Jeremy Côté



Often, we fear changing our minds on ideas because we don’t want to seem like we aren’t solid in our opinions and beliefs. It’s as if we think people will dislike us because we don’t stick with our beliefs when they are challenged. In popular culture, there’s no better example than politicians in debates, who will never sway from their beliefs1.

But it’s not just in the mainstream media. Scientists do this, too. One only has to look at the complicated geocentric model of the solar system from Ptolemy to see how we aren’t tempted to ever leave our beliefs. Or by looking at the Pythagoreans, who only considered whole numbers (or ratios of whole numbers) as “proper” in mathematics, effectively shutting out rational numbers from ever seeing the limelight.

But this is exactly the opposite of what should happen.

Follow this line of thinking: Imagine you’re beginning to learn a new subject at school. At first, you have absolutely no clue about anything in the subject. As the class begins, you begin to form mental models about the concepts that are discussed to you. You extrapolate from what the teacher is saying to make assumptions about other applications of the idea.

The next class comes, and the teacher talks about the concept you had been thinking about earlier. However, you are surprised to learn that your idea of the concept wasn’t quite correct. Instead, there were other factors that you hadn’t taken into account, which renders your mental model incorrect.

Once the class finishes, do you go up to the teacher and say that they have it all wrong? Or do you take what the teacher just taught and incorporate it into your model, fixing what was wrong?

If you want to learn, you’re definitely picking the latter. It’s the rational option, since you’ve learned something new. As such, it makes sense that you’d change your mental model.

After all, the former option isn’t smart. You’re trying to defend assumptions you’ve made versus actual proof from a teacher2. Therefore, you’re setting yourself up for ignorance, versus actually learning a new idea.

The big problem is that trying to maintain one idea with an unwavering belief is a recipe for stagnation. Case in point: Back in 2007 when Apple unveiled the iPhone, BlackBerry wasn’t particularly concerned, infamously saying, “These are computer guys. They’re not just going to walk in here and solve the phone riddle.” (Link). We all know that the iPhone flourished, while BlackBerry steadily lost marketshare, in large part because they did not want to change their beliefs. As a result, they stagnated.

These are just a few examples, but plenty can be found in so many domains throughout history. Unwillingness to change their beliefs resulted in bad things for those people. By not keeping an open mind, they halted any potential for growth.

So now that we know what happens to these people, why in the world does this continue to occur? Surely people would see the evidence and try to change for the better?

I can’t resist, so here’s my three-word answer: global climate change.

The best reason that I can find why people don’t like changing they’re ideas is because they become attached to them. Particularly in the scientific community, original ideas are the currency. If you have an original research idea, you have a potential ticket to continued funding. As a result, people can get emotionally attached to an idea, not wanting to let it go even when most evidence points against it. While this is prevalent in science/academia, it also appears in every other domain. People like their own ideas, and so aren’t particularly happy about changing them.

Therefore, we have to be open to new ideas and perspectives if we want to be lifelong learners and grow in our areas of interest. Clinging to our ideas is only a mechanism that tries to protect our pride and make us look “resolute”. Instead, we should worry about being blind to new and brilliant ideas because we are entrenched in our old world views. If we do this, we can create the habit of absorbing information, and then analyzing.

What this means is keeping an open mind to everything. By all means, call an idea “terrible” if it is so. However, you should give every idea the benefit of the doubt until you’ve understood it. Or, at the very least, try to keep yourself versed in other perspectives, so you can always be testing your ideas and perspectives against the others. That’s the key, in the end. We should be concerned with finding the best ideas at the time, and working with those, no matter who they come from.

As people that are interested in learning and becoming the best in our domains, we should not fear change. We should fear staying rooted in old and outdated ideas, simply because we’ve become emotionally attached to them.

In the end, being fickle and willing to change your mind isn’t a bad thing. It’s the sign of a smart person on a path for lifelong growth.

  1. Personally, I don’t see how we can continue calling these events “debates”. In my eyes, a debate means a place in which one party should present arguments that are so strong that they sway their opponent. However, this obviously never happens. 

  2. I’m not saying that teachers are always right and students’ assumptions are always wrong. However, when a proof is given that is rock solid and contradicts your mental model, that is when it is better to listen to the teacher. While making mental models is a good exercise, they tend to not be the most accurate, and so are often changed.