I have always believed, and in my career studiously applied the principle, that no matter how hard we try to take perfect decisions, we fail because we are never perfectly informed. When new evidence arises that impacts the quality of our initial decision or standpoint, we should review our analysis and conclusion. I did this as a project financier and as a compliance officer, where an inaccurate conclusion could lead to severe consequences for individuals, organisations and society. It’s a mindset that puts professionalism before politics, responsibility before self-esteem, and encourages open-mindedness, curiosity and active listening. Being able to change your mind is a strength, not a weakness.
Why is it so difficult? What are the forces that impose inertia of thought? Can we influence flexibility of mind?
- Are we rewarded or punished for our flexibility of mind?
- Are we independently minded or dominated by groupthink?
- Does biology restrict our ability to see perspectives other than our own?
Life has taught me that humility is a far more important quality than assuredness, although this should not be interpreted to mean that humility denies us to hold a conviction; we just have to be willing to listen and learn, always. To some, this sounds idealistic, perhaps unrealistic. But why do some of us feel free to change our minds, while others do not. Is it a matter of character, or circumstance?
As my hairs have greyed, experience has shown me that changing minds, your own or that of others, is inordinately hard. Beyond the application of rational logic, I have realized how prejudice, stereo-typing, groupthink, hubris and denial make us vulnerable to pursuing a wrong outcome, even when we act with the best of intentions.
This past week I have listened to two podcasts that have helped my understanding of the question as to why this is. The first was by Stephen Dubner. His Freakonomics podcast (episode 379) entitled “How to Change Your Mind” reflects on the fact that “changing your mind means admitting, on some level, that you used to be wrong. It can be seen as an act of weakness, even heresy.”
It is a favoured mantra of mine that to be ethical is not a virtue in and of itself – it is merely the act of complying with a popular version of behaviour defined by society as morally correct; the type of behaviour that others expect of you, encourage you to enact, and will punish you for if you do not comply. For many, it is the unthinking path of least resistance, and over time it stagnates into unquestioned habit. Tragically, we have a predisposition to cling to “approved, tried and trusted” views and behaviours – after all, it is a human trait to seek the comfort and safety of a social group – “our” social group. We defend our group ethics by decrying the mores and norms of others, rather than question our own standards. The reward for perpetuating a myth, or an inaccurate view of the world based less on factual analysis than conventionally repeated viewpoints is high. To go against them can lead to bullying, exclusion, exile, and excommunication from the group we identify with: what price integrity? To seek, discover and review accepted truths, and then to change one’s mind is potentially a costly exercise.
The second podcast I listened to was Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam (May 27, 2019). If Stephen Dubner emphasized the difficulty of communicating across the barriers of social group ethics, Shankar Vedantam made me audibly scoff when he asserted “how the partisan divide in our country (USA) might arise not just from our upbringing and lived experiences, but from biology.” As I mentioned before, however, I try to apply the principle of life-long learning and listened nonetheless; and, yes, I had to adjust my views on gene-based mindsets just a bit. In the end it made sense when he asserted that “liberals and conservatives differ when it comes to how they see threats and danger”, and asked the rhetorical question “When liberals hear (X), what do they hear? When conservatives hear (X), what do they hear?” I already know that we tend to apply selective hearing and analysis to things we see and hear (aka confirmation bias), but is our listening tendency really determined by our DNA? By the end of the interview with John Hibbing, co-author of the book, “Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, And The Biology Of Political Differences” I was convinced that it was an influence.
If we combine initial, genetic predisposition to view the world as one of (say) danger or opportunity, and if we then seek social groupings that support us in this view of the world, and then consider the incentives and disincentives to maintaining or abandoning a particular world view; we can start to understand the enormity of the task that faces us when we try to “educate”, “explain”, or convince by any other means someone who is diametrically opposed to our viewpoint. What follows is partisanship, division and polarization. One group will say about the other that “they just don’t get it” – and it’s as true as the other group responding “what planet are you on?”
As a governance professional and a professor of organisational behaviour – even as a member of what has seemed a collaborative society until the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008/09 – I cannot accept the hypothesis that dysfunctional conflict is a necessary human condition. It has simply been neither my personal experience, nor my observation of a Europe that has been free of wars for an unprecedented period of time and that has, still, a predisposition to consult, collaborate and find compromise.
The essential ingredient for cohesion and progress in organisations and society is the willingness and the ability to listen and to care for each other. This condition requires a culture that empowers the expression of doubt, skepticism, and promotes individual courage to experiment and innovate. Given the right environment, our power of reasoning should still be strong enough to overcome our DNA. As Stanford Professor Sapolsky explained to Stephen Dubner, there is evidence out there that “Every time you learn something, from something profound to something idiotic, something changes in your brain. Every time you have a sensory experience, your brain is constantly rewiring in major ways.” Life-long learning, it appears, is not wasted effort!
If my assertion is that blindly ethical behaviour is the path of least resistance, then daring to challenge perceived ethical standards is a path that requires courage. If we want to discover the point of view that supports the best outcome for ourselves and others, then we must remove, or at least reduce the pain threshold of changing our mind and listening to others with an open mind and heart. Our society and democracy will only thrive if we have a culture that tolerates and embraces views that are alternative to our own. For that culture to be effective, it must be seen to be predictably fair and just. Social systems that perpetuate privilege, accept creeping corruption and seek to impose one view on another, without consideration for the impact on all stakeholders, will destroy any hope of trust and only increase the sense of conflict instead.
For those of us who apparently have the DNA that urges us to reach out and connect with the world, to make allies of potential enemies, this is a great challenge. It is a simple thing for those who seek to isolate themselves and to polarize society to voice overly simplified solutions to complex problems – social media is naturally inclined to repeat and accentuate simple sound-bites. A message of measured collaboration and considered compromise does not lend itself to easy slogans and is easily attacked at its weakest link, the inflection point between opposing arguments – the point of compromise where you show concern for others.
There is hope that we can return to a sense of shared destiny. It is heartening to see how often individuals, free from fear of either harm or group exclusion, can and do behave in ways that show empathy, generosity, even altruism to strangers. Tribes thrive when they perceive external threat and exclusion. Yet, tribes have always succumbed to organized and functional society. Our world works best when all parties seek to integrate and find security in common ground.
That is why we have to persist in trying to reach out and engage with those who hold different views, who have different life experiences and priorities. We can only succeed if we can catch a glimpse of the “promised land”, where we perceive common concerns and interest. For that we need leadership. For the majority of us who are “followers” in the bigger picture, we have to have the courage of our convictions and be leaders on our own smaller, local scale. By common insistence on a more trusting world, we have to create the groundswell of demand for change, and who knows what will happen? Out of an army of small-scale leaders, will big picture leaders emerge? Look around you. Is the next Greta Thunberg standing next to you, or (perish the thought) is your neighbor looking at you to step up? To quote the slogan of the OECD Forum 2019:
What can I do? What can we do? What can we do together?