Sunday, January 3, 2016

Changing your mind: An impossibility?

What makes it so very difficult for people to change their minds (even when a truth that has been presented to them is overwhelmingly against their present convictions)?

Last year, after several weeks of teaching the work of Marshall McLuhan, I found myself somewhat disheartened by the answers that my students had given in their tests. At least half of them had managed to totally misunderstand McLuhan’s central thesis — The medium is the message — despite the fact that I had spent at least ten minutes at the beginning of every lecture reiterating its significance before moving on to further implications of the idea.

“It is not,” I would say, adopting an air of seriousness, “the content that is the main issue here, but the container.” Or, I would put it differently: “The TV may as well have cathode-ray snow on it rather than the news or pornography or anything else. It is the television itself that brings about the greatest change when it comes to how we relate to the world and each other.” Or, otherwise, “It is the medium that introduces a new scale into our interactions, not the content of that medium”.

And so on, etc, etc.

I would follow this simple (albeit novel) idea, expressed in various different ways, with countless examples of how this idea is true — how it plays out — and then provide the students with oodles of reading to help them to drill that simple idea into their heads. But then, in their test answers, more than half the class ended up saying something like this: “When McLuhan says that the medium is the message, he means that what matters most is what the medium says (the content), not how it says it (the medium itself).” That, in case you missed it, is the exact opposite of what I was trying to teach them.

I hope you will now understand me when you see me in my office throwing my hands up in exasperation. “Seriously?” I think “That’s what you thought I was saying!?” Despite hours in class and even more hours studying, many of my beloved students will tend to simply revert back to the belief they had before they began the course. Yes, I see, there is a kind of horrible truth here in that this very situation proves McLuhan to be right again: the content of a course is less important than the environment that convinces the students that they’re being educated (even when they’re not learning anything).

In any case, I recall this in the light of the fact that I was watching a debate recently where it became patently clear that the primary protagonist of the debate, who also happened to be the primary antagonist in the debate, was absolutely right about something — his arguments were well reasoned and well informed — and yet was being met with tremendous resistance and criticism from those whom he was criticising. The people resisting him never once dealt with him at the level of his argument, but resorted instead to using a whole range of creative ad hominems.

So I ask again: What makes it so very difficult for people to change their minds?
There are many reasons, of course, but I want to offer just one:

At the risk of providing yet another oversimplification, people operate, whether consciously or un/non-consciously in accordance with the pressure, whether perceived or real, that is exerted on them. Dubner and Levitt’s contention in Freakonomics, Super Freakonomics, and Think like a Freak that human beings work according to incentives — positive or negative; carrot or stick — gets at the same idea. The pressure may be the pressure to be happy or the pressure to get money or to keep a job. But I think that the two primary sources of pressure are pride (which consists of maintaining a picture that we have of ourselves as being somewhat better than we really are) or acceptance (by some Other — Heidegger’s The They, or Lacan’s big Other, etc.). Acceptance, though, always comes back to pride: who we want to be.

So pride is the main problem: the culprit is us.

We want to see ourselves positively; to have a sense of our own self-importance; to preserve our sense of identity.

Perhaps this is why people of various religions are so keen on the idea of hell: psychologically speaking, it puts the ego at a huge advantage and the pressure to stick to what you do believe as the absolutely right thing to believe is increased a hundredfold. Being wrong, at least according to these hellbent ideologies, has very severe consequences indeed. Anyway, isn’t a fundamentalist really just someone who feels the pressure to conform more severely than those who are less rigidly dogmatic? Maybe fundamentalism is just egotism disguised in the language of faith.

The fact that pride is the main problem means that we want to see ourselves as being right — changing our minds, then, would run counter to this incentive/pressure, because it would imply that we have been wrong and therefore less than perfect, and therefore less than worthy of our sense of self-importance. Studies have shown that narcissists are especially confident when it comes to believing the truth of their own assertions, no matter how obviously wrong they might be. And, it turns out, as studies especially in the field of self-deception have shown, that the best way to reinforce your own biases is through the derogation of others, hence the reason why people resort so quickly to the ad hominem. If you want to make sure you’re right, you have to invent an enemy for yourself (Girard’s mimetic realism has a lot to say about this process).

It’s the logic of hellfire again, and scapegoating, and victimisation: “We’re in, they’re out. Hooray for us!”

The solution to the problem of pride is, of course, humility/modesty — at least, some kind of epistemic humility that accepts that what we know and believe may not be absolute or ultimate. I wouldn’t take this to an extreme, though, since this would create a kind of perpetual mental paralysis, where nothing can be known except that nothing can be known, as Chesterton notes in Orthodoxy:

“Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert-himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt — the Divine Reason… The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping: not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”

Who are the students that learn the best — that grow and change to the point of being willing to have their own minds changed? The answer is simple: Those who are confident in their ability to learn (confident, that is, in the organ of conviction that is the mind), but humble about what they have learned; those who know that they can expand their knowledge, but also that they will not ever know everything. People often wonder about the intelligent versus the unintelligent, and in my work I’ve wondered the same. I suppose we have tests of all kinds to measure the difference. But, to me, it has become absolutely clear that those who learn the most are also those who assume that they have not yet arrived — that they may not ever arrive — but who are certain that the pursuit of knowledge is worthy of their time and energy.

What makes it so very difficult for people to change their minds?

Simple: they are not humble enough.

They still believe a lie; that the content or message (the self) is deemed more important than the container or the medium (reality).

Some books that shaped my thinking on this stuff:

Dubner, S & Levitt, S. 2014. Think like a freak. London: Penguin.
Hallinan, Joseph. 2014. Kidding ourselves. New York: Crown.
Ten Elshof, Gregg A. 2009. I told me so. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Trivers, R. 2013. Deceit and self-deception. London: Penguin.

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