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Why do we mock, or fear those who change their minds?

When we have a change in perspective, those who remain within can feel judged

Clearly, age does not improve us or make us wiser by default. Photograph: iStock

Though it may thicken your blood with revulsion or embarrassment, take a moment to ponder your 18-year-old self. Mine was appalling. Although I feel a certain tender fondness for her, not a little tinged by sympathy, I am also rather on edge at the thought of her (misplaced) certainty about the nature of a world she hadn’t been alone in yet, her moral haughtiness and her absolutely unforgivable partiality for boot-cut jeans.

Hopefully yours was a little better. Regardless, and also hopefully, you’ve changed. Most notably, apart from the physical changes in your body, you will probably have changed your mind in relation to major and minor views you used to hold quite dearly.

Perhaps at 18 you loved a pot of neon yellow instant noodles but now you can’t stand them. Or vice versa. Perhaps at 18 you were not in favour of legalising abortion or certain drugs, and now you are, or vice versa.

Sometimes the changes of mind are a deepening commitment to a perspective we held before so that its contours change

We all consider ourselves to improve with age, and hold our current views to be intellectually or morally better than our former ones, but we have to be wrong about this at least some of the time. I recently came to a new realisation about a controversial issue, and it changed my mind about it.

A person I know and respect had a similar experience, but had the opposite change of mind. We have essentially swapped positions. It is impossible that both of us are closer to the truth now than we were before, but of course, both of us believe ourselves to have made progress.

Change of mind

These sorts of changes happen in all of us. Over time, or with a sudden but impactful experience, the view that made sense in the context of our former experience and perspective doesn’t quite fit any more. This happens several times over the course of a lifetime. Sometimes the changes of mind are a deepening commitment to a perspective we held before so that its contours change. Sometimes it involves a complete rejection of a former system of belief in favour of a new one.

Clearly, age does not improve us or make us wiser by default – if it did, we would be the best versions of ourselves on our deathbeds, and people in their 70s would on average be more likely to hold true or well considered views than people under 70. Age is not in itself what determines proximity to truth, and experience, put to poor use, does not necessarily result in elevated understanding.

People who change their minds, particularly in relation to political or ideological issues,  should be respected and celebrated

For a variety of reasons, we tend to disrespect, mock, or fear those who change their minds, as though having a calcified perspective on anything is in some sense more desirable.

People who change their minds, particularly in relation to political or ideological issues, which can carry immense social costs, should be respected and celebrated. For when we have a change in perspective, those who remain within can feel judged or offended. Often they will consider the change of mind as a form of apostasy.

Unequivocal truth

While embracing our human obligation to remain sufficiently open-minded to alter our perspective on new evidence, it is important to resist the urge to close our minds around the new set of ideas, or to become intolerant of those who think differently. The temptation to consider our new views revelatory and true is high, particularly if they are attacked by those around us. Feeling that we have accessed the unequivocal truth is often used as grounds for dismissing others, and discourages ideological diversity. We should try to limit our bias toward the new view, or selectively exposing ourselves only to information that will confirm it while dismissing information that might challenge it.

Religious sceptic John W Loftus’s “outsider test” is a useful tool both when we are presented with a new perspective and when we are trying to defend the one we have reached through careful thought. In brief it entails imagining the argument and logical structure of ideas being presented (our own or someone else’s) from the perspective of a rational outsider who is neither inclined in favour of or against them. If, after unemotional consideration, the idea passes the test, we should probably adopt it. If not, we  are left to try to muster the bravery to change our minds.