Jennifer Mueller, Ph.D.

The Upside of Uncertainty

How to Change a Person’s Mind

If we want a future that includes tolerance for others, we have to build it.

Posted Feb 03, 2017

Tookapic/Pexels
Source: Tookapic/Pexels

The other day, while browsing through the news, I read a heartwarming story about a Muslim family-owned restaurant advertising free meals for the homeless and elderly on Christmas day. An advertisement pinned to the door of the restaurant read, “So nobody will eat alone.” I thought the story was so beautiful, I showed it to my grandmother. She read the article and said, “That is a funny joke!”  Confused I replied, “This isn’t a joke, Grandma—this is a real story.”  My grandmother shrugged her shoulders, murmuring “They probably wanted the press.”

I was angry with my grandmother. I wanted to yell at her, lecture her, and make her change her mind. But as I looked at my 99-year-old grandma, I remembered my academic work on the “bias against creativity,” and I dropped the subject.

One key thing I have learned in my 20 years of studying creativity is that what people know can make it much harder for them to embrace new ideas.  One of my favorite studies—conducted by Paige Moreau and colleagues—examined how experts in film viewed the digital camera when it first came out. The study showed that relative to novices, experts in film didn’t think the digital camera had much promise. Experts were skeptical because digital cameras do not allow for the critical inputs to picture quality in the development and printing of traditional film—dark rooms, exposure times, and film speed. In other words, experts dismissed the digital camera because it didn’t fit the paradigms they knew. You can say the same thing about my grandma: She dismissed the fact that Muslims could be kind because it didn’t fit her paradigm about people of that particular religious belief.

But there is a silver lining. People do embrace creative ideas. The novices in the Moreau study – those who didn’t know anything – thought the digital camera was great. Later in the study, Moreau and colleagues showed that having expertise in film, but also digital technology, contributed to experts liking the digital camera more than the film camera. In my own work, I show that people on average love creative ideas. It is only when I prime people with a certain mindset that it gets harder for them to embrace creativity.

Across multiple studies I have found that when people are in a mindset that prioritizes accuracy and correctness in decision making – a how/best mindset – they have a harder time recognizing creative ideas relative to others. In one study, those primed with a how/best mindset explicitly said they loved creativity, but their reaction time tests showed they associated creativity with words like “vomit,” and they subsequently rejected a creative idea. In another study, we showed that those primed with a how/best mindset only thought ideas were creative if they had lots of Facebook likes and Kickstarter investment – the very metrics that for new ideas often lead to over-estimation errors and later abandoned decisions. 

In the lab studies I’ve conducted, while the how/best mindset makes it harder to recognize and embrace creativity, other mindsets are much more compatible with creativity. When you bring participants into the laboratory and ask them to rate ideas, their ratings are roughly the same as those primed with a why/potential mindset – a mindset that evokes tolerance for creative ideas. In other words, the average American loves creativity, and wants more of it.  It is only when we are in situations where we care about making correct and accurate choices where our ability to recognize value in the new starts to falter.

I have learned that what we know can blind us from seeing value in the new. And our mindsets can also make it harder to recognize creative opportunity when it comes. So, if I wanted to change my grandmother’s views of Muslims, my approach would be two pronged. My first goal would be to immerse her in Muslim culture – take her to mosques, have her meet many Muslims, and travel with her to Muslim countries such as Turkey. One example of a Muslim doing something kind is absolutely not enough. I would need to show her several hundred. My second goal would be to help challenge and switch off her how/best mindset (e.g., there is one correct answer or perspective). I would emphasize that there are many valuable perspectives. I would try to ignite her curiosity, introduce her to puzzles in the culture and paradoxes. I would ask why, challenge her ideas, and engage her in a dialogue.    

I’ve made peace with the fact that my Grandma will never learn to change her mind. Her health is failing now, and we have so little time left. What troubles me, as an educator, is that our students aren’t learning how to change their minds. Studies show that relative to earlier generations, Millennials are less motivated to engage in creativity, and experience more anxiety around embracing it. They are less likely to become entrepreneurs relative to other generations, too. While teaching creativity to undergraduates in my own class, one of the more insightful students looked at me sadly and said, “It is too late for us—we like our multiple-choice tests.”

If we want a future that includes tolerance and egalitarianism, we need to remember that all of us (even you and me) can have a bias against new ideas and be blinded by what we believe. To overcome this tendency we can imbue ourselves and others with curiosity, seek out example after example of what we believe is impossible, and above all, learn to change our mindsets—and our minds.