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How (Not) to Respond When People Change Their Minds

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the process of changing one’s mind. For those of us who like to try to persuade people, it’s important to think about that process and how it happens and how to facilitate it, but even someone who doesn’t spend most of their free time yelling on the Internet like I do might occasionally hope to change a friend or family member’s mind about something.

Obviously, everyone changes their mind on things at some point. Just within the last four years, I’ve gone from being very conservative to being too left-wing to support the Democratic Party in good conscience. I’ve switched my career plans from being a journalist to getting a PhD in sociology to getting a PhD in clinical psychology to getting a master’s in social work. I’ve ended a few friendships and relationships that I once hoped would last forever. Ive revised (to put it mildly) my opinion that feminists and atheists suck (hi FtB!). I’ve also stopped believing that I’m unfit to live in this world and that my entire life is a waste of time and resources, because I’ve (mostly) stopped being depressed. Perhaps the only major things that have stayed the same are that 1) I cannot live without writing, and 2) I fucking love New York City and intend to move there.

So, that’s a lot of mind-changes. That’s a lot of admitting to people I was wrong about things that range from extremely personal to extremely, well, not. That’s a lot of seeing how they react to these changes in my thinking.

The worst thing you can say when someone changes their mind about something, whether it’s about a political position or a career goal or a restaurant, is something like this: “What?! But that’s not what you were saying a week/month/year ago! Make up your mind!”

If that sounds like an outlandish reaction, I assure you it’s not, because I’ve gotten it very often within the last four years. It’s hurtful because its “Gotcha!” tone makes it sound like the person’s desperate to catch me in the act of being a hypocrite or a flip-flopper rather than actually trying to understand my point of view and how it’s changed.

Another crappy way to react when someone changes their mind, particularly when they change it in the direction that you were trying to convince them, is, “Told ya so! I knew you’d come around!” This is just annoying because, first of all, “I told you so” is a pointless and snide thing to say in almost any circumstance, and second, most people hate being told that you knew all along how they were going to act or think. Even if it’s true! It presumes that you know them better than they know themselves and that you were just sitting there biding your time until they came to the decision that you wanted them to come to.

In a way, these two reactions are opposite extremes. The first is incredulous and skeptical and assumes that people don’t typically change their minds. It forces the person into the position of justifying and proving the change in thinking that they’ve undergone. The second is self-assured and know-it-all and assumes that people always change their minds when you personally want them to. It forces the person into the position of justifying their previously-held opinion and trying to convince you that their change of heart was really something they thought through themselves as opposed to just taking your arguments on faith.

Both of these reactions will discourage people from admitting to you that they’ve changed their minds. They might even discourage people from changing their minds at all. That’s why they’re harmful.

A better way to respond when you’re confused by someone’s mind-change would be something like, “I remember you felt differently about this before. Did you change your mind/What made you change your mind?” A better way to respond when you’re not confused is, “Glad to hear you changed your mind!” That’s it. Don’t try to “catch them in the act” or snark at them for “finally coming around.”

What’s interesting is that even though we’ve all at times tried to persuade people to agree with us, there’s sort of a stigma on changing one’s mind, especially in the realm of politics. Politicians are encouraged to be ideologically “consistent” (which apparently means keeping the same opinions forever and ever) or else they’re derided as “flip-floppers” (see: John Kerry). Even we ordinary citizens may feel the pressure to keep supporting the same policies, parties, and politicians rather than reevaluating our opinions.

But ultimately, isn’t that kind of harmful? Isn’t being right more important than being stubborn?

Honestly, I love changing my mind. Not just about politics, but about everything*. Yes, I think that everything I currently believe is correct, but that might just be because I haven’t heard a good argument against any of it yet. I love hearing a thought-provoking counterargument and being inspired to reconsider what I thought was right. I want to keep improving and fine-tuning my opinions. So I have little reason to be ashamed to admit when I’ve changed my mind, but reactions like the ones I’ve described above sometimes make it difficult.

There’s a lot that goes into the art of persuasion, and the reaction that you have when someone finally changes their mind might seem irrelevant. They’ve changed their mind, after all! But being kind, supportive, and empathic throughout that entire process, even when it seems to have finished, encourages people to consider your arguments and to admit to you if they’ve decided to adopt them. It also encourages them to view changing one’s mind as a normal and even desirable thing to do.

