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How your brain is keeping you from changing your mind

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A few years ago, when I was suffering from severe back pain, I consulted a local chiropractor, a practitioner of a medical technique I do not actually believe in. After several predictably fruitless visits, she asked me to lie on a long, vibrating bed that would help me relax by putting my body in harmony with the vibrations of the planet.

“That won’t work with me,” I told her, gathering up my things. “I’m from Philadelphia.”

As an alumnus of the Quaker City working class, I held on to my disdain for all things esoteric and mystical and Eastern – yoga, tai chi, transcendental meditation, chutney – for many years until my back pain got so severe that I finally broke down and saw an acupuncturist. I would never have dreamed of doing this were it not for the intervention of a friend, a man as conservative and straitlaced as they come, who handed me Dr. Lee’s card, recommending him most highly.

“Wait a minute,” I objected. “Guys like you don’t believe in stuff like acupuncture.”

“If your back hurts enough, you’ll believe in anything,” he replied.

The treatment worked; for me, it was a miraculous cure. I am not exaggerating by saying that acupuncture saved my life. This got me to thinking about how hard it is to get a person to change his mind about something unless some sort of personal crisis erupts. 

My list of entrenched beliefs is short but inflexible. I would never change my religion or political affiliation, even when I disagree with the church or the party, and it is impossible to get me to change my views about music. I have disliked Vivaldi – Renaissance Muzak – the Grateful Dead, and smooth jazz for more than four decades, and when a friend took me to see Kenny Chesney and Lady Antebellum, begging me to give contemporary country a fair hearing, I came out hating the genre more than when I went in – something I would not have thought possible.

I loathe beets, kale, cauliflower, clog dancing, Middlemarch, Civil War re-enactors, Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffett, the Dallas Cowboys, folk music, marzipan, and the New York Yankees, and nothing short of divine intervention is going to change my mind about any of them. 

Most people I know have similar, though perhaps less vehement, attitudes toward one thing or another. My liberal friends could never be persuaded to vote Republican, and my conservative friends feel the same way about Democrats. I have breakfast every morning with a group of friends, including one who is quite conservative and another who is extremely liberal. They have locked horns on every major issue – guns, taxes, immigration, global warming, the designated hitter rule – every day for 15 years. Neither has ever persuaded the other to change his opinion about anything. 

People who despise hip-hop, pro basketball, Cats, sushi, coconut water, NPR, or the opera are not going to change the way they feel about those things. The only way I could get most of my friends to listen to Wagner, eat scrapple, or rent a Steven Seagal movie would be if I could prove to them that doing so would cure lower back pain. With the scrapple, even that might not work.

T.J. Elliott, longtime chief learning officer at the Educational Testing Service, scoffs at the notion that you can change people’s opinions by marshaling powerful, insuperable arguments. 

“That theory is rooted in the mistaken belief in the fundamental rational nature of human beings,” he says. “It’s a belief that extends from economics to science to politics. But it doesn’t match what we know about how people make sense of the world and how they make decisions.” The “ration-al agent” model, which posits that a consistently rational and self-correcting being exists, “makes it difficult for us to comprehend that changing anyone’s mind about anything once it is firmly made up is very difficult and in many cases impossible.”

He adds: “You stick to your guns because you don’t remember that you came by a position neurologically before you came to it consciously.”

An abundance of scientific research supports this view. Nobelist Daniel Kahneman, a co-creator of behavioral economics, proved not only that people are not predictably rational but also that they are unlikely to change their minds even when they are proven wrong. 

In many instances this is because there is no downside to holding an incorrect belief. I have spent the last quarter-century trying to persuade my friends that the food in England is now very good and that the French do not dislike Americans. My friends listen and nod their heads and say, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” Then, the next time I announce that I am headed for Paris or London, they say: “Well, I can’t say I envy you. The food in England is absolutely horrible,” or “The French will go out of their way to be mean to you. Hope you at least have nice weather.”

Mike Gazzaniga, a colossus in the field of cognitive neuroscience, made his name by conducting experiments on people who had undergone a procedure to separate the hemispheres of their brains. He found that one half of the brain responds to the world more or less the way it perceives it, while the other side is always trying to “interpret” data and construct a narrative. He says that when people have entrenched positions about anything – be it politics, religion, euthanasia, the putative vileness of English food – “a major intervention has to take place to get them to change their minds.”

