Saturday, 12 July 2008

Why do people change their minds?

One of the things that has been interesting me lately is why people change their opinion on a given issue. Partly this stems from my own shifting views, particularly on work-related stuff, and in part also from my interest in political defections. Here's some blurb I wrote about this a few months back:

I think the desire for narratives also manifests itself when people radically change their political views. It's notable that when some people's politics change they often seem to go through a wholesale change. We can all think of examples of those formerly some way out on the Left who subsequently became thoroughly right-wing. That is of course absolutely their right, but it is surprising that a number of such people seem to shift their view from Left to Right on each and every issue. It's unlikely that any 'side' is the sole repositery for truth, therefore wouldn't we expect to see more people become unaligned (as they realise that the side they had affiliated with is 'wrong' on certain issues) or simply moderate their views, rather than shift from one pole to another? If people are rationally considering each and every issue we might well expect to find this happen, but if we are principally in the business of buying narratives then maybe it's not surprising to see people chuck out one and replace it with a diffrent one. It's a lot easier than thinking through each issue in detail.

I think this sort of holds together, but I think it needs fleshing out a bit. What I've been thinking about lately is how those big headline beliefs (ie Left vs Right) sit on top of a stack of smaller ideas (what I'm going to call 'prop' beliefs). Now in order to shift fundamentally from one position to another, and for your new position to be sound, I think you must need those prop beliefs to support your big new idea. But how do you acquire them?

Personally, I have shifted a lot in the direction of letting people get on with things rather than trying to direct them centrally, so I'm much more comfortable with markets (in general) than I have been before. In addition I'm much less confident about the degree of control that is possible in any case. But how have I acquired these views?

In large part it is the result of work-related reading, but I can split this into sub-categories. There are areas that I understand well, where I think what I have done is looked at the empirical evidence (ie investment performance figures) and reached a given conclusion. Then there are the bits that I understand less well, where I think I have largely accepted propositions that sound reasonable (probably because they have narrative rationality) and/or because they come with the social proof of being advocated by 'experts'. So these are the prop beliefs supporting my revised perspectives.

Hopefully that all makes sense so far, but what interests me is which comes first, the big ideas, or the prop beliefs? Intuitively the changes in the prop beliefs ought to affect the bigger beliefs that sit on top of them. But going back to my bit of blurb from a previous post, I wonder whether it doesn't sometimes happen the other way around.

Perhaps we don't always acquire our big reliefs rationally by building on top of smaller established prop beliefs. Perhaps (for whatever reason) we acquire the big belief and then rapidly establish the props in our mind required to support it. That would seem to fit more easily with those cases where people switch completely from one perspective to another. In my own case, have I made up my mind to adopt new beliefs, and am now working on the evidence to support them, or do the prop beliefs come first? What's sauce for the goose and all that... Tricky one eh?

Off on a bit of a tangent, I'm always amazed to read pieces arguing that people are afraid to criticise [insert minority group, default option: muslims] for fear of being seen as prejudiced. I'm particularly amazed when I read such articles in national newspapers that regularly run negative articles about minorities. As far I am concerned it is patently false that people are prevented from speaking out, because they seem to do it all the time.

What is also noticeable is that vehemence and self-righteousness with which these claims are made, and I wonder whether that isn't actually a bit of a clue to what is going on. For whatever reason, many people do feel a bit shameful about laying into minorities. However by instituting the prop belief that they are being censored from saying what they want they are able to utilise this to access a feeling of self-righteousness in 'speaking out'. In this example the prop belief would seem to be used to address cognitive dissonance arising from their desire to say something and their desire not to be seen as insensitive/prejudiced.

Or am I talking rubbish?


Nick Drew said...

Rubbish ? surely not, Tom, surely not...

In your first few uses of 'props', I took you to mean pit-props, i.e. an ordered foundation of underpinnings that any structure may require. But towards the end of your post I felt it was rather prop = crutch, i.e. something a lame man leans rather anxiously upon to prevent falling on his face. So - question - which did you mean ? either or both ?

you must need those prop beliefs to support your big new idea. But how do you acquire them?

Well only if you are looking for a rationale: & even if you are (and I've accused you of honesty before), many folk are not !

This said, one traditional approach - e.g. formal conversion into a very structured religion (like Trotskyism) - has been instruction and catechism (& flagellation etc). That's of a piece with the 'Big Idea First' model.

On an a priori basis, you'd perhaps expect scientists to advance from the assembly of props to the Big Idea, but of course many times (most ?) they don't do it this way at all - have you read Sex, Science and Profits?

(And I find this a lot in business. You sell senior management on a new Big Idea first, then lead them by stages to such of the underpinnings, implications and entailments as you think will be helpful ...)

Isn't this latter-day darwinism's insight, that change happens stepwise, joltingly, rather than smoothly ? - and the implications of the shift sort themselves out (or not) as the dust settles.

Some people are more incremental, painstaking, empirical, honest in their approach, and can assemble a new Big Idea. Others need to swallow the new paradigm whole, and digest it at leisure.

Tom P said...

I meant prop as in support, but it's a bit of a rubbish metaphor maybe?

I'm kind of drawn to the divide you suggest between incremental advancement and wholesale (paradigm) shift. But as Ploppy said in Blackadder II there's something in the back of my mind that bothers me about it, but I can't quite nail it yet.

I think this post might have to be filed under 'work in progress'...

That book sounds interesting.

Tom Freeman said...

On your later point, I think that for a lot of beliefs - perhaps especially controversial ones - it's much easier to say "I have every right to believe X, because..." than "I believe X, because..."

Then you get to put yourself on the moral high ground and claim victimhood. It's maybe not so much a prop as a distraction from the lack of props.

Also, if you are a little ashamed about a certain belief of yours, then you're going to be primed to hear criticism of it when what you might actually be getting is mere questioning. So you'll be needlessly defensive.

Tom P said...

Yeah I think shame clearly plays a role. I've just been reading Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought (which is alright) and there's quite an interesting bit near the end where he talks about politeness that I might try and dig out.

Speaking of shame I'm slighty ashamed of this post actually, as it doesn't really hang together at all. Still I'll leave it up and have another go another time.