Be sure to mind when you change your mind

The biggest of blindspots spring up when our minds form opinions about our minds. Here the question is: when we change our opinions, are we aware of that fact? The obvious answer is yes; the true answer is hinted at by Goethals and  Reckman’s 1973 experiment:

High school students were asked their opinions on a variety of social issues, including on how children should be bussed to school and whether it would help with racial integration. […]

A couple of weeks later the students were invited back for a further discussion on the bussing issue. This time, though, they were split into two groups, one that was pro- and one anti- the bussing issue. […]

The two groups had separate discussions about the bussing issue, but amongst their number had been planted an experimental confederate. The confederate was armed with a series of highly persuasive arguments designed to change the participant's minds on the issue. Experimenters wanted to turn the pro- group into an anti- group and the anti- group into a pro-group.

The confederates turned out to be extremely persuasive (and/or the students were easy to sway!) and the two groups were successfully turned around.[…]

But what happened when they were asked about this change of opinion?

When compared to a control group who were not involved in the further discussion, neither of the experimentally manipulated groups could accurately remember their original position. […]

First those who were anti-bussing originally recalled their pre-manipulation position as being much more pro-bussing than it actually was. Even more impressively, those who were originally pro-bussing thought they were actually anti-bussing before the experiment. Their recall of their previous position had completely turned around.

 I’ve been thinking on my own opinions, and have now identified a bunch of opinions that changed without me realizing them (mainly in politics). So take a moment today to write down your own opinions, and store them somewhere you’ll rediscover them in a few years. Try and include precise probabilities about your opinions, as mere words can be reinterpreted later on.

And be aware that, in thought experiments involving yourself as a youth, you’ll have even less in common with yourself than you think.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • This has been changed by the Internet. My positions on various issues over the last decade, are on display.

  • Since people are subject to anchoring biases, it isn’t obvious whether folks views are on net more or less accurate if they write down their old views.

  • Happened to me fairly recently but I don’t remember the exact occasion: I said “No way, I never said that, that doesn’t sound like something I would ever say” and then the other person linked to the email.

  • Like Thomas, this is the primary reason I blog.

  • That’s funny!
    I think that the kids were easily persuaded because they are kids…
    that is what i think…. But I dunno… could be wrong like anyone else in the world! lol

  • Ah, yes, the “true change == amnesia” effect. This is almost a truism in the Mind Hackers’ Guild; if you’ve successfully made a REAL change to a belief or the automatic behavior pattern it evokes (as opposed to merely having a vague *intention* to change, or thinking it would be a good *idea* to change), it tends to be followed by amnesia for the old way you responded to things.

    Interesting to hear that it applies to conscious, opinion-type beliefs as well as emotional/unconscious/behavior type stuff.

  • I know that’s happened to me here once or twice, because I actually managed to catch myself in the act of mentally going from “oh, hey, that’s cool!” to “that’s obvious and I already knew that.”

    The specific thing in question was the suggestion about rationalists exchanging likelihoods instead of final probabilities as a way to reach agreement.

    I actually managed to catch myself during that bit of mental shifting and go “NO! This notion is one I hadn’t thought of before. It may be arguably obvious in retrospect, but I still didn’t think of it that way before. At least this time, I’m damn well going to stop myself from doing the whole ‘I knew it all along’ thing when I know that I definitely didn’t!”

  • I agree with Robin. Though increased accuracy may be possible if writing down opinions means you notice changes and actually try to assess why they happened and how legit the reasons are. Smaller (anchored) changes in opinion backed by reasons seem more likely to tend toward accuracy than larger ones not. There is then a trade off in how often you look at your old opinions: often = more influenced by them, rarely = don’t notice when they change until long after, so remember less accurately why they might have changed.

  • Douglas Knight

    If you only look at your old opinions right after recording current ones, I doubt looking at the old ones will have much effect. But that only helps if you know which issues to monitor. Also, writing them in the first place probably anchors you.