How major?

“Take your friends to France and England,” he says. “Without an intervening experience, they’ll never change their position.”

Believing that people can be persuaded to change their minds runs counter to what everyone from John Maynard Keynes to Thorstein Veblen has documented: In most spheres of activity, humans are basically non-rational. More to the point, we compulsively associate with people who share our opinions and values, seeking out echo chambers like MSNBC or Fox News or Middlebury College. People who read the New Yorker have the same opinions as other people who read the New Yorker. People who like NASCAR think like other people who like NASCAR. Both groups belong to a tribe, and tribes do not welcome strangers. Moreover, to defect from a tribe is a form of treason. Even when you suspect that the tribe is wrong.

Gazzaniga believes that social media has exacerbated this tendency to seek out echo chambers. 

“It used to be that you had to actively seek out other people who shared your opinion,” he says. “Now you have a sub-network of 100,000 followers on Twitter who believe the same things you do.”

And the way discourse is now conducted in this country makes it even more difficult to change people’s opinions.

“It used to be that if I disagreed with you, we could sit down and talk about it,” he says. “Now if you disagree with me, you’re an idiot.”

Erik Dane at Rice University found that “cognitive entrenchment” might be even more unyielding among “experts.” A spe-cialist keeps burrowing deeper and deeper into his narrow range of interest and ignores data or events that do not conform to his view of reality. In the words of the brilliant English historian A.J.P. Taylor, experts come to know more and more about less and less. It’s not so much that they can no longer see the big picture. They don’t even know the big picture exists.

Recent work in cognitive neuroscience by researchers such as Matthew Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of California, explains that such activity is rooted in our amygdala, the part of the brain that helps to create and sustain beliefs and to reject discordant information. The news that George Washington did not actually have wooden teeth is not jarring. The news that he may have had teeth taken from slaves is. The amygdala doesn’t like what it’s hearing. So it stops listening.

“You have instincts for fight and for flight, not so much for insight,” says Bridget Queenan, a neuroscientist who runs the Brain Initiative at the University of California at Santa Barbara and who is also my daughter. “When people are threatened in any way, they retreat from logic.” Nor is she any great believer in the persuasive power of hard, cold facts. “Emotion, not evidence, changes minds.” 

Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey believe that human beings may even have a kind of immunity to change. Humans insist that they want to alter their way of living, but they don’t. As Samuel L. Jackson puts it in the otherwise forgettable film The Samaritan: “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on being what you’ve always been.” People know this, but they ignore it and blithely go about their business.

Political scientists are baffled by people who persistently vote against their own economic interests. In this case, the experts persistently overlook the fact that not all beliefs have equal emotional value. Being a candidate who supports religious freedom often trumps being a candidate who will create jobs. In many instances, people vote against a candidate because the whole thing just doesn’t feel right. In the words of the immortal John Mellencamp, people do self-destructive things because it “hurts so good.” And why does it hurt so good? Because “sometimes love don’t feel like it should.”

Kegan and Lahey, who co-founded an organization called Minds at Work, cite a study in which patients with heart disease were told that unless they cleaned up their cardiovascular acts, they were going to die. But only one patient in seven implemented the needed lifestyle changes. Was this simply a case of self-delusion? Stupidity? Orneriness? Probably not. Most likely, the patients found it difficult to ditch the belief that things would go on being OK, because things had always been OK before. This is not a case of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s a case of  “Even if it is broke, don’t fix it.” Why? Because I am what I am and that’s all that I am. Because now, the end is near, and as I face the final curtain I want to be able to say that I did things my way. And because it hurts so good.

None of these theories applies when lower back pain is involved.

Bookstores are filled with best-sellers assuring people that they can change their lives today. They can stop smoking. They can stop drinking. They can stop eating everything in the tri-state area that’s not nailed down. They can even stop being a jerk. The notion that dramatic lifestyle change is easy or even possible is not supported by the data. Most diets do not work. Alcohol remedial programs have a poor rate of success. People with lung cancer can still be found puffing away on coffin nails on their deathbeds. Short of brainwashing, as was practiced on GIs by their communist captors during the Korean War, most personalities will resist change.

