We’re living in an increasingly polarised world swirling with alternative facts and (social) media bubbles, populated by those who denounce bigotry without even knowing what the word means. Originally I wanted to write that “all the people who don’t need to know this know that facts don’t change our minds, and the rest don’t care”, but the truth is everyone needs to know this and there’s a good chance that even those who think they know don’t really know.
I’ve been reading some great articles recently about why facts don’t change our minds, about cognitive dissonance, the backfire effect and confirmation bias, and what it basically comes down to is that we are “only” human. We are emotional and irrational beings. We reject facts that don’t fit our world view, and cling even stronger to our beliefs when they are under attack because it is more important for us to belong than to be right (this to the point sometimes of believing things that are actively harmful to ourselves). And the scary thing is, everyone does this; our brains are just wired that way. What’s more, studies show that the more intelligent you are, and the more inclined you are to reflect on your opinions, the more likely you are to fight new contradictory information! Then it suddenly occurred to me: What am I missing?
I believe that I base my opinions on the best evidence and would change my views if they are demonstrably wrong. I like to think that I know when I don’t know and that I want to know when I’m wrong. But isn’t this exactly what the studies say I would think even if I didn’t do what I believe I do?
And why are we like this? Why do people hold onto their beliefs so tightly and, moreover, view change as weakness. Look at the language we use: Stay true to yourself! Stick to your guns! I love you just the way you are! There is no greater offense in our society than wanting someone to change. It all supposes something inviolable about who we are. But who are we, really?
Who Are We, Really?
We all want to believe that we are who we are because of the decisions and choices we make; we need to believe that we are in charge of our destiny (or have at least moderate control). I’m not here to argue that we have no free will–certainly the needle with which I would prick that thought-balloon is but a humble one–, I want no more than to suggest that we are a lot less free than many of us are comfortable admitting. The fact is that some of the biggest influences on who we become are decided for us even before we take our first breath: who our parents are, what social class they belong to, what nationality/ language/ culture await us. It doesn’t end there, of course. Everything from what music our parents played when we were little to who sat next to us on our first day of school to the circus that did or didn’t pass through town each year affect the course of our lives in ways much more penetrating than we realise.
We are all brainwashed to some extent. Teaching is brainwashing. Just look at what you can teach people: You can teach them absolutely anything! You can teach them to believe in magic, in God and god and gods, that black people are not people, that women were created only to serve men–and all the conspiracy theories being sold on YouTube and slideshows in back of lonely community centres! You can teach positive stuff too, of course: resilience, confidence, fairness, kindness. You can teach imagination! You can even teach people contradictory things like religious faith and scientific curiosity. You can teach them to love and you can teach them to hate, and you can teach them to care and you can teach them not to care. Ultimately, a child born 1000 years ago is no different from a child born today, but think of the differences in their world views.
Take slavery, for example. I’m sure we all agree slavery is evil. But do you think you would have still thought that if you had been born to a plantation owner in Virginia in the nineteenth century? Or imagine you grew up in a country where they drilled you from a young age to be patriotic. Later, as an adult, even knowing where the compulsion comes from, your heart still clenches whenever someone criticises your country. Let’s say you are a Man U supporter. Would you still have supported them if you had grown up thirty miles to the west? Maybe you’re Roman Catholic. Would you still have been Roman Catholic if you had been born in Pakistan to Pakistani parents? How can there be any true religion if what people believe is as random as the place where they were born?
When I was 16, I had the idea that the only way for me to find out who I truly am is to rebel against everything, then rebel against that, and that, so many times until I am free of my upbringing and can be whatever I want to be, or maybe just what I happen to be at the time, because it didn’t escape me that if who we are is but a product of chance and randomness to begin with, then rebelling against that must necessarily be just as arbitrary. It’s still chosen for you, but at least you did the choosing.
Who we are is just who we happen to be. What we believe is just what we happen to believe. Each of us could just as easily have ended up completely different people with completely different, even antithetical, beliefs, opinions and tastes had we been born 10 km across an arbitrarily drafted border or even just to the nice couple next door. And yet each day, 7 billion people launch into the world thinking that only their opinions are right and smash into one another and fail utterly to soften their views–in fact, it only hardens their minds. And that’s when I realised: We don’t hold the opinions we hold because we believe they are right, we believe our opinions are right because they are the ones we hold! We defend our beliefs when they are under attack because they are under attack. Our antipathy to change has little to do with the merit of our opinions, only ownership.
Which leaves only one question worth asking: Knowing that our brains are programmed to resist change, can we change? Can we change opinions that are wrong? Can we change any of them? Or is it like being in a 12 Monkeys time loop where we see the future but remain powerless to change it? And if you tell me, look, the science has clearly shown that we can’t help being this way, it’s just how our brains are wired, our brains won’t let us, I say, hey, well, who’s in charge of your brain, you or your brain?
