Opinion

Why it's so hard to change our minds

Simone Richardson on trying to break free of groupthink

Jonathan Haidt is one of the most sought-after speakers in the world. A university professor of social psychology, Haidt applies his understanding of “moral foundations” to politics. His analysis of voting, ideology and personality are fascinating.

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Haidt’s ideas are built on a dual-process theory of cognition, whereby our brains are understood to have two systems of reasoning: System 1, for fast, unconscious, non-verbal, instinctual respondings; and System 2, for slow, conscious, language-dependent, abstract and effortful thought. Haidt’s understanding of the interplay between these two systems is best seen in his elephant and rider metaphor: A small person is riding a very large elephant. The rider (representing System 2 – our conscious reasoning) may imagine that she is in charge, but it is the elephant (System 1 – our automatic and intuitive processes) which is ultimately making the decisions.

Human beings are not primarily rational creatures.

System 2 is so controlled by System 1 that often when we think we are reasoning, we are just moving the reins in the direction the elephant has already decided to travel. For human beings are not primarily rational creatures. We are social and emotional. Our judgments on how we will act and what is right and wrong are more based on automatic processes – our moral intuitions – than on conscious reasoning.

One of the most powerful of our moral intuitions is our need to be part of a group. Over the centuries it has been our capacity to form groups and cooperate within these groups that has ensured our survival. Haidt argues that when confronted with an idea, our System 1 minds quickly assess whether it will affect our membership in a group that’s important to us. We will intuitively look with favour upon ideas that will solidify our group membership and feel bias against ideas which will threaten it. System 2 will then come into play and find rational reasons to support the decision that System 1 has pretty much already made. Our minds will play up the reasonableness of any argument supporting our System 1 view, and downplay the strengths of any opposing arguments.

Changing our minds is not impossible, but it is relationally costly

Moving from our intuitive response to a contrary opinion on a high-stakes issue is as effortful – and generally as successful – as a small rider trying to steer a large stubborn elephant. Changing our minds is not impossible, but relationally costly, so our instincts fight against it.

Haidt’s research has made him an insightful and moderating voice in US politics. He has been arguing for humility on both sides, challenging people to fight the self-justifying irrationality that comes from party loyalty. Haidt was once an ardent Democrat but now considers himself a centrist in US politics. Accordingly, many Democrats regard him as a traitor.

While Haidt is not a Christian and does not particularly address the church, his ideas speak to the chasms in Australian evangelicalism as much as they do to divided America. Over the years, that group of Australian Christians has warred over baptism, the Lord’s supper, church governance, miracles, biblical inerrancy, pacifism, temperance, manifestations of the Spirit and corporate worship. These days, the most divisive issues tend to concern gender roles and sexuality.

Those who question them are seen as weak, suspicious or even dangerous.

Disagreement isn’t bad in itself. Over the centuries it has been the challenge of differing views that has caused Christians to search the Scriptures and over time, come to find nuance, clarity and consensus on complex issues. The devastation to unity comes from the tendency Christians can have to gather and form tribes around the subjects of our disagreement. It has not been enough for us to identify ourselves as being in Christ, belonging to him and his church. We’ve also needed to be of all sorts of other things.

We align ourselves with those who share our views and our personal identity and acceptance becomes wrapped up in that group. Those who hold group opinions most strongly rise in status. Those who question them are seen as weak, suspicious or even dangerous. At this point, changing our opinions – or even seeing any good in opposing views – becomes difficult. Our System 1 minds recognise the importance of our group membership, and so stop us from seriously considering other ideas. We might appear to be studying Scripture, but our work will be self-justifying.

What then, is the answer? Does the work of Haidt prove that our logic is fatally flawed and truth is unknowable? Not at all. On a natural level we can take heart from the research which shows that awareness can be powerful. When we understand how our minds work, reinforcing some opinions and blocking out others, we are in a position to challenge our instincts and force System 2 to wake up. The rider can grow and the elephant can shrink. It will take effort, but the great beast that is our emotions and their need for group acceptance can be tamed – but generally not while we are tightly bound in groups.

While we have firm opinions, we don’t have an allegiance to one side.

A Facebook friend and I disagree on a host of issues. On some of these we have never been able to have a productive debate. But on baptism, we’ve been able to have reasonable discussions. He’s shown me the scriptural evidence for his view. I’ve accepted that he has some good arguments. I’ve shown him passages that support my view. He’s listened. I haven’t convinced him yet, and he hasn’t convinced me, but we’ve gone away calm, friendly and sharper.

I suspect that in generations past, my friend and I could not have done that. Back then, the issue of baptism was a team identifier. These days, while we have firm opinions, we don’t have an allegiance to one side. On other issues, however, we are members of warring tribes. In order to have productive discussions on divisive issues, we need to step outside of, or at least loosen our ties with our groups. Haidt is pessimistic about the chances of this often happening, but as Christians, we have reason not to be.

God can give us the humility, commitment and courage to set aside group loyalties

Many of us have vivid stories of how God took us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of light. We can tell how God changed our allegiances and made us desire Jesus above everything else. God enabled us to separate ourselves from our worldly identities, step into his church and call ourselves Christians. And God can continue to work such miracles today.

He can cause us to step out of our Christian factions and find our identity in him alone. Before we read the Bible we can pray that God will give us understanding. We can ask that the safety and security and status that we find in him will overpower that which we find in our groups. God can give us the humility, commitment and courage to set aside group loyalties and really read his word.

Simone Richardson is a songwriter and Christian commentator.

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