Are We Getting Worse At Changing Our Minds?
I used to think "yes", but now I STILL think "yes"
There are two big problems with changing your mind. The first is that you have to acquire new information, and I’m sure we can all agree: Fuck that. I’m a busy guy; I have Funyons to eat and video games to play. I’m not going to pore through Economist articles and peer-reviewed research — or even Huffington Post articles and tweets from actors — trying to gather data when I already have an opinion. That’s just a hassle.
The second problem is that you have to admit that you were wrong. Admitting that you’re wrong is probably the most painful human experience that doesn't involve testicular trauma; I think humans are hard-wired to avoid it. In 1985, my dad bought a Betamax player, and no amount of subsequent developments could get him to admit that he made the wrong call. Well into the ‘90s, when the Beta section at our local Blockbuster had withered to just Tron and Tim Conway’s Dorf on Golf series, my Dad still argued that VHS was a fad and that he was some sort of Vonnegut-esque sane-man-in-a-mad-world figure.
Adapting your opinion to changing conditions is hard, but necessary. Clinging to outdated heuristics leads to bad decision-making; Noah Smith recently wrote about how “last war brain” is causing some on the left to reach faulty conclusions about inflation and Ukraine. It does seem to me that this type of thinking — or rather non-thinking — is currently more common on the left. Of course, I might just feel that way because: 1) I run in lefty policy circles, and 2) The GOP’s policy apparatus is like Toyota’s sewing machine division: Still technically around, but not exactly crucial to the operation. Regardless, I think it’s worth thinking about why outmoded thinking is so pernicious and why it might be becoming more common.
There are three big topics where the unwillingness of some on the left to update their assumptions makes me want to jump into a volcano: 1) Covid, 2) Nuclear power, and 3) Race.
When Covid hit, I was firmly in the “we must take this very seriously” camp. I sewed a mask, I washed my groceries, I cheered during the 7PM hospital shift change even though there were no hospitals near me, so we were just a bunch of weirdos yelling out of windows. My abiding memory of that time is finding Times Square abandoned except for the Naked Cowboy, at which point I realized how devastating the pandemic was going to be for the semi-nude Western-themed troubadour industry.
But that was then. It’s two years later, and we have vaccines, better treatments, and more knowledge about the relative effectiveness of air circulation and the relative ineffectiveness of other measures. And yet, some on the left seem determined to stay in emergency mode forever. The New York Times still regularly runs ominous stories about Covid’s ever-present danger, and Twitter is full of people who act like they’re living in I Am Legend. Thankfully, this attitude isn’t very common among actual Democratic elected officials, but politicians who lift restrictions and encourage normalcy risk blowback from people who treat the directional arrows at grocery stores like the only thing standing between us and Armageddon.
Nuclear power is another area where it seems that no amount of new evidence will change some people’s minds. In the late ‘60s, the anti-nuclear weapons movement began to oppose nuclear power, and say what you will about the link between nuclear weapons and nuclear power (I’d say “there basically isn’t one”), the risk/reward calculus back then was very different. Nuclear power involves risk, and nobody in the ‘60s knew about climate change. But now, climate change is a global threat, and refusing to consider nuclear power seems a lot like a starving person finding a sandwich and thinking “oh, but the carbs!” When Homer Simpson called nuclear power “the cleanest, safest energy source there is” 32 years ago, that was a joke, but now it’s pretty much true (and the subsequent joke about solar being a pipe dream is now not true).
Race is another topic where some people seem determined to stay in the ‘60s. I feel like liberals fell into a bit of a trap on racial issues; racism was so common several decades ago that it was almost impossible to overstate its prevalence. You could pretty much close your eyes, point randomly, and say “that’s racist”, and you’d probably be right. But times have changed, and while there’s still much progress to be made, we’re not living in the white supremacist hellscape that some progressives imagine. People who cling to outmoded 1960s views of race relations end up pushing a narrative that’s universally degrading: In their story, white people are evil oppressors, Black and Native American people are helpless victims, and Hispanic and Asian people — who are now about a quarter of the country — barely exist. The narrative is like a Don Rickles routine in that it’s insulting to literally everyone.
