Changing our minds

by Kristin on March 13, 2012

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Phillie Casablanca

“I changed my mind.”

There’s something both apologetic and incredibly freeing in those words, isn’t there? In a social sense, changing our minds can throw others for a loop, but in a personal sense, it’s a right we hold dear, indicative of our freedom to grow and change.

I’ve changed my mind in the moment about all sorts of little things, like what sounds good for lunch, or which activities would constitute the ideal Friday night. I went from hating olives as a kid to craving them as an adult; from never wearing the color purple to stocking my closet and drawers with several purple shirts and sweaters.

I’ve also changed my mind about big things, like how many kids I wanted to have, and where I want to raise them (I used to spend pointless hours plotting how I could get out of this town; now there’s nowhere else I’d rather live). Sometimes we change our minds on a whim, a change of heart we can’t quite explain, but more often our opinions shift after we get more information, or hear a different perspective. Changing my mind generally feels like a good thing, because it seems to almost always involve an opening up—at least an opening of the flow of input, before narrowing in on a decision.

The freedom to make a different choice than we intended, or to hold one conviction—even a strong one—and then later to let go of it, or even to hold the opposite conviction, is a freedom I wouldn’t want to give up. Can you imagine if, upon turning 18 or 21, we had to state our positions on all matters of life and the world, and stick with them for good?

Our love-hate relationship with compromise

Yet there’s a paradox at work in our culture and psyches: We value adaptability and the process of changing our minds, but we view with suspicion those who do change their minds. Compromise also plays a key role in this paradox: Often we don’t exactly change our minds about something, but we loosen our grip on it—we begin to grasp the complexity, the give-and-take, and the other viewpoint in a way that allows us to meet the other side half way, or, better yet, to find a ‘third way.’ Compromise seems like a really good thing, yet it can also be seen as a weakness.

The contradictions get really messy within the realm of politics. Do or don’t we respect a politician who changes her mind? What about a politician who compromises? The whole idea that a change in position is a sign of weakness has long been one of the things that infuriates me about politics, so I was glad to hear an NPR segment on this very subject this morning.

“Why do voters want leaders who are adaptable, but detest those who don’t stick to their guns?” the intro to the story asks. Good question. The answer, some psychologists say, is rooted in our very American “hyper-individualistic norm”—our focus on the importance of the individual. Here’s how NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explains it:

So psychologists have this term, they call it the fundamental attribution error. And the fundamental attribution error says when I do something, when I look at my own behavior, I tend to see it in context. So I think of myself as being a safe driver, but if I’m driving fast today, it’s because I’m running late for an appointment.

But when I look at another person driving quickly, I say this person is a reckless driver, so I see it as being dispositional. And what Conway is suggesting is that Americans may have a tendency to see human behavior as more disposition or driven by the individual as opposed to driven by the context.

Super interesting, isn’t it? But now what do we do with it—in politics, in our relationships, in our work, in all areas of our life? Obviously there are times when we should hold fast to our convictions, and there is clear value in stability. There are times when changing our minds—either too often or too erratically—can be confusing and disruptive to the people and issues we care about most.

So when is it OK to change our minds, or to compromise? Are there particular parameters or a process we should follow before doing so?

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  • The Modern Gal

    Great, great post. I remember a friend on Facebook wrote just after George W. Bush left office that he admired him for never wavering on his decisions. He was decisive — he’d make a decision and then stick to it. That has always sat wrong with me. As the president, shouldn’t he be able to listen to other sides and change his position if there’s a chance he’s making a mistake? Since I hang out in the middle of politics rather than on the edges of one party or ideal or another, I prefer politicians compromising and meeting in the middle — where I’ll inevitably be more comfortable with their decisions.

    I absolutely think it’s important to give ourselves permission to change our minds. I think someone can maybe change his or her mind too much and therefore struggle with commitment, but I think you have to go far before crossing that line.

  • sarah louise

    Oh, I am in that place right now…might just sit here and write a post about the changing of how I’m looking at things.

    The driving thing: I hate it when others don’t use their turn signals, but I forget every once in a while too. A great analogy.

    Thanks for this.


    (and the politics thing…oh yeah. I’m in the middle of changing my mind on a lot of things.)

