When should you change your mind?
Inspired by a question asked on Twitter by Zach Weinersmith, I’m giving some thought to how, why and when we should change our beliefs.
First, it’s helpful to categorize our beliefs. Ultimately there are only two categories of beliefs that matter: those that change your behavior in some way, and those that don’t. For instance, let’s say you currently believe that eating spiders would kill you. Even if I were to convince you that it won’t, you might go on not eating spiders just because you find the idea disgusting. In that case, your belief that spiders are deadly when eaten is a zero-impact belief; it doesn’t change your behavior.
A high-impact belief is one that heavily affects your behavior. If you sincerely switch to being an ethical vegan, you’re likely to change a lot about your life. Certainly your diet, but maybe a host of related behaviors as well.
“Actions speak louder than words,” so one way to measure whether a belief is sincerely held is whether it actually changes someone’s behavior. I can say “I care about animal cruelty” all day, but if I don’t change a thing about my diet or behavior, you’re probably safe to guess that I’m not sincere.
For better or worse, people care about how their beliefs are perceived by others. You not only want to have your beliefs respected by those you respect, but you also want to be taken seriously. If all your peers are vegans, that might make you want to be a vegan as well – and if you become a vegan, you certainly want your peers to believe in your sincerity in the adoption of that lifestyle.
In addition to the actions a belief requires today, people often want to signal to their peers a credible, long-term commitment to those ideals. If you care about being perceived as a vegan, then you also probably care that people believe that you’ll remain one for some time – that your beliefs are solid, not mercurial. It’s easy to signal your current devotion to veganism by not eating meat today, but how do you give the impression that you’ll remain that way tomorrow and ten years from now?
One of the ways people do that is to attach their initial devotion to a belief to some significant event. If you just wake up one day and decide to be a vegan, your peers might assume that you could wake up some other day and decide that you’re not. But if you don’t claim to be a vegan until you go on a month-long backpacking trip through Africa and have a profound experience where you “find yourself” or something like that, then you give the impression that only an equally-profound experience in the opposite direction could shake you from your new worldview.
I find this to be a disturbing trend for a variety of reasons.
One: You should arrive at your beliefs due to logic and reason, not emotional bias. Whether you’re using the “spiritual journey” as an excuse to signal or you really did come to that new belief because you “found yourself,” you should give serious thought to researching that new position or belief in a serious way before committing to great change. It’s definitely good to explore new beliefs and ways of thinking, but do it with sound purpose.
Two: Anecdotal data sucks. Let’s say I get mugged by a man in a green hat, and I’m injured during the mugging and almost lose my life. That’s a profound experience! But if my conclusion from it is “Men in green hats aren’t to be trusted; we should arrest them all and ban green hats while we’re at it,” then my thinking is seriously flawed. My solitary experience with a man in a green hat isn’t in any way indicative of any broader trends, even though it may feel that way to me at the time.
Three: You shouldn’t make it hard for your future self to change your future mind. Don’t wrap your whole identity inside a single belief, because then you leave yourself no exit strategy if you turn out to be wrong. Imagine after the Green Hat Mugging, I not only proclaim my hatred of people in green hats, but I signal my devotion to this belief in increasingly permanent ways: I post loudly on the internet about my belief, and make new profiles on social media sites with names like GreenHatHater19, I put “GREEN HATTERS MUST DIE” bumper stickers on my car, and I even tattoo some similar logo on my body. Then later someone confronts me with incontrovertible evidence that the green hat thing was a fluke, and in no way do green hats indicate criminal proclivity. Do you think I’ll be easily swayed? Will I suddenly abandon all that identity?
Not a chance. People don’t just hold beliefs; they barricade themselves inside beliefs. They climb inside them like they were bomb shelters and fortify themselves against anything that might sway them. Don’t be that person.
Give yourself room to grow. Leave your back doors open. Change your beliefs gracefully when the evidence calls for it. Don’t hate others for their beliefs, even if you sincerely believe they’re wrong. At best, your reasonableness will sway them to your side, and at worst, you’ll be respected and welcomed if it turns out you were the mistaken one. And leave yourself lots of room in your world for multiple beliefs that don’t have to be right or wrong.
When you encounter the profound, just enjoy it.