Obviously, the problem goes far beyond these three topics. People are stuck in the past in all sorts of ways; whenever I hear Elizabeth Warren speak, I wonder if she suffered some sort of brain injury that keeps her locked in the 2008 financial crisis the way Liz Lemon’s brother was perpetually stuck in high school. And, though conservatives often elevate being stuck in the past to a high art form, most of the conservative beliefs that spring to mind that defy obvious evidence — climate change denial, the Laffer Curve, being anti-vax — were never true. It might be easier to shed a belief that was never true; that belief never went through a rational vetting process that produced a well-reasoned conclusion. In contrast, some beliefs get all the way through a rational person’s vetting process, get stamped with a big, red “TRUE”, and then become untrue with time. But the person won’t figure that out unless they run their beliefs through the vetting process again, which is an annoying hassle.
Clearly, beliefs are like driver’s licenses: They need to be renewed from time to time. Are we getting worse at doing that? I’m not sure; societal trends that lack data are hard to track. But it feels like we’re getting worse, and I can point to a few trends that have empirical backing and spin a coherent narrative about why our views might be getting less flexible.
The first trend is polarization. I probably don’t need to spend many words making the case that we’re polarized; the fact that Americans no longer agree on anything is the only thing we agree on. Go read Ezra Klein’s book if you want, but I’ll give you the upshot: We’re polarized as shit. There: I just saved you 12 hours and $17.99.
In a polarized world, we’re less likely to encounter differing viewpoints. A no-longer-true belief can sit in our brains, unchallenged, for a longer period of time. Worse yet, more homogenous social circles mean that there’s a bigger societal reward for agreement and a bigger penalty for dissent. Consider how decisively the incentive arrows point away from challenging your beliefs in that environment: If you go through the hassle of reconsidering a belief, then either A) The belief is true and you wasted your time, or B) The belief isn’t true, and now you’re going to get called a moron and a heretic by your friends. What a shitty set of outcomes! As a very wise supercomputer from an ‘80s movie once said: “The only winning move is not to play.”
The media’s addiction to rote narratives might also encourage mental stagnation. I’ve written about this before: I think the fragmented media landscape, the shift towards subscriber-based models, and eroding professional norms have led to more media outlets suffering from audience capture. Phrased another way: We in the media figure out what our audience wants and then give them that thing over and over again. We feed our audience red meat like a zookeeper tossing severed antelope haunches into an alligator’s gaping maw. If people believed that cupcakes were sentient beings with rich inner lives, there would be a cable news network, 50 podcasts, and the zombie corpse of a legacy media publication spouting that view non-stop within a matter of days. We will tell you literally anything you want to hear because we can get rich that way.
Once an unscrupulous news organization finds a narrative their audience likes, they have every incentive to keep pushing it. They’ll only stop if their audience stops believing the narrative, but how would that happen? The media organization controls the narrative. They can omit nuance and counterarguments and other information that might make their audience question whether what they believe is true. This allows them to use the same narratives in perpetuity. It can work — consider that Bewitched did 254 episodes where the plot was “uh oh, someone might figure out that Sam is a witch!” NPR’s Code Switch can do at least that many episodes about how everything you’ve ever seen, interacted with, or thought about is a sign of white supremacy.
We’ve essentially built a system with no brakes. Media organizations are supposed to convey facts and information, but many don’t; they just push narratives. This makes people less likely to question whether their beliefs are true, so they seek out media that confirms their worldview. In the digital age, they’re sure to find it. And so, the cycle of comfortable dumbassery continues in an ideologically charged environment where uncomfortable facts fear to tread.
Is this happening? I don’t know; I feel like I’d have to be a million people living three lifetimes each to have a real grasp of the trend-lines. Nor is there any data that I’m aware of to give us a clear picture. But, as they say: It may not be a true story, but it’s true that is a story.
The Keynes quote at the beginning of this article — which he didn’t say, even the first part — suggests that intellectual stubbornness has been a problem for at least a while. But regardless of whether it’s increasing or decreasing, it’s definitely bad. Opinions should be tailored to facts, and facts change. Constantly updating our beliefs is a hassle — it’s like the pain-in-the-ass upkeep that we do with our bodies, but for ideas — but it remains extremely necessary.