What Does It Mean to “Change Your Mind”?

Man squints with chalk arrows pointing in all directions behind him

“He changed his mind.”

Or: “I hope she changes her mind.”

Or:  “Maybe you can change his mind.”

“Change your mind.” It’s a simple, everyday statement. It passes without notice. But it contains more profound assumptions than most of us know. It also challenges assumptions many of us hold dear.

“He changed his mind” implies that we are all alone, in the driver’s seat, of our own minds. Nobody can change our minds for us. People cannot be forced or coerced to think differently, or even to think at all.

Take an extreme example. You plan to hold on to the money or credit cards in your wallet or purse. Perhaps you’ll spend the money, or perhaps you’ll simply save it. An armed robber points a gun at you and demands that you hand the money over. Did the armed robber change your mind? No, not really. The armed robber influenced — in fact, altered — your behavior. But your mind hasn’t changed.

In fact, your mind holds on to the previous viewpoint. You still view this money as your own, your purse as your property, and not the armed robber’s. You feel disgust, rage, anger, terror, sadness, or a whole range of emotions after the incident. But none of these emotions have changed your mind. The incident has merely altered your emotional state, which is not the same as changing a core position, i.e. that, “This money is mine.”

Coercion cannot change minds. It can change behaviors, but not minds.

Neither can intimidation. When you threaten (even legally) to do something to another person in order to get him or her to do something they don’t wish to do, you have not changed that person’s mind. You have influenced and possibly altered his or her behavior. But it’s not the same thing as changing a mind.

Let’s say you have a family member whom you’re helping financially. You don’t like the way this family member is living his life. Maybe you think he drinks too much, or that he wastes his time in other ways. You can threaten to withdraw your financial support from him. Indeed, you’re entitled to do so, and it might even be a good thing for you to do so. But it doesn’t mean you’re changing his mind.

If he didn’t see these activities as a waste of time before, he won’t suddenly change his evaluation now. He might alter his behavior, or he might find other ways to finance the things you consider a waste of time, and he does not. The only coherent reason for you to withdraw your money (or verbal endorsement) from this person would be for your own sake. “I don’t want to finance something I consider a waste.” That’s fine, and that’s all you’re entitled to consider.

There is only one way to change another’s mind. That’s through rational persuasion. Rational persuasion consists of using reason, logic, and/or facts to convince another person why his or her position, or action, is somehow mistaken or wrong.

The standard of “right” and “wrong” should also be clearly defined, to make sure you’re on the same page. For example, my standard might be, “rational self-preservation,” while your standard might be, “living for the sake of others, even at the risk of self-sacrifice.” If we hold different standards, we’ll never agree on much; the only thing worth discussing or attempting to persuade about is the standard, which might or might not result in someone’s mind being changed.

A change of mind only occurs within the mind of the person doing the changing. Attempts to manipulate or control other people might be of some limited use, although there are questions (moral and psychological) as to why you wish to do such things. But you’ll never, ever persuade another person of a single thing — never, ever change another’s mind — without the willing agreement, participation and rational consent of the other person.

All of what I’m saying contradicts prevailing conventional wisdom. The dominant schools of psychology, psychiatry and ethics teach us that we don’t control our own minds. They claim it’s genetics, physiology, God, “society,” other people, family of origin, or some other factor that shapes or controls people’s minds. It’s simply not true. Have you ever changed your mind about something without your own consent? Did somebody making you do something (or stop doing something) ever, by itself, convince or persuade you that (by some standard) it wasn’t right or logical for you to do (or stop doing) that thing? Don’t you resent it whenever someone tells you, “Do this because I say so,” rather than, “If it were me, I’d take a different course of action, for this reason…”?

Maybe you’re the kind of person who wants to be told what to do. Maybe you believe, as I’ve heard some people say, “We have to be forced to do things. That’s the only way we’ll end up doing right.” Maybe you can point to examples in your life where people forced (or pressured) you to act a certain way against your will, and then later on you were convinced they were right all along. But it was still you that allowed your mind to change. If they were right all along, you could have stayed resentful about their pressure to get you to change, as many do. It was you who engaged your mind to conclude, “Even though someone else pressured me to change my actions, I now agree those are the right actions.” This is the process of changing your mind — not the moment of intimidation or coercion.

The prevailing “scientific” wisdom these days is that we are all the product of our brain chemistry. In fact, we know far less about brain chemistry and neurology than there will eventually be to know. Yet our contemporary experts lead us to think as if we already know everything there is to know about the brain.

All the same, you have to wonder: Will we ever discover that our brain chemistry is responsible for the actual engagement or self-initiation of thinking, of making up our minds, or changing our minds about anything simple or complex? Does the existence of a brain eliminate the fact that there’s still a willing consciousness utilizing — and initiating the use of — the faculty of that brain? Does the brain wipe out the possibility of free will? At this point in the history of science (including psychology and psychiatry), the answer appears to be “yes.” And many of the unscientific masses have bought it, because they find it convenient and comforting.

If more people grasped that each and every person is the only one who can change his or her mind, the world would be an infinitely better place. The only concern would be how best to rationally persuade. Not as many would resort to force, violence, emotional manipulation, unearned guilt, intimidation and everything else people do to delude themselves (and each other) that people don’t control their own minds. The socialist utopias, the supernaturalist or irrationalist quests for an effortless existence, would all wither away as dominant forces. As a result, life on earth would seem like a utopia compared to the way it is now, because the forces of freedom and reason would be the natural and dominant ones. Violent theocrats would not be on the march as they are now, because they would be rendered impotent by the overwhelming force of reason (and all that reason creates in science, technology and industry) dominant throughout the world.

Of course, people will always have free will and there will always be those who seek violence, coercion or intimidation (whether on the familial or the international level). But those things would not have become the dominant, “normal” trend they’re becoming without the false belief (and fantasy) that’s it’s possible to change people’s minds via means other than the person’s own thoughtful and willing consent.

There’s a lot in a simple everyday expressions we fail to think about, isn’t there?


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