Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Changing Your Mind

What's the greatest barrier to changing one's mind?

A few weeks ago at a staff meeting, I reaffirmed a policy to which several staff members objected. To be frank, the basis of their objection struck me as trivial at first. But later, after they asked to speak with me about it further and our conversation evolved, it became clear to me their reasons for wanting to change it were better than mine for wanting to keep it. The policy had made sense in another context, to be sure—in another clinic, from which it had been drawn—but, they eventually convinced me, no longer in ours. So I deliberated overnight to make sure I'd considered all the consequences to which changing it might lead, discussed it with my administrative director, and decided to reverse my earlier decision.

As I later reflected back over the sequence of events and the discussion that led to my doing so, I wondered why changing one's mind is often so difficult. After all, both the world and our view of it are constantly changing; circumstances never remain static, so why should our responses to them be forever locked in their initial form?

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Yet we seem to demand consistency even when it makes no sense. Politicians endure almost universal scorn when they change their minds about almost anything. Yet why would we expect anyone to be right at the very outset of their deliberations over every issue they consider? New information is always coming to light. New options always come into play. And though we tell ourselves politicians who end up breaking their campaign promises once elected never really meant to keep them (and perhaps they didn't), it seems equally if not more likely they did (call me naive) but were prevented from doing so by changing circumstances.

It seems we like people to change their minds only when it benefits us. Otherwise, changing one's mind seems to suggest uncertainty, lack of leadership, lack of confidence, even weakness of character. Few of us, it seems, like people to "waffle."

But why not? We may like to pretend we live in a straightforward world—our brains may have evolved to categorize it that way to increase our odds of survival (e.g., into "threat" vs. "non-threat")—but we also know it's not. Every issue, even ones we've long ago concluded are completely unambiguous, can be argued more than one way. Not only that, but the best answer often changes over time. So why don't we value instead the intellectual openness that changing one's mind requires? Why does the simple act of re-opening a settled question to re-examine it from another angle and of then wanting to answer it differently seem to require such courage?

Part of the reason, I think, is that we get attached to answers like we do possessions. Once we give an answer, it's no longer simply an answer but now our answer. Once we commit to it, we instantly become emotionally biased in favor of it, often even becoming blind to the shortcomings we previously saw in it ourselves. We become, in short, highly resistant to changing our minds because our answer has become part of who we are. And any threat to it feels like a threat to us.

To remain capable of making the best decisions, then, we must remain more committed to having the best answers found than to being the ones who find them. The ability to change one's mind, to admit implicitly or explicitly that we were wrong, in other words, ultimately boils down to an issue of character—of our ability to transcend our small-minded ego and care more that value is being created than we're the ones creating it. And when we attain that perspective, we'll come to see a willingness to change our minds not as an indication of uncertainty but of commitment—commitment not to appearing to care about what's best for others but to actually caring about what's best for others more than what's best for our egos and ourselves.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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