  • natalie

    Many times “sticking to your guns” could actually be defined by pride. I don’t think pride is automatically a bad word because we gain strength, motivation, and an appreciation for who we are as individuals. However, the kind of pride that mandates that we “stick to our guns” is the same pride that fights not to be in the right but to BE right. Because it’s so easy for our motives to become sullied by pride, selfishness, etc, i’d say it’s better to compromise in humility than stubbornly sticking to stupidity.

    but. that’s coming from somebody who — if we’re really honest — is always right. ;)

  • Sarah@ From Tolstoy to Tinkerbell

    We should value our leaders adapting, changing, and growing just as we do our friends and family. Without change, we don’t grow or develop or mature. Worse still, we stagnate. Quite frankly, I think some of our problems in politics come from our leaders not growing as persons just public images. Great post!

  • Roberta F. King

    Yes! I am often vexed by people who call other people, usually candidates, flip floppers. Who among us hasn’t seen the light that made us change our mind on an issue?
    As an example, I was firmly in the death penalty camp until I read Sister Helen Prejean’s book, Dead Man Walking. It opened my eyes to complexity’s of the issue that I’d never considered.
    Sometimes we need to be open to other view points and adapt our own despite what we’ve always thought to be true.

  • Kristin T.

    The Modern Gal, yeah, the whole “unwavering and firm” thing was celebrated a lot when Bush was president. I couldn’t help feeling like some people didn’t care WHAT his stance was or how he came to it, as long as he held to it stubbornly. The problem could be that we want to think our leaders are somehow above being human, but that just isn’t the case.

    sarah louise, I thought the driving example in the NPR piece was really a helpful illustration. Sure, we do the things we complain about in others, but we have really good reasons, right? :) I bet that trick of the mind is at the heart of much hypocrisy.

    natalie, hi there! It’s good to see your face and to hear your thoughts—you bring up a really important point. The process of changing our minds usually does involve admitting we were wrong, at least in some sense of “wrong.” I’d say this is a good rule of thumb: “…it’s better to compromise in humility than stubbornly sticking to stupidity.”

    Sarah, I absolutely agree. This is really insightful: “I think some of our problems in politics come from our leaders not growing as persons just public images.” As I mentioned in The Modern Gal’s response, somehow, deep down, we want our leaders to be super-human. We want to think they had things figured out *before* they arrived at their positions of power. That would be nice, but it just isn’t realistic, is it?

    Roberta, thanks for sharing your thought process about the death penalty—it’s a great example. Often changing our minds is about just that: allowing that there’s complexity in an issue. Maybe the alternative has plenty of problems, too, but it’s a better place to land while we sort it all out and move toward new solutions.

  • ed cyzewski

    Your post describes the reason why I don’t listen to the news any more. I just cut it out of my life. I don’t see any downside right now. I only vote every so often, and it doesn’t take that long to figure out what candidates believe.

    When it comes to religion, I think it’s so important to be willing to change your beliefs. I think, as a Protestant, that such an approach is at the heart of who I am. It’s like Protestantism began with a time bomb in the heart of it that is destined to destroy it. That can have some major downsides, but being willing to change what you believe or practice can have an upside.

  • Jennifer

    You are a smart one, you. I’ve said it before; I’ll say it again. I have been thinking about the blackness and whiteness of things, such as they are when we are but babes, 20 or so. I love the idea of fundamental attribution error, but I’m not going to tell my husband about that.

    The older I get the less tightly I cling to my guns. I’m less about being right and more about hearing the story under what’s being said. Or at least, that’s the goal.

  • Kristin T.

    ed, it’s always interesting to me to see that the very mindset or belief that started a movement can later seem threatening. I guess that’s why we often hear people say that our strengths are also our weaknesses (or our potential downfalls)?

    Jennifer, you are a smart AND kind one, you. :) It’s really interesting to think about all of this in terms of how we saw things at 20 vs. at 40. I’m going to be mulling this over for a while…

  • Natalie

    I came here from your story on Relevant, which I loved so much. That was a serious kick of conviction for me, because I waste so much time chasing rabbit trails. Your ideas for redeeming my time were all great. I read an article recently that talked about changing the vernacular from “I’m so busy” to “That’s not a priority.” That really hit home for me, and the “hit” became more of a sucker-punch when I read your Relevant article. I need to stop prioritizing dumb things. I love this post as well. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my life (… so far :) really came down to (like Natalie said) being too proud to change my mind. Thanks for sharing this. So glad I discovered your blog!

  • Kristin T.

    Natalie, it’s great to “meet” you! I really love what you’re saying about busy vs. priorities. I’ve often thought about that—how important it is to acknowledge that we are always making choices. The activities of my life (for the most part) don’t control me, even though I often act like I’m helpless in the face of them. That’s why I thought of my Love List concept as an act of “taking back my life.” It’s an ongoing process. Blessings as you work through it in your life, and thanks for reading my blog!

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