What does it take to get you to change your mind?
Most of us like to think we are open-minded. I find that often when people say they are open-minded they tend to mean that they don’t judge. I happen to think that everybody makes some form of judgment whether we acknowledge it or not. Sometimes our judgments are expressed vocally and sometimes, they are reflected in the conduct we choose. I am not interested in the virtues of being ‘non-judgmental’ though. I am more interested in a broader understanding of open-mindedness.
To me, open-mindedness is a willingness to reconsider what you’ve decided to be true when faced with new information. It doesn’t mean that you change your mind every time you hear something new but it is indicative of a willingness to learn and to take on board new points of view. In reality, I think open-mindedness is a rare quality because it requires an attitude of humility that is not fostered by popular culture. We are generally encouraged to be sure of ourselves and be certain of our opinions and even where we are not, we are supposed to project a confidence that makes other people think we are i.e. fake it. This kind of mindset does not leave room for questioning one’s opinions much less appearing to change them.
My observations have led me to suspect that most people are actually not open minded despite what they think. It seems that people only credit information that reinforces what they already think is true and when confronted with alternative information they tend to react dismissively or with hostility. Some of the most infuriating conversations I’ve ever had were because of this tendency. For instance, I once challenged a friend’s assertions on certain groups of immigrants (you know how the standard lines go: they’re coming over here with their propensity to criminality, lazing about doing nothing while enjoying taxpayers’ money). When I brought up information showing that these assertions were not borne out by facts I could see she was having difficulty accepting it because even though what I was saying made sense it sounded so foreign to her.
I had a similar experience recently. I attended a show that was supposed to showcase the music and dance of the African diaspora but the very first number was choreographed to what sounded to me like very boring string music. I like ballet but I thought I was going to see ‘African’ dance and I would not have paid if I thought that they were going to present something that seemed to have been inspired by ballet. Where was the rhythm, drumming and waist shaking that signifies West African music? The whole thing looked and sounded a bit odd to me and as you can imagine, I did not enjoy that piece much. It did not feel African to me at all. At some point in my sulk, I had the thought that it would be funny if I turned out to be wrong but I was sure I knew what West African music sounded like and it was not what I was hearing so I dismissed that possibility.
The next number was choreographed to South African music that sounded more familiar to me and I started to enjoy myself more. In my mind, I thought that the show had now begun properly. Then we reached intermission and I decided to read my programme only to see that the first piece had indeed been African music by the Mande. I didn’t know about the Kora and African classical music and in my self-appointed role as expert on authentic African music, I had fallen into the kind of rigid thinking that I described above. As a result, I had been annoyed by the idea that they were playing music that I didn’t think belonged in that setting. If I had allowed myself to be open