Expert Commentary

People don’t remember changing their minds

People who change their beliefs tend not to recall their initial, opposing beliefs.

The thinker in the gates of hell
(Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / Wikipedia)

People who change their beliefs tend not to recall their initial, opposing beliefs.

The issue: How flexible are peoples’ beliefs? Researchers have long studied the question, to mixed findings.

But provided there’s some room for movement on an issue, how aware are people of their own mental shifts? Whether people can change their minds is one thing; whether people believe they can change their minds is entirely another.

There’s a certain mindset many will find familiar — maybe you’ve encountered it in your know-it-all sister, or perhaps a friend with a penchant for revisionist histories. It follows a simple premise: I’m always right, even when I’m wrong. This cognitive short-sightedness, characterized by an inability to acknowledge a change of mind, might be particularly problematic, researchers at Grand Valley State University suggest.

“If people show little awareness of changes in their own beliefs, they may erroneously conclude that their beliefs are more fixed than they actually are, and consequently may be less willing to engage with information that is contrary to their beliefs,” they write. Through psychology experiments, they sought to identify the prevalence of this practice, which they label “metacognitive awareness of belief change.”

An academic study worth reading:Poor Metacognitive Awareness of Belief Change,” published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, September 2017.

About the study: The researchers conducted two experiments on students at a large, Midwestern university to test their hypotheses about belief change and awareness of this phenomenon. As a baseline, they defined belief as “a statement about the truth value of a proposition.” For the first experiment, the researchers asked 128 subjects about their beliefs on the efficacy of spanking. Then they presented them with texts that either affirmed or refuted their beliefs on the subject. After reading the texts, the subjects shared their beliefs on spanking and recalled their initial views. The second experiment was similar, but added an exercise in which the subjects had to list a variety of beliefs both for and against spanking as a measure intended to analyze comprehension of the texts.

Key findings:

  • For the first experiment, researchers found that subjects who read texts that contradicted their initial views changed their beliefs. The subjects also made errors when recalling their initial beliefs, stating these views were similar to their current beliefs.
  • These findings held for the second experiment. “Subjects changed their beliefs in the direction of the text position, and recollection of their initial beliefs were more similar to post-reading beliefs than to initial beliefs,” the researchers write.
  • In the second experiment, the added condition of argument-listing “did not predict either belief change or recollection accuracy.”
  • To explain their findings, the researchers suggest that people use information at hand when attempting to recall their earlier beliefs.
  • They offer another potential interpretation which suggests that because people might assume their beliefs are static, they are blind to changes when they occur.

Related research:

Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra used under a Creative Commons license.

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