Why is it so Hard to Change Someone’s Mind? (part 3 of 3)

This is the third in a series of three. The Collection of a person’s knowledge and experience is an interlocked network of specific packets of information and memories each being what I am calling a “schema”. These are stored in an interlocked set of neural networks, which are stored in the human brain, which is yet another system nested inside the human body system, nested inside the ecological and social systems in which that body resides.

My take-away is a person’s worldview (all they know and how they make sense of it in the context of their life) is an extremely complex set of interlocked systems nested in complex interlocked systems. The more you can visualize the complexity of these interlocked systems, the easier it is to understand why changing them is difficult as they are all interconnected.

All systems “prefer” to stay at a stable, unchanging state and only shift to a new state of equilibrium with the input and use of significant energy. Systems don’t “like” to change–be they human mind/body systems, mechanical systems, or social systems. This includes what we know and how we learn. But, why is this so?

The concept of learning and the learner as being “Tabula rasa” is incorrect. Human’s are not a blank slate. Or, to use a more modern metaphor, a blank hard drive to simply be filled up with new information. Everything that is taken in by the learner is filtered through, and eventually connected, to the interlocked network of existing schema in the human brain. This impacts how the learner understands that new experience or information and what one does with that new schema. They can take it in as presented and adjust their worldview, modify it to fit their pre-existing worldview, or simply dismiss it.

The story of how the human brain receives, stores, catalogs, and then recalls and makes sense of new information (so changes its mind) is a story of two brains: The lower, or unconscious, and upper, or conscious. Information enters the lower brain and immediately the thalamus makes a judgment of validity of the input. Is it worth paying attention to considering the current situation of the mind/body? If yes, then it goes to the amygdala and hippocampus to determine if it fits in an emotional or factual context.

At this point, however, if the learner is in an emotional state of distress, the amygdala short-circuits the rest of the pathway, limiting your ability to form long-term memories with that particular schema and instead puts you into flight or fight mode. The lower brain has a much longer evolutionary history than the upper brain, so it’s first fight or flee to survive, and only then analyze and learn from it. I think it is safe to say, that a significant portion of our population are currently living in a state of extreme emotional distress. Here’s a flow chart mapping out the pathway of that “schema.”

I like to think of the process of forming new or changed memories with this metaphor. Imagine that there is some mold and mildew that has appeared on the ceiling above the shower. If you simply paint over that spot with new white paint, within a couple of weeks the mold and mildew will grow back through the new paint in a couple of weeks. When you learn something new, if you do not purposefully and properly correct previous misconceptions and place that new schema into the right context of your evolving worldview, the new will eventually fade away and be forgotten. The prior knowledge will simply come back and retake its place in your long-term memory. When you repaint a bathroom, you must use primer that adequately kills the pre-existing mold and mildew.

To understand why the emotional memories and context so often override new “factual” information, I like another metaphor from Jonathan Haidt. He likens the operation and decision-making process of the human mind as like an elephant and a rider. The rider is the controlled processes–the analytical or upper brain. The elephant is the automatic processes–the lower brain. You can already see who’s really in control of this situation.

Now, imagine you are leading a group of tourists riding elephants (but please don’t ever do this) and one of the elephants and rider continue to go down a different path. The reality is that when riding an elephant, no matter what the rider wants or thinks it should do, a stubborn elephant who has made up its mind will choose the path to follow. So as the rider, or the leader of this voyage, you must appeal to the elephant first. You must provide subtle nudges and incentives for the elephant to choose the path you want, or simply change the pathway itself so the elephant wants to choose the desired path (for the rider). The rider is simply not strong enough to just make the elephant do what it is told.

Such as it is with a person’s established worldview. Appealing to the rider is progressively less and less effective the more agitated and stressed the elephant. I think that most of us are riding around on pissed-off elephants. The more we yell at each other’s elephants, the more obstinate they become, until it is all just indecipherable noise further agitating the elephant. We’ve locked ourselves into a positive, self-reinforcing feedback loop. Eventually, our elephant/rider combination arrives at decisions about the economy, the pandemic, foreign policy, immigration, a candidate, etc., that others simply cannot understand how we would ever make such a choice.

Therefore, I think the key is to first focus on developing and building empathy for one another’s worldview which requires less talking at people and more listening to people.

If you want to dig a little deeper, or hear something in a bit of a different way, I suggest going to the educator section of my web page and watch these short videos:

  • Systems Theory Basics
  • The Consider, Construct, Confirm Learning Cycle
  • Applying Systems Theory to Constructivist Learning Cycle
  • Trust and Gratitude

And like always, if you appreciate this blog, subscribe down below and/or share on social media platforms you frequent.

Sources:

Goodwin, Tim (2020). Consider, Construct, Confirm: A New Framework for Teaching and Learning. Kendall Hunt. Dubuque, IA.

Haidt, Jonathan (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. First Vintage Books. New York.

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