Quick Summary: It is hard for us to change our beliefs, even in the face of evidence that we are wrong. Yet maintaining cognitive flexibility is important minimizing our suffering and living our best life.
We get to choose what we believe. This cuts both ways— when our beliefs align with reality (and all of us believe this to be the case), we do ok. When our beliefs do not align with reality, it’s hard to be in the world. Nothing seems to work out particularly well. And yet, we are much more likely to try and convince ourselves that it reality that is wrong, rather than our beliefs that need updating.
I illustrate the this sometimes by taking a funny example. Suppose I do not believe in gravity. It is a lie. Gravity is all a conspiracy, but I know better. Now, suppose I try and live as if there is no gravity. I let go of my glass and am shocked! when it falls to the ground. Gravity isn’t real, how could this be? I try and jump over my house, but somehow don’t quite manage to leap 25 feet into the air. What am I to do? I believe, I know, gravity isn’t real! Well, I have options: One, I can continue to live my life as though gravity isn’t real. Perhaps not a great idea, but it is an option. Two, I can make up increasingly elaborate belief systems about why my glass falls to the ground, even though gravity isn’t real. It’s not gravity that’s making it fall, its invisible aliens that are pulling it to the ground. Or three, I can update my belief system. Perhaps, in light of the evidence in front of me, gravity is, in fact, real. I can admit I was wrong about gravity, and change my tune.
The thing is, as humans, we first try option one, reluctantly attempt option two, and generally avoid option three. Changing our mind is challenging for several reasons, often stemming from cognitive, emotional, and social factors.
Cognitive dissonance refers to the psychological discomfort or tension that arises when we hold contradictory beliefs, attitudes, or values, or when our behavior conflicts with their beliefs. It occurs when there is an inconsistency between two cognitions, which can include thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors (gravity doesn’t exist, yet objects do, in fact, fall). This inconsistency creates a state of discomfort, leading us to experience cognitive dissonance. When faced with cognitive dissonance, we try to reduce or eliminate the discomfort by reconciling the inconsistency.
We have a tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs and opinions while disregarding or downplaying contradictory evidence. This bias makes it challenging to consider alternative viewpoints and can create a psychological barrier to changing one’s mind. In the gravity example, I could point to the fact that I airplanes as proof that gravity is not real. I could demonstrate that when I throw a ball, it first rises, and how could that possibly be consistent with gravity? I seek out and fixate on the information that supports my belief, and disregard the rest.
Our beliefs can also be anchors for our identity, and our belief system can be part of how we define ourselves. I’m one of the enlightened ones that realizes gravity isn’t real. Our beliefs are often intertwined with our emotions and personal values. These beliefs can provide a sense of identity, purpose, and security. Changing deeply held beliefs can be emotionally challenging, as it may require letting go of a part of our self-identity and facing uncertainty or emotional discomfort. Changing our minds can feel like a threat to our sense of self and create emotional unease. This emotional attachment to our beliefs can make it challenging to objectively evaluate new information and consider alternative perspectives.
Our social circle often shares our beliefs, and when we try and change them, we risk social consequences. All of my friends know gravity isn’t real. If I decide gravity is real, they will not want to hang out with me anymore. Changing our minds can be socially challenging, as it may lead to disagreement, criticism, or exclusion from the group. The fear of social consequences can create resistance to changing our opinions and maintaining the status quo. We sometimes seek reassurance or validation from others who share their beliefs or attitudes. By surrounding ourselves with like-minded individuals, we minimize the exposure to dissenting viewpoints that may generate cognitive dissonance.
So, how do we maintain mental flexibility? How do we avoid becoming certain that gravity is a hoax?
Perhaps the most important idea is to embrace uncertainty. Recognize that change is constant and that it is natural for things to evolve and shift. Embracing uncertainty allows you to approach new situations with curiosity rather than fear or resistance. Related this, maintain humility. When you hold your perspectives lightly, you are more open to seeing things as they are, rather than as your beliefs say they are.
Consider challenging your own beliefs and assumptions. Actively question what you know to be true. Engage in self-reflection and consider the basis of your beliefs. Seek out opposing viewpoints and evaluate them with an open mind. Ask yourself, could I be wrong? Be willing to modify or let go of beliefs that no longer serve you or align with new evidence or experiences.
When faced with challenges or setbacks, consciously reframe your thoughts to find alternative perspectives or interpretations. Instead of viewing a situation as a failure, consider it as an opportunity for growth or learning. Adopting a positive and flexible mindset can help you navigate difficulties more effectively. This is related to the idea of noticing, challenging, and updating the narrative.
When was the last time you changed your mind about something? When was the last time you realized you were wrong about a person, an idea, or a situation?
I’d like to end with a challenge: every day, try and find something about which you were wrong. I find this to be a helpful exercise to keep me humble (I’m wrong a lot), and to help me stay close to the idea that my perception is often wrong. Recognizing our errors is a skill, and like any skill, it that gets easier the more we practice it. The more often we recognize we are wrong, the more cognitively flexible we get, and the easier it is to see that maybe, just maybe, gravity is real after all.