Why do we find it so hard to change our minds? Why are we so critical of people who do change their minds?
John Adair, the leadership expert, says that the most important (and often the most difficult) sentence for a leader to utter is, ’I admit that I was wrong.’ But on the rare occasions when political leaders change their minds they are accused in the media of flip-flopping, of doing a ‘U-turn’ or of lacking conviction. But there is no value in having convictions if they are for wrong-headed ideas. Joseph Stalin and Robert Mugabe just kept pressing on with the wrong precepts. Their obstinate and single-minded approaches impoverished their peoples. We need leaders who are open to new evidence and who are prepared to change direction.
Part of the problem is that we all suffer from confirmation bias which is the tendency to search for, recall and prefer information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply held positions. It leads us to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting our beliefs. For example, when a mass shooting occurs in the USA proponents of gun control see it as proof of the need for restrictions on gun ownership whereas opponents of gun control see the same incident as evidence for the need for more people to carry guns so as to quickly shoot the assailant. Similarly when there is savage snowstorm some people see it as clear evidence of climate change and others as proof that global warming is a myth.
Confirmation bias leads to overconfidence in personal beliefs despite contrary evidence. In 1992 Rachel Nickell was brutally murdered on Wimbledon Common in London. The police brought in an expert who constructed what he claimed was a psychological profile of the killer. The police found a suspect, Colin Stagg, who walked his dog on the Common and who fitted the profile. There was very little evidence that he had had anything to do with the crime but the police became convinced that he was the murderer and they laid an elaborate ‘honey pot’ plan to encourage him to confess. This did not work but they brought him to trial where the judge threw the case out. Eventually in 2008, Robert Knapper was convicted of the killing of Rachel Nickell. Knapper had been questioned in 1992 but wrongly eliminated. Stagg, who had spent 13 months in custody, was given a public apology and over $1 million in compensation. It is clear that once the police officers became convinced that Stagg was guilty they ignored contrary evidence and confirmation bias set in. They redoubled their efforts to build a case against him.
Let’s consider some people who had the courage to change their minds and thus changed the course of history.
Saul of Tarsus persecuted the early Christians until he had his famous revelation on the road to Damascus. He became a powerful proponent of Christianity and helped build the nascent religion. As St Paul he is revered as one of the greatest Saints.
Constantine was a Roman Emperor who initiated many reforms. He converted to Christianity and stopped the persecution of Christians. Christianity flourished in the Roman Empire.
Mikhail Gorbachev was a dedicated Communist party officer who rose to be leader of the USSR. He saw the many problems of the Russian system and changed his mind, introducing the radical policies of Perestroika and Glasnost. This led to independence for the former Soviet satellite states and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
F. W. De Klerk was the last President of Apartheid South Africa. He had been a strong advocate of apartheid but changed his view and took the courageous decision to release Nelson Mandela and start the transition to a multi-racial society.
We cling to our beliefs because it is easy and comfortable to do so. We conform to the norms of our group and subscribe to the group beliefs and principles. We see this as strong-minded and purposeful. But the world is moving fast and some of our beliefs might be outdated or just plain wrong. We need to be open to different viewpoints and courageous enough to change our minds on important issues. Take Gorbachev and F W De Klerk as your role models – not Stalin and Mugabe.