Everyday we are confronted with tragic proof that people can’t change their minds when presented with information contrary to their world view. And it’s not the scientific evidence I’m talking about. The evidence is the actions of politicians, CEOs, celebrities, academics, journalists, activists, neighbours, friends, and family. We would all do well to ask ourselves which of our beliefs we would never change even if we were shown incontrovertible proof; when would you reject the proof over the belief? The unavoidable fact is that our brains are conservative, and they become increasingly so as we get older. We lose plasticity in our brains; it’s as much physical as mental. We become set in our ways, in thought and habit, and before long every sentence we utter begins with, “Back when I was growing up…” and, “Kids these days…”
But even if it is the “human” thing to do–or rather because it’s the “human” thing to do–I don’t want to be one of those people. I don’t want to be that closed-minded person who refuses to even admit that they might be wrong. I don’t think that I’m like that, but the fact is that everyone thinks they’re not like that, so we have to assume that we probably are like that, or at least that if we were like that we would still think that we weren’t.
What we need is a way through this impossible epistemological tangle without having to solve it, and I think I just might have a solution. I’ve come up with a game. It’s a simple game (though not an easy one): All you have to do is pick an opinion that you hold–and change it.
The game is a game of mental gymnastics, an exercise in mental flexibility. Just as stretching can keep your body flexible, so by practicing changing our minds, we should be able keep our minds flexible, even as we get older. Because we can change our minds, we’re just not good at it. And like any new or difficult skill, we need to learn, and we need to practice. Until hopefully, one day, when faced with good evidence that contradicts even our strongest held beliefs, we may be able to not only recognise that we are fighting it only because it’s new, but even embrace it and change.
Mind you, this isn’t just about flip-flopping between wearing the red dress or the black, or whether to go out or not. For the game to work, it needs to be about things you actually care about. Otherwise you’re not really changing your mind about anything, you’re just being indecisive or indifferent (though there may be something in that too).
For example, I believe there should be equality between the sexes, so I could change my mind about that and say men should go to work and women should keep house. Of course I don’t want to do that; that’s just an example. Besides, are there really still people who believe that? Well, yes, there definitely are, but they’re assholes, and I don’t want to be an asshole. But hold on a second, could this just be my brain defending itself against change? It’s certainly conceivable that for people who believe women belong in the kitchen, arguing against equality would be a case of the brain rejecting new ideas, but is that also the case for people fighting against sexism? Yes… no… maybe?
Something else, then: I believe we shouldn’t judge people based on their race, nationality, heritage, etc., so should I change my mind about that and sign up for some form of race supremacy? I want humans to protect the environment; should I become a lobbyist for fossil fuels? I’m against war; I could applaud the benefits of instability in the Middle East. I believe our system of predatory capitalism will lead to social crisis and collapse; I could embrace the new class divide and make sure I’m on the top side. I think everyone is entitled to the basic human rights of food and shelter; I could shrug and say they only have themselves to blame. Good education should be free and accessible to all; education is wasted on the dumb (read: poor). I’m against animal cruelty; I could care less. Greed is bad; greed is good. Essential freedoms; national security. Power corrupts; power is all.
Can’t say I really liked any of the alternatives. But there are people who stand firm on both sides of these issues, and not forgetting that the side each of us has ended up on is itself in no small part a result of random and predetermined events. So why do I make such a poor argument for changing my views?
How about religion? I’m an atheist. Most people are religious. Can they all be wrong? Should I convert to a faith? Is it just the stubbornness of my brain that I can’t believe in a god when everything around me stands in contradiction?
Maybe I’ve been going about this the wrong way. After all, this is supposed to be training, and just like any form of training, it’s best to practice a more basic proficiency before graduating to bigger skills. Also, the game is supposed to be an ongoing exercise to keep my mind flexible, not just a one-time performance. Maybe what I need are lesser opinions that I can play with and change, and even change back another day. So what do I care about but not that much that I can practice changing my mind about? This shouldn’t be too hard. I have thousands of opinions–some would say I have too many opinions–but suddenly I can’t think of anything. There must be something but my brain’s not letting me see it.
Still I believe in the game. The idea is rare, the logic irrefutable: to keep our brains flexible by practicing changing our minds. Unless I’m wrong, and I just think this is a great idea, when in truth I can’t see the impossibility because the idea is mine. Or maybe I’m wrong, but not because the idea is bad. What if the only people who would want to play the game are the ones who need it the least? All the people who don’t need to know this know… After all, I’m the only one who came to training, so am I not the only one who can go home?
