April 27, 2012 2 Comments
In American politics there is now an embargo on publicly changing your mind. It’s not on the standard oscillation between two positions that were each artificially constructed for political gain, but on forming new views after evaluating new evidence — for example, a staunch law-and-order senator eventually realizing the war on drugs is a failure, or a labor-backed Congressman deciding to support the deregulation of public education.
The smear campaign against taking a new position is unfortunate because there’s nothing wrong with changing your mind. In fact, according to a new study, changing your mind is often a result of being better informed.
People who feel comfortable defending their views—defensively confident—may also eventually change those views and corresponding behaviors. National Election Studies surveys showed that defensive confidence predicted defection in the 2006 U.S. House elections, above and beyond the impact of various demographic and political variables. Moreover, defensive confidence was also associated with political knowledge and attention to politics and government affairs, but not attention to the news.
The connection between being comfortable defending a position and changing that position, initially seems counter-intuitive, but it makes sense if you think about it like this: Possessing knowledge that supports a position makes you more comfortable defending that position. However, because you based your position on knowledge, your position is liable to change when your knowledge changes. On the other hand, people who adhere to a position that’s not based on expertise won’t be as comfortable defending their position, but there is little chance that new knowledge will come along and change their minds. In other words, comfort with a position is associated with changing the position because they are both are driven by the same thing — knowledge.
The rigidness of politicians is frustrating because changing your mind is essentially an act of learning. When you reach a new view it almost always involves knowing something you didn’t know before. To go from believing “My dog is stupid” to “My dog is a genius,” you would need to acquire and make sense of a new information (e.g. “My dog just assembled a ham radio from spare parts”). The message sent by our political system is that there’s no new knowledge out there. No need to even consider something will change your mind.
It’s also frustrating that this “anti-learning” message makes sense from the politician’s point of view. Politicians must pretend they can’t learn because they’re already supposed to know everything. To admit they were once wrong is to tacitly admit there’s a possibly that they might be wrong again. When each campaign is a nuclear arms race of unrealistic guarantees, a single admission of error can be crippling. Perhaps one day in the distant future the media will solve the problem by deciding to make a big fuss whenever a politician says something that’s not supported by recent peer-reviewed research.
Albarracin, J., Wang, W., & Albarracin, D. (2012). Are Confident Partisans Disloyal? The Role of Defensive Confidence in Party Defection Journal of Applied Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2012.00896.x