The three little words that I wish I heard more–that I wish were easier for us all to say–are “I was wrong.”

*I’ll even change my mind about everything I’ve written in this post if someone disagrees well enough! :)

Comments

  1. Robert Arnow, Freeze Peach Inspector says

    I kind of want to find people who knew you in high school and make an “Ohio Suburbs Veterans for Truth” PAC.
    FLIP-FLOPPER.

    P.S.: You are great and this is exactly how to talk to people in transition.
    P.P.S.: FLIP-FLOPPER

  2. doublereed says

    Now that you have rapidly changed your mind about all sorts of things, do you think you could still change your mind about those things? Do you think it would be easy to convince you that gays don’t deserve equal treatment under the law or God is likely to exist?

    Because I’ve done similar changes recently, where I feel like I’ve changed my mind about tons of issues. But if anything, I feel more stubborn and more resistant to an opinion-shift than I felt before, because now I have a more solid framework for my opinions. I’ve looked at more research, and I’ve seen more myths being debunked.

    • says

      Do you think it would be easy to convince you that gays don’t deserve equal treatment under the law or God is likely to exist?

      Nope! It’s not that I’m easy to convince in general, either. I need good arguments, and none exist for either of these two positions (at least, none that I’ve ever heard, and growing up in suburban Ohio, one hears many).

      Also, the idea that everyone deserves equal treatment under the law has stopped being an “opinion” that I hold and instead become a value, just like the value that hurting people without good cause (as defined by me) is wrong or that my future career should involve giving back to the community or making the world a better place somehow or that beauty is not an inherently good quality. I think that values, unlike opinions, are not necessarily likely to change once they have solidified, which seems to happen for most people around the time they transition from adolescence to adulthood.

      By contrast, I could perhaps be convinced that eating animal products is ethically wrong, that hate crimes should not be prosecuted differently from other crimes, that the federal government does not have the authority to mandate insurance coverage, that I should choose to adopt children rather than have them naturally, that humans are predisposed to having religious beliefs, etc. These are things I have a pretty firm stance on right now, but could perhaps change my mind if I heard a good argument.

      I also don’t tend to change my mind about the same issue many times, although it’s happened before.

      But if anything, I feel more stubborn and more resistant to an opinion-shift than I felt before, because now I have a more solid framework for my opinions. I’ve looked at more research, and I’ve seen more myths being debunked.

      I’d say that’s how I feel about some issues but not all of them. Also, sometimes scientific evidence itself flip-flops as we realize that earlier methods or studies had serious flaws. Based on the evidence that I have for my current beliefs, of course, I think they are correct. But I’m open to the possibility that that may change.

      • doublereed says

        I suppose the question I was getting at was: Do you think you are more or less open to changing your beliefs than you were four years ago?

        • says

          I think more. I was always fairly open to it, but now that I understand stuff like epistemology much better, I’m more open to the idea that the same evidence can lead to very different interpretations.

          At the same time, though, as I mentioned, my positions on certain key issues have solidified: that everyone deserves equal treatment under the law. That society is based on power differentials. And so on. So on certain issues, I’ve become less open to changing my beliefs, but in general, I’ve become more so. Sorry if this is confusing. I’m still figuring it out. :P

          • doublereed says

            Yea, me too.

            I recently got into the power of Bayesian Reasoning, which is all about uncertainty. But I found that once I learned more about uncertainty, I found myself far more certain about things than before. And as I learn about more and more things, as I gain information, there’s fewer and fewer issues for which I am reasonably uncertain.

  3. fantysq (a Radical Feminist and a Militant Atheist) says

    As someone who changes her opinions on big issues with an alatrming frequency, I agree with everythiong you’ve said here. And over the years, I’ve stopped telling people my opnions on things altogether, because I don’t want to hear any told-you-so’s or but-that’s-not-what-you-said-last-time’s. (If I did, I would hear those every week. I DO change my mind on things very frequently. And I like it that way. I like the fact that a well-reasoned argument will always bring me around.)