[Postscript: Narrative aside, I did find some opinions to change, and deeper beliefs too, as was inevitable. And I’m working on it, playing the game.]
 The New Yorker: Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds; Scientific American: How to Convince Someone When Facts Fail; The Guardian: Why Do People Persist in Beliefs That Are Wrong – And Even Harmful?
 Because that’s how our brains work sometimes. For example, I might remember seeing something when in fact it’s just my brain telling itself that I saw it and I didn’t actually see anything. It gets even more complicated when it’s not a memory but a thought that our brain plants in itself (I think I thought something but it’s just my brain telling itself that I thought it when in fact I didn’t). It’s like a programmer who alters code then erases the record of the code being altered, or like the movie Inception except you’re doing it to yourself.
 I’m talking here about beliefs and opinions about important things, not which colour capsicum is best.
 Obviously orange.
 Indeed you must if you want a child to grow up sharing those values.
 Your brain’s too clean, said the philosopher. Get some dirt on it!
 Look at the Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs in the region of former Yugoslavia. They are a southern Slavic people who through the vicissitudes of history have now diverged into three distinct ethnic groups with different religions (and who don’t like each other very much). Here, more than anywhere else I’ve been, it really stuck me how what religion we are can be arbitrary and predetermined.
 We don’t even need to think we’re right; mostly, we don’t think at all. One of our deepest psychological needs is to be able to live with ourselves. This form of mental self-preservation is automatic. Have you ever asked yourself how murderers or billionaires or politicians live with themselves? The answer is: quite well. (True, some people can’t; in a way that makes them the strong ones.) If we kill, killing becomes okay. If we steal, stealing becomes okay. If we lie, lying becomes okay. And it’s the rest of us too. Everyday we walk past homeless people on the streets, are witness to injustice and suffering, make decisions that harm others or the planet. No one stops to agonise over each slight. No one can.
 BBC Future: How Liars Create the ‘Illusion of Truth’; The Guardian: From Porkies to Whoppers: Over Time Lies May Desensitise Brain to Dishonesty
 And if you’re that person who always interrupts to say that there is no “right” or “wrong”, then we can still agree that your opinion about that is not “right”. Conveniently, though impotently, this very situation is itself another illustration of this “human” failing, because everyday this tragic proof is itself rejected.
 For what it’s worth, I think it would be the most amazing feeling to be that person who grew up in a cult and one day realise that the guru is a psychopath, or a Republican and one day understand how the world would be better if everyone had healthcare instead of guns, or a heavy smoker and quit and finally understand how stupid and disgusting the habit was. I imagine it must be like heavy fog clearing over a bright ocean, or coming out of a deep, dank cave and seeing the Milky Way. (Probably it’s like being hit on the head and waking up with amnesia.) It almost makes me want to join a cult, or maybe just take up smoking.
 In fact, I had a very similar conversation with a friend when I was younger about doing the Alpha Course just to prove I could break their brainwashing once I came out, complete with a contingency plan for my friend to deprogram me if I truly found Jesus.
 Studies suggest that curiosity can protect our brains from bias (BBC Future: How Curiosity Can Protect the Mind from Bias) and I agree. The problem is that most people are not curious. Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t know what else I can do!” instead of asking what s/he can do, or “How is that supposed to work?” with that tone of voice that betrays absolutely no interest in hearing an answer?
 You might be asking yourself, isn’t it dangerous to purposely fuck with your own brain? Really, there’s no reason to worry; you can always change you mind back tomorrow. And if you can’t, well, you’ll just think your new opinion is the right one anyway.
 My phrasing here is not exactly neutral, but I don’t think it’s that biased either. Here are the same concepts, reversed: I believe white people are inherently superior to other races; should I not judge people based on their skin colour, nationality, heritage? I work as a lobbyist for an oil company; should I instead support environmental causes? A state of guided instability in the Middle East is of great benefit to western countries; I could denounce all war and military conflict. I do very well under the current economic system; I could support a fairer division of wealth. I think poor people have only themselves to blame; no one should be without food and shelter. I worked hard and paid for my own education; good education should be free and accessible to all. I enjoy eating meat; I could become vegetarian. Greed is good; greed is bad. National security; individual freedoms. Power is everything; power corrupts.
 It’s not that our core beliefs may not need to change–in fact, the stronger the belief, the more likely we are to be blind to our prejudice, and our blindness–but they’re not the best to practice on. If you find some big revelation that you’ve been denying without good reason, that’s great, but you don’t want to go uprooting your life–for example, quitting your job then begging for it back–every week. That would be performance of Olympic proportions.