How to change your mind
Just before Christmas I asked people on twitter to name a policy issue about which they’d changed their mind. The response was fascinating. First, because a few topics came up over and over: proportional representation, the justice system, austerity economics, Western interventionism and nuclear power. Secondly, because even though it turned into a thread with lots of political opinions, disagreement was for the large part civil and curious rather than aggressive and declamatory. That might be because of the type of person who’d engage with a question like that, but I also suspect the prompt put people in a more reflective and self-critical frame of mind.
I asked the question because it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. My example was, like for many others, PR. I can trace the start of my change of mind to a series of conversations I had with FT journalist Chris Cook on twitter in 2010 and 2011 (they’re still there but not threaded so impossible to follow). At the time I continued to defend our majoritarian system – essentially my view was that it kept out fringe parties and that was more important than proportionality – but the seeds of doubt were planted.
It took a long time for them to fully blossom though. The 2015 election was an important moment. I saw how the Tory leadership put a bunch of policies in their manifesto to appease members which they then had to implement when an expected second coalition didn’t materialise. I hadn’t considered how it may be in the interests of parties not to be in a majority as it allows them to manage the more extreme elements of their memberships.
Then I started reading more about other European systems and realised how much better the quality of political discussion was when there’s an emphasis on persuasion rather than summoning your base. Of course PR systems can still produce bad governments that make daft decisions, and we have seen far right parties gain power in e.g. Austria, Netherlands, and Denmark, so my original objection was not without merit. But on average the need to compromise and persuade improves discourse. There has never been a civil war in a country that uses PR. By 2019 I’d shifted view completely and was fully in favour of moving to a multi-member constituency PR system in the UK.
My point here is not to rehearse arguments for PR but rather that it took a long time for me to fully change my mind – almost a decade from the first discussion. And I can’t help but think I could have made the jump quicker.
So can the process be sped up? Changing your mind is really hard, especially if the views in question are deeply held. We all have a natural instinct is to defend against criticisms of long held views. Even if they seem pretty convincing we feel there must be a reason they’re wrong. As psychologist Thomas Gilovich famously put it “for desired conclusions, we ask ourselves, ‘Can I believe this?’, but for unpalatable conclusions, we ask, ‘Must I believe this?’”. Faced with a scientific study that seems to disprove a view we hold dear we’ll do our best to find methodological problems or highlight previous mistakes made by the author. Faced with a compelling response on social media we’ll often get more sarcastic and belligerent.
It’s impossible to avoid this compulsion, at least it is for me, but you can use various mental tricks to help. Steel-manning is the most useful. This is simply the opposite of straw-manning – trying to construct the best possible version of the alternative view. But it’s not plausible to steel man every conceivable alternative position on every issue, so when should you?
For me it’s those seeds of doubt. If I’m having a conversation with someone, online or in real life, and I start getting angry it’s a pretty reliable sign that somewhere deep in my consciousness I’m worrying that I’m wrong about something I care about. (If people are needlessly abusive I might get upset, but never angry). It took me a long time to recognise that but now I do I can immediately put that issue on the list for steel-manning.
The steel-manning itself requires identifying the smartest, most thoughtful, people that hold the alternative view on that topic. Again, of course, the instinct is to do the opposite. It is fun and cathartic to find pillocks on social media making the worst possible case and dunk all over it and them. It’s also easy – social media gives us access to the views of every online nutter in the world. What’s more it gets you lots of likes and RTs from fellow believers. The “quote tweet” function on twitter actively encourages dunking.
But unless the opinion is genuinely crackpot (covid vaccines are designed to kill us all) there’s usually someone out there making a good case for it. Find them and get their arguments, their sources, their rebuttals to your standard position and then you can build your steel man.
I’ve done this repeatedly during Covid. Early on I lazily accepted the official line that masks were of no value – a few online conversations later I had the seeds of doubt, and went off to find studies about mask use. I ended up changing my mind before Public Health England or the World Health Organisation. The same happened with the view that children were much less likely to transmit covid. There were some pretty convincing studies suggesting this was true early on, so I held on to this belief for longer, until my anger sensors starting buzzing during conversations, and I stopped asking “must I believe this” about studies showing transmission via children and started asking “can I”.
Even when you don’t fully change your mind going through the process can still change the way you think about a debate. For instance, recently, I’ve been “steel-manning” the view that university tuition fees should be scrapped, after 15 years of arguing vociferously that they’re a good and progressive thing. After doing so I still think that, ultimately, it would be a bad use of stretched public funds to scrap fees and doing so could also put the HE sector in serious difficulty. But I’m much more open to the criticism that universities are taking students for granted, and relying far too much on the signalling power of degrees to justify the cost. And that in the context of high marginal tax rates for young graduates the argument about “progressiveness” is wearing thin.
Incidentally none of this means avoiding strong opinions. I have plenty of those. We all do. Nor does it mean accepting all criticism as valid. 90% of the criticism I get on twitter is tedious partisan shouting. But it does mean being able to identify your emotional tick that tells you those seeds have been planted, and it does mean having the discipline to force yourself to find the best opposing arguments. It means doing your best to have what author Julia Galef calls “a scout mindset” – trying to make the most accurate map of the world you can – rather than a “soldier mindset” – using your ideas as troops to fight off invading theories.
But that twitter thread gave me hope that most people can access the scout mindset pretty easily, even on strongly held political opinions, when the prompt is framed right. Of course so much of social, and traditional, media is designed explicitly to do the opposite. But I feel more and more people are getting tired of having their emotions manipulated by algorithms. And rather than endless oppositional posing there is fragile but growing demand for serious sources of information that are less polarising. I hope I don’t have to change my mind about that.