Why we find it so hard to change our minds

Writers, philosophers and scientists have struggled over a definition of what it is to be a human being since the beginning of time. Here’s mine:

A human is a creature who ignores anything that might cause them to change their mind.

Not exactly Shakespeare, is it?

The technical term for this is called confirmation bias and it works like this:

– we believe something to be true
– we look for information that backs it up
– we ignore any evidence that suggests we might be wrong

Suppose I think that women are terrible drivers. Every time I see a bit of bad driving I look over to see who’s at the wheel – if it’s a woman, I say aha! If it’s a man I just shake my head and drive on. But I only notice and remember the times it seemed I was right.

Other examples might include:
– a believer in God who sees every good thing that happens as a miracle and every bad thing as a test of faith.
– sports fans who dispute every decision that goes against them while ignoring those that don’t.
– someone who’s so madly in love with their partner they disregard all the evidence that they’re actually unfaithful.

Confirmation bias is why it’s so hard for us to really understand how the world works. Human nature is to just pic ‘n mix the facts until we get to the conclusion we want.

Take someone who believes the world is flat.

You could strap them to a chair, bombard them with evidence and they wouldn’t change their mind. Not if you showed them footage of the earth filmed from the moon, not if you showed them how the physics worked, not if they met an astronaut who told them what it was like to be in space.

They’d say it was all fake. Just part of the grand conspiracy to make us all believe we’re on a giant sphere hurtling through space.

So why do we do this?

The mystic, Eckhart Tolle, put it nicely:

‘If you identify with a mental position, then if you are wrong, your mind-based sense of self is seriously threatened with annihilation. So you as the ego cannot afford to be wrong. To be wrong is to die. Wars have been fought over this, and countless relationships have broken down.’

This is why we get so quickly upset when we talk about vaccines, 5G, abortion, gun rights, climate change etc. We invest emotionally in a point of view, find facts that support it, and then bitterly defend ourselves if anyone disagrees.

From the point of view of neuroscience there’s some evidence that we get a rush of dopamine in our brains when we come across a point of view that agrees with our own. [dopamine is often thought of as ‘the pleasure chemical’]

So how can we overcome confirmation bias?

All of us spend time thinking about what is true and what isn’t.

As an experiment you could ask yourself if what you think is true and what you want to be true are the same thing.

You could ask yourself how it would feel if you were to change your mind. Would it feel embarrassing? How would your friends react?

But truthfully, you can’t escape confirmation bias. Not if you’re a human anyway.

What you can do, however, is become aware of it. If you notice you’re emotionally invested in a belief that might be a good time to expand your reading. To ask yourself what would the world look like if it wasn’t true.

It helps when you see how it works in others.

The mentalist performer Derren Brown did an interesting experiment that illustrated this: he got people to sketch out their hands on a bit of paper and write down their date of birth. Then he came back an hour later with a description of the personality of each person. They were blown away. How could he know them so well? He must be psychic.

Then they discovered that each personality description was identical.

They had simply noticed the bits that made sense to them and ignored the bits that didn’t.

Admitting that we might be wrong is the beginning of all wisdom.


Further reading:

https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-confirmation-bias-2795024 – more on confirmation bias

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds – why it feels good to just ignore inconvenient facts and stick with what we believe