Flip-flopping on an issue, or changing your mind, is often perceived as a sign of weakness. Politicians who switch their affiliations and even ideologies, as quickly and easily as turning on a light, have probably contributed to this notion. While I am not defending fair-weather politicians who choose their party and principles solely on a calculus of power, there is nothing wrong in changing your mind about an issue or a person based on new knowledge, evidence or shifting circumstances. Being open to learning and change is the hallmark of an active and healthy mind. If people stick steadfastly to their opinions, even in the face of contrarian evidence, they are not necessarily resolute but dogmatic. Further, we will have cultural and intellectual stasis if nobody ever changed their mind.
A valuable asset
In his book, How Minds Change, writer David McRaney avers that “the ability to change our minds, update our assumptions, and entertain other points of view” is one of our most valuable assets. The whole enterprise of Science works on the assumption that our model, theories and hypotheses may morph when we are presented with evidence that doesn’t fit into our current ways of thinking. Likewise, social and cultural shifts happen when a sufficiently large number of people begin thinking differently about an issue.
For example, working women were an anomaly about a century ago in India and were rarely seen outside the domestic sphere. But, around 50 years ago, women had made in-roads into ‘feminine’ professions like teaching and nursing. Fast forward another 50 years and women are driving autos, planes and companies. Of course, there is still a long way to go, and many more minds have to change before gender equality becomes a non-issue.
Likewise, homosexuality was taboo in India around two decades ago, with the majority vehemently opposed to the idea. While gay marriage is not yet legal in our country, society is more open and accepting of same-sex relationships, with people coming out of the closet. The abolition of Section 377 or the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2018 also spurred people to change their minds.
Transcend the ego
As a change of mind or heart often contributes to the greater social good, we need to stop overplaying conviction as an ideal or end state. We may desist from associating certainty with competence or confidence, both in ourselves and others. Sometimes, when we publicise our opinions, we may be tempted to defend our perspectives even when niggling doubts creep in. As writer and medical practitioner Alex Lickerman, writes in Psychology Today, we need to be able to “transcend our small-minded ego” to even admit that we might have been wrong on an issue. While we may be privately open to alternative perspectives, it takes humility to disclose our volte-face to others. But when we are invested in understanding the ‘truth’, as opposed to burnishing our own self-image, we are less likely to cling to incorrect assumptions and faulty explanations.
Last, the world will be a less polarised place if we “avoid debate and start having conversations”, as McRaney advocates. Because debates tend to have winners and losers; people assume argumentative and adversarial stances, even in the face of conflicting evidence. Further, when people are put on the defensive, we are less open to new information, let alone altering our minds. However, if both parties approach a discussion as a conversation and are willing to “explore their reasoning” and “motivations”, we are more likely to have fruitful and productive exchanges, with people possibly even changing their minds.
The writer blogs at www.arunasankaranaryanan.com and is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know.