  • One particularly bizarre example: I had a crush on somebody online and admitted it to her. The result was pretty awkward, and as a result I gave up on the idea, as well as mostly stopped talking to her. A good while later, I was talking to another friend, and he mentioned that she had told him about me having a crush on her. For a moment, I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about – I’d certainly never had those kinds of feelings towards that person! It took me a while to realize that yes, I’d had.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Since people are subject to anchoring biases, it isn’t obvious whether folks views are on net more or less accurate if they write down their old views.

    Also, writing them in the first place probably anchors you.

    Yep. You should write them down, then forget about them. Easy, right? (and whatever you do, you shouldn’t write a blog post on them…)

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Like Thomas, this is the primary reason I blog.

    Blogging is a good compromise version of this – you avoid anchoring biases simply because you are producing so many opinions a day, that your old posts are quickly forgotten until they are brought to your attention at a later date. Not true for major, well remembered posts, but for the others…

    To all those who blog, do you find there is an anchoring bias for your minor opinions?

  • Dan

    Maybe the “amnesia” is a defense mechanism, otherwise you WON’T be able to change your mind(or be extremely difficult)…After all the contrary opinion is stupid, wrong or even immoral, and if you explicitly remember having held it, you acknowledge all that bad attributes as well which will make shifting opinions and beliefs very difficult.

  • I believe your most valid opinions are formed from actual experiences in the gut. That is the point of experiencing life as opposed to siting on the sidelines, and getting your information from highly persuasive arguments of others.

  • The amnesia isn’t an independent defense mechanism; it’s a side-effect of the fact that memory isn’t built to be a record of facts. Memory is a database used to estimate probabilities. So once you’ve updated data that’s relevant to your future predictions, there’s no reason to store the old predictive model — it would just get in the way.

  • Mikko

    Perhaps there are two ways to change your mind. In first one you realize that both previous theories can be reconciled into one unified theory. In second one you replace one theory with another one.

  • wien s

    Raivo Pommer

    Österreich Krise

    Österreichs Ruf als Schuldner steht auf dem Prüfstand. Die Alpenrepublik will in dieser Woche ihre bis 2014 laufende und 2 Milliarden Euro schwere Staatsanleihe um eine halbe Milliarde Euro aufstocken. Dieser Betrag sollte leicht auf dem Anleihemarkt einzusammeln sein. Allerdings ist Österreich ins Gerede gekommen. Das liegt an der tiefen Rezession in weiten Teilen Osteuropas. Dort haben österreichische Banken Forderungen von 280 Milliarden Dollar – eine Zahl, die dem österreichischen Bruttoinlandsprodukts nahekommt. Wegen der wachsenden Schwierigkeiten osteuropäischer Schuldner, ihre Kredite zurückzuzahlen, sind die Bedenken der Anleger mit Blick auf die Kreditwürdigkeit Österreichs und seiner Banken in den vergangenen Tagen gewachsen.

    Ein Indiz für die Skepsis ist die Renditedifferenz zwischen österreichischen Staatsanleihen und deutschen Bundesanleihen. Noch nie war sie so groß wie derzeit. Für zehnjährige Laufzeiten zum Beispiel beträgt die Differenz fast 1,4 Prozentpunkte. Bundesanleihen rentieren mit 2,9 Prozent, österreichische mit immerhin 4,3 Prozent. Auf dem zu Übertreibungen neigenden Markt für Kreditausfallversicherungen (CDS) ist die Diskrepanz zwischen Österreich und Deutschland sogar noch größer. Die Aufstockung der österreichischen Staatsanleihe ist daher keinesfalls Routine.

  • I believe your most valid opinions are formed from actual experiences in the gut

    @JosephineSouthern: That’s because there are more nerve endings in your gut than there are in your head.

  • angulimala

    I have never changed my mind. I have discovered, however, that I didn’t always know what I really believed until much later.

    For example, I have always opposed Bush. I just didn’t know that when I voted for him in 2000. It took a few more years to realize I had never, ever, supported him.

    [ /snark ]

    Seriously though, I see this kind of reasoning a lot. The people who changed their minds on busing probably felt like this too. “I was always anti-busing deep-down. I just didn’t know that during the time I advocated for busing” and likewise.

    It strikes me as similar to to the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

  • Pingback: On Revisionist Memory()

  • Pingback: On Revisionist Memory | The Thinker()