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The Receptive Mind

Understanding the mind primed for change

According to psychologists, genuine belief change is rare. So it might not matter what sort of tricks we are exposed to, no amount of slight of hand – or slight of mind – is going to make us change our beliefs if we do not want to.

Notwithstanding the resilience of prized beliefs, what makes an individual more ready to change? Or in other words, what primes a belief receptive mind?

To begin with, we know that someone placed in a topsy-turvy personal context will be much more likely to feel ready for a change than the same person languishing in a secure and predictable environment. Soldiers think a whole lot less about God at the barracks than when the bullets are flying.

Belief change comes to the cognitively ready. This means that the opportunity for changing the way someone thinks magnifies when his or her thinking is muddled, turbulent, confused, uncertain or anxious.

Individuals who find themselves at the margins of society are more likely to convert their beliefs as they have less to lose. When someone fits in they are more content, and the content appear to be poor candidates for change. Put the same people in different circumstances, stripped of their status, respect, wealth, power and notoriety, and you suddenly get people ready to change their ideas.

Further, the more consonant existing and potential beliefs are, the more probable that some form of belief conversion will transpire. However, belief change more often than not involves escalation and expansion, rather than the neat substitution of one for another.

For example, a little Star Wars interest can become a lot of obsession. Similarly, a careless preoccupation with an after-dinner chocolate in front of a Sex and the City DVD after a bad day at work can grow into a block a night habit and a hip and thigh disaster. It’s relatively easy to escalate behavior, supported conveniently by a belief change that helps to make us feel like it’s okay.

That does not mean that significant changes to beliefs cannot transpire, just that for the most part, it’s much easier for people to add scope or intensity to an existing suite of beliefs than it is to tidily discard and replace the whole lot. So unfortunately, belief changes that lead to a wholesale switch in behavior are far less easily assimilated. After all, no one gets obese from knocking off a bag of apples on the couch every night.

Since most people are exposed to new beliefs by other, local figures, another factor involves the relationship between those selling beliefs and those buying. The interaction between advocates encouraging a belief shift and potential converts is dynamic and dependent on the shifting power relations the two share. In practice this means that a potential convert to a new way of thinking is more vulnerable to change when an advocate with authority coaxes his or her compliance.

The less influential will always remain more susceptible to change from their more socially powerful counterparts. Consider the frequency with which powerful figures attempt to exhort change from us, whether in the workplace, doctor’s office, from the politician’s microphone, or even from a sportsperson or celebrity endorsement on a billboard. Even when the advocate possesses no actual power, an appeal based on his or her expert authority or insider knowledge is made. As a result we find ourselves seduced by the click-bait in order to find out the one simple trick to losing belly fat.

Finally, those who convert early to a new belief or movement have a different motivation compared with those who do so after it has become established. Early converters tend to be inflamed by the prospects of spectacular change, most notably to their own circumstances, which is really just another way of hoping for more power, status or wealth. Late converters succumb to a critical mass of accumulated thinking about a belief, and ironically tend to be swayed by the desire to avoid any change to their personal circumstances.

Most belief change, however, can rarely be described as spectacular. In fact, despite our attempts to bring about change instantly, the lasting kind tends to be far more prosaic, even banal, in character. Belief change is more likely to creep up like a stranger in the dark. As a result, belief changes are better understood as belief transitions; they tend to be gradual, less like a whole new outfit and more like a new scarf or earrings tested out one at a time to see how they wear.

As an essential point, however, change still demands an incentive, driven by the energy of discontent at one extreme, and crisis at the other. Belief change happens faster when the discomfort of current circumstances exceeds the discomfort of making the change, even if the change is just to avoid losing something. Enter external events to trigger some trivial level of discontent, opening a small corner of the mind to seed a new concept, which grows and binds like barnacles on a ship’s hull.

Belief change unfolds as a lengthy and often unconscious process, released by uncertainty and discomfort, and nourished by crisis and distress. Typically belief change occurs through incremental escalation, with periods of more rapid progression and even some of regression.

Belief change is also sometimes interposed with decisive emotional experiences, and sudden, permanent, dramatic conversion – but that’s another story altogether.

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