Human beings like simple things, one of which is always being right. We dislike ambiguity and trust ourselves more than we should. We think we will one day be rich even though our paychecks suggest otherwise. We think we will one day suit up for the Lakers even though we keep dribbling the ball off our foot. We conspicuously reject the notion that our values are inherited from others, that quite often the only reason we believe something is that everyone else we know believes it. 

Popular wisdom says the voting public is just about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, with a smaller swath of “independents” in between. But elections show that the concept of independents is largely a myth: There are Democrats, there are Republicans, and there are people who don’t like admitting that they are Democrats or Republicans, so they call themselves independents. True, you occasionally meet people who root for both the Mets and the Yankees, the White Sox and the Cubs. But you don’t meet many of them. And when you do meet them, you don’t like them. 

It is possible to get people to change at the margins. You can persuade people to try chicken tikka masala or attend a soccer match or stop wearing tube socks or listen to Steely Dan for more than 9.2 seconds, my personal indoor record. But getting people to change their core involves persuading them to repudiate an entire values system. To switch parties or religions or teams is to forsake and perhaps even repudiate your tribe. You’re either a Greek or a Trojan. You’re either a Cowboy or an Indian. Make your choice, pard.

One reason we cling to our beliefs is that it makes daily life easier. It’s really hard to be a conservative in New York City. It’s really hard to be a liberal in rural Alabama. In milieus where you are basically hemmed in, it’s easier to stick to an intractable, lifelong philosophy even when you suspect that on certain issues you might be wrong. The historical record says that in the ’60s, the right was wrong about race, while the left was wrong about drugs. Neither side will ever admit it. There’s just too much at stake.

Tenaciously clinging to opinions is an exclusively adult activity, however. Children don’t draw lines in the sand. As my daughter, who spends virtually all her time thinking about the brain, puts it: 

“You wouldn’t suspect it from looking around, but every adult you know started out as a scientific genius. Children are natural-born scientists. They spend all of their time learning about the world through experiment, deriving what’s true through unrelenting trial and error. Every day of your childhood, you encountered something unexpected or confusing, something completely incompatible with your understanding of how the world worked. I wonder what will happen if I do this. Oh, I fell down. I wonder what will happen if I do this. Oh, I fell down. Yet you survived. In fact, you loved it.” 

She adds: “With the exception of two-year-olds, kids do not appear to be emotionally or cognitively shattered by new or contradictory information. Little kids are perfectly capable of updating their belief systems and behaviors based on evidence. In fact, they find new and contradictory things really appealing. So why do we stop? Why do we suddenly say: That’s it, I’m done, I don’t want to learn anymore. This is all I want to know for the remainder of my natural life. The world continues to be fascinating and unpredictable and open for exploration. So why do we as adults decide that we don’t care anymore?”

Good question, kiddo. One thing that’s clear is that frontal assaults on another person’s position never work. Some masters of persuasion believe that the only way to change the way a person thinks is through trickery or intellectual sleight of hand. Another approach is to come in from way out in left field. A good friend who had been implacable in his support of capital punishment changed his mind after staying up all night with friends who persuaded him that it was a bad idea to give the state the right to kill its citizens. Other arguments against capital punishment could gain no purchase. But that one, by appealing to both his religious and conservative political principles, did. Now, he says, he seeks out evidence supporting his new belief – even though he probably still thinks an awful lot of criminals deserve to die.

Such Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversions are rare. We are what we are; we dance with the one that brung us, even if the one that brung us is a terrible dancer. One day, my good friend Adam, the most conservative member of our breakfast club, suggested that the group retreat to a motel in the woods and lock ourselves in for the weekend, debating the burning issues of the day. He said that if we could enter into an honest and serious tête-à-tête without prejudices, we would emerge from our weekend retreat shocked by how much common ground we shared. 

But we never made it to the Catskills for that intellectual summit conference. Because the rest of us think he’s nuts. 

-- Joe Queenan is a freelance writer based in Tarrytown, New York.

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