Can you recall a time that you believed something fundamentally different than you do now? Most people can’t—at least not off the top of their heads. But let it sit for a minute, think it through, and in a few minutes or a few days or a few months, something will probably come to you. Maybe something big. Maybe you’ll wonder how you forgot such a dramatic change.
If you did forget, you’re not alone; and if you think you didn’t, you’re probably wrong. We all do; we rewrite our mental narratives of who we are to exclude contradictory ideas and erase old beliefs. This is because high-stakes beliefs have implications for our worldview, our self-worth, and our identities. Often these beliefs are so ingrained that we forget they are beliefs. We accept them as unquestioned truths and guard them jealously from criticism, especially our own. These are the entrenched ideas of our selves and our discourse both.
But what if they’re wrong?
It’s a safe bet that you believe at least one fundamentally wrong thing. Chances are equally good that you cannot name that thing, and that if challenged you will vehemently defend it. You may not even notice that you are doing it.
Climate change. Evolution. Gun control. GMOs. Abortion rights. Vaccines and autism. LGBTQ rights. Social security. Affirmative action. Police violence. School vouchers. The Affordable Care Act. Racism. Feminism. Alternative medicine. Free markets. Foreign aid. Immigration.
Do you feel a tightening in your chest, a guardedness in your thinking? Does something on that list raise your hackles? Or do you feel a more insidious unease? I do. I pride myself on having radically changed my mind on three of the things on that list, and yet there are others that I glance past a little too quickly. “Don’t think about that one. Let’s focus on this next one, it’s safer.”
Most of us don’t like to change our minds. Being wrong is uncomfortable. It’s irritating. It’s humiliating. We hold out as long as possible, and, when forced to change, we often pretend our old view never happened.
Changing your mind is also painfully slow. I said I had changed my mind about three of the things on that list, and I have, dramatically—but over a year in the shortest instance, and five years in the longest. There was no shining light on the road to Damascus. There was no article in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal that led to a sudden shift. There was no conversation with a good, articulate friend who showed me the errors in my thinking.
Actually, many years ago, there was a conversation, and I remember it well because I was wholly unconvinced. At the time, I did not believe in the theory of evolution, and my closest friend was doing her very best to explain it to me. She framed and reframed and supported and rephrased, all the while getting more and more frustrated. I, serenely certain in my viewpoint, listened and replied with all the quiet force of that wrongheaded certainty. I was internally baffled that my apparently convincing arguments were making no headway, but it didn’t occur to me to wonder why her arguments were having no affect upon me.
In retrospect, my views on evolution were predicated on a total lack of knowledge about the subject. They consisted entirely of soundbites and nonsense arguments gleaned from like-minded media. “Of course I believe in evolution within species,” I said knowingly, “just not between species.” The level of intricate nonsense the mind can produce is sometimes astounding to me, and it wasn’t even the right preposition.
It seems incredible to me now that I could have been so certain and so wrong at the time, especially because I have since come round the other side of the Dunning/Krueger effect and learned some basic things about evolution, like what it is and how it works. Mostly I have listened to smarter people than I discuss the issue and gleaned what I can from their ideas.
Although my friend didn’t convince me, she did one very important thing: she modeled for me the coexistence of my general worldview, which we shared, and her views on evolution, which we clearly didn’t.
I had believed those two were in conflict, though I didn’t acknowledge that, and as a consequence I hadn’t bothered to look closely at evolution before taking a position. The viewpoint was part and parcel of a worldview, so I hadn’t adopted it consciously. Instead I assumed it, supported it with nonsense when challenged, and didn’t worry about the details. But my friend showed me that the worldview and the viewpoint could be divorced, that one need not imply the other, and that I could keep the one and discard the other if I so chose.
I like to think I have learned from this experience—to do my homework, to trust the evidence over my inclinations, and to be more aware when the little voice says “No, let’s not look at this one too closely.” I like to think I have learned to hold no beliefs that are immune from criticism, and to criticize my own ideas. Of course I haven’t entirely—but I’ve learned to want to, anyway.
I think the biggest thing to consider is that being wrong need not be a bad thing. It’s intriguing. No, it’s exhilarating. Being wrong, and discovering I am wrong, and changing my view, is one of the most useful things I can recall doing. Knowing I was wrong means I learned something new. And since I want to engage with ideas and I want to learn, that means being wrong is valuable.
When being wrong is valuable, we don’t need to rewrite our memories and forget that we used to think differently. We don’t need to hide the discontinuity to maintain self-worth. Instead of considering old viewpoints a badge of shame, we can wear them as a badge of honor. We can model the willingness to change our minds to the people around us, and we can remind ourselves to question our entrenched ideas.
And when someone tells us we are wrong, we can remind ourselves to really listen.