddening, it was growing up in a horrible way. Popper was essentially saying that human behaviour and society were more complex than we can comprehend. And I felt this safe edifice falling away, which had had all the answers. Popper was pointing out that people much smarter and more powerful than me had caused terrible damage and pain through enacting Marxist belief.”

It was such a painful experience that Silva says he would probably have shied away from it if he had known it was coming. Everyone he knew was on the left. They were his team. It was axiomatic that Tories were evil, or scum. “It was years before I could come out as one, and that’s what it felt like. My very good mate remembers me sitting her down, very nervous, and saying, ‘I still believe everything I did about poverty, but now I’m coming down on this side’.” He did lose friends. Years later he became a senior adviser to David Cameron at Downing Street but remained uneasy about being labelled a Tory.

Another friend is a Northern Ireland Protestant brought up during the bombings and killings of the Troubles. In her first job she had to watch archive film that may never have been broadcast, and saw policemen savagely beating up civil rights protesters. She was shocked. Her parents had always told her that claims like those were exaggerated or untrue.

She went straight home to challenge them. “I think it changed their minds, but it made me see all the issues about terrorism differently. It made me much more suspicious of received opinion on the Unionist side. I was frightened, it was all so intractable.” The disillusionment split her from her community. “I was determined to leave after that.”

These experiences show how disruptive changing core beliefs can be, risking the loss of certainties, identity, groups. It’s not surprising that we’re reluctant to accept new views when we might lose so much in exchange. But these two people were also unusual in switching positions based on facts alone. Perhaps they could because no one was hectoring them. These were private conversions, not public battles in which they felt like losers.

The neuroscientist Tali Sharot, author of The Influential Mind, points out that “data has only a limited capacity to alter the strong opinions of others”. Emotions usually override them, not because we are stupid or stubborn but because our survival for millions of years has depended on trusting our fears, hopes and desires. Our brains are built to prioritise them. Data came later.

Our dismissal of facts that threaten our existing understanding is practical. In a world bursting with data it would be exhausting to examine every piece of counter-evidence; life would be impossible. And on average, Sharot points out, we are right to believe what confirms our views because data that contradicts what we already know about the world is unlikely to be true. Elephants are not pink, cars do not fly, Mars bars aren’t a healthy lunch.

What makes data even less convincing to anyone is that there is now a surfeit of it, validating any position. Our brains get a delicious thrill every time they encounter a supportive fact. Our fatal mistake is to expect that thrill to be replicated in our opponents, when in fact scans show our brains literally slow down in an attempt to bypass unwelcome information.

What, then, works? A shocking change, causing major reassessment, can be transformative, sweeping old certainties away — a 9/11, a Black Wednesday, perhaps the politicians’ failure to agree any form of Brexit.

Other than that, it is finding common ground, understanding others’ emotions and concerns rather than insisting they adopt ours that offers the only hope. Frontal attacks and scorn are pointless — mental barriers go up.

In the conflict of this moment, Remainers who want to convert Brexiteers have to begin by respecting their understandable anger at being ignored, at feeling powerless, at seeing in the referendum the first possibility of gaining back some control over politics and the framework of their lives. Remainers have to offer answers, not simply warn that things could get worse. Psychologists know threats of a dark future rarely work. They enrage people by arousing a fundamental fear, which is of being trapped.

We must also admit how hostile humans are to people who switch sides. We claim to value evidence and open-mindedness but in practice we are often suspicious, describing mind-changers as turncoats or as flaky, untrustworthy and unprincipled. We prefer consistency. So we would be foolish to anticipate major change unless Remainers become effective evangelicals or all forms of Brexit collapse. It’s easier for most people to stay just where they are.

2018-12-14T15:17:09+00:00