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Are You Sure You Choose Your Views?

Some details about changing your mind.

It’s a funny thing about thoughts. Sometimes it seems trivially easy to change our minds and choose one option over another. Last weekend, my wife and son and I decided to watch all eight episodes of the Alex Rider series. Initially, I thought it would be ideal to watch four, then have an “interval” and then watch the remaining four. The shows were so great though, and so full of suspense, that I was ready for a break after the first two. So, I changed my mind and suggested, as the second episode credits were rolling, that we have a short break now.

It was a cinch. Super smooth and effortless. There are lots and lots of examples like that in a steady stream flowing throughout the day. You might set out to do one thing—finish proofreading that report—but then change your mind and decide it would be better to reply to those emails in your inbox and then get to the report.

The ease and efficiency with which it is possible to change our minds lead some people to conclude that we have total control over what we believe. We choose what we believe so we can decide to think something else anytime we like. Really?

Let’s say you’re a passionate Boston Red Sox fan. Your parents are Red Sox fans and so are your grandparents. Oh! Your inlaws are too. You have season tickets and do what you can to never miss a game. So, in the interest of maintaining a scientific attitude, let’s suppose that you really can change your mind whenever you like. You’re free to choose to think whatever you want. We’ll suggest, then, just to see the efficient, purring machinations of a changing mind, that for the month of April, you’ll choose to become a devoted New York Yankees fan. You’ll go along to all their games and cheer raucously for them until you make yourself hoarse. You’ll buy a Yankees cap and wear it constantly and spend time hanging out in bars with Yankees fans. How’s that working out for you?

How simple and straightforward does changing your mind seem now?

If baseball examples don’t drive the message home, pick something else that maybe does stir your passions. What about the move by Britain to leave the EU? Were you wildly in favor of that or did you think it was a humongous mistake? Regardless of which side you’re on, just choose the other side for a while. Send some tweets supporting the politicians who just a few moments ago you thought were nincompoops.

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Or how about vaccinations or climate change? If you understand and feel strongly about the benefits of vaccinations, how easy would it be to choose to be an anti-vaxxer for a week? You could join some of their social media groups, convince yourself that their arguments are all logical and well-reasoned, and even contribute constructively to some of their conversations. Same goes for climate change. How about you just choose to pop over the fence to the other side of that debate and make a donation to a cause supporting their work? Maybe a minute or two ago you didn’t even think there was a debate about climate change.

We could carry on the analysis with any other topic that people generally care deeply about—abortion, the death penalty, gun laws, religion. Suddenly, perhaps it might seem like our views and beliefs aren’t so convertible after all.

Go on! Change your mind. I dare you!

Just because you have a range of options does not necessarily mean you can choose equally between them. All of our beliefs and views are part of a “complete package” of ideas, dreams, aspirations, preferences, standards, nit-picks, priorities, and weightings. Any change or alteration can affect lots of other benchmarks. Our internal landscape is perhaps like a massive game of Pick-Up Sticks. Some little sticks of opinions and preferences can be jiggled free with no impact whatsoever on the bunch overall. Other beliefs and values, however, will have major reverberations throughout the tangle as soon as they begin to be plucked free. Many of our views aren’t so much strongly held as they are deeply cocooned within a woven nest of ideas about who we are and how we like the world to be.

Deciding to have a break after two rather than four episodes of a suspenseful spy series had no major disruptive effect on other goals. In fact, making that change actually helped keep my comfort levels where I like them to be.

Someone choosing to go carnivore for the Thanksgiving vacation after living for decades as a committed vegan, however, might be a different story. Sauntering into the butcher shop to select the turkey as well as some ground beef for the Tex Mex meatballs, not to mention the beef sirloin for the Asian beef skewers and the 12 pounds of cooked and peeled large shrimps with their tails on for the shrimp cocktail bar might be more than they could manage. Such a maneuver would be likely to arouse so much internal conflict that the person would, quite literally, become “stuck.” A raging battle between the goal of eating meat and other goals related to veganism would prevent the person from achieving any of those goals.

In Controlling People, my good friend Rick Marken and I discuss the relativity of freedom. Building a world where we are all free to do what we want is a noble ideal to strive for, but freedom is never absolute. So that people in a group can be as free as possible to do what they want without preventing others from doing the same thing, we have rules and regulations. We also have powerful rules and regulations within our own minds as well as within the environments we inhabit. Freedom is always relative. The cautionary proviso “it depends” is universally profound.

So, can we simply choose to believe one thing rather than another on a whim? Can we discard one worldview for an alternative stance the way we might exchange last season’s garment for an updated version? It depends. It’s all relative. As with many things, the situation is a little more complex than it first appears. If changing your mind generates goal conflict, it will seem like you are being forced. If on the other hand, a change of perspective promotes goal cohesion and harmony, it will hardly seem like a change at all.

It is clear that we have choices in the lives we live but understanding more clearly the nature of those choices might help us to increase our options as well as how we approach them to, ultimately, live a more contented life.

More from Timothy A Carey Ph.D.
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