  4. smrnda says

    People who never change their minds kind of scare me. – to me, that seems like a warning sign of an inflexible mind uninterested in evidence or exploring other points of view. Over a lifetime, I’d expect a person to change their mind on at least a few issues since people probably form opinions on issues long before they really have enough information to have an informed opinion. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind as long as there’s a reason for it.

    I’ve found I change my own mind less often than I used to, but what I find for me is that I am concerned for issues that I used to think were irrelevant. I used to think religion was a barely-living museum piece that would die out soon, and I was wrong on that one.

  5. says

    There was some idea in horse-training that as soon as the horse started to move in the direction you wanted, you should take the pressure off it and lavishly praise it. It’s straightforward operant conditioning.Our challenge is to damnd that people do what is right.

  6. says

    I’m happy to change my mind, if someone presents a good argument for why I should. And I have done this many times.

    And sometimes I will pick a side in an argument that I don’t necessarily have an opinion about yet, as a way to learn both sides of the argument. In these, it’s generally a 50/50 whether I change my mind.

    However, there are things I am ‘dead set’ about, and the reason I am so adamant I am right on those issues is because I haven’t heard a single good argument for why I should think otherwise. I’ve been given plenty of flawed arguments and a lot of lies, but not a single good argument.

  7. Britbacca says

    As Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I also try to make it a point to others to admit when I’ve changed my mind on a topic, if only to help dispel the stigma associated with admitting one’s own wrongness. Five years ago, I was an atheist anti-feminist libertarian, and while I’ve flipped diametrically on every topic except atheism, it’s a subtle reminder to people you may agree with (at least today) that becoming an informed person is a process, not a predisposition.

    • says

      Haha, we actually have a lot in common, then! I definitely went through a libertarian phase on my way out of conservatism, and I’ve almost always been an atheist (I had a few religious/spiritual periods as a child, but I subsequently realized that that was mostly just my attempt to conform to the Christian-centric community I lived in),

  8. Mor Rioghain says

    Whether or not politicians should be free to change their minds is an interesting question. While people are free to change their minds, politicians are not ‘just people’. If they get elected they become representatives of their voters and these voters (presumably) gave their vote based on the politician’s views/opinions/beliefs. As such a politician radically changing their mind would constitute a breach of their promise made to their voters.
    Of course this only holds true for politicians who currently hold office.
    However, is it not reasonable, when judging a candidate, to look at how they behaved in the past? So if you want your candidate to be consistent in office, is it then not reasonable to expect them to be consistent when not in office?

  9. miles says

    “I was wrong” gets easier every time you say it. With the full range of things to be wrong about out there, chances are we’re all wrong about all sorts of things (and I mean morally and scientifically – as fast as both change, obviously there’s still a long way to go for both). Hey as long as we stay open and meticulously considerate, we all should slowly get less wrong!!

  10. Psychopomp Gecko says

    Given all the times you run across the Christians who claim to have once been atheists, I’ve wondered if I was handling the “changing of the mind” the wrong way with that situation.

    See, in my experience there are fundamentalist types who’ll say people are atheists despite them being Christians. Kind of how Ray Comfort presents a dichotomy of Evolution Vs. Christianity where anyone believing in Evolution is an atheist. Or those No True Scotsman types who figure that anyone not believing their particular way isn’t really a Christian, ala “I thought I had got in my heart, but then this preacher showed me I was a sinful atheist just pretending.”

    Generally, when I hear someone claim to have been an atheist but who has converted, I figure them to have been those types. At the same time, I wonder if that’s me trying to pull the No True Scotsman mess myself. I can see some people more into Woo being susceptible, or that woman on Patheos who converted to Catholicism for horrible reasons (something about preferring the morality of it while conveniently forgetting about all the murder and child molestation or the fact that it’s made up), but it really is hard to imagine an atheist coverting because they “Sat down and read the bible as if it really was the word of God for once” (slightly paraphrased quote).

  11. says

    I saw the title, and thought this was going to be about Rob Portman, and the wrong response in question was going to be “the reason you changed your mind isn’t good enough, so the actual changing doesn’t count.”

    • says

      Well, personally I’m really happy that he changed his mind, but I’m also terrified about what this means for our politics. If you have to have someone with X Identity in your family to respect the fact that people with X Identity should have equal rights, that doesn’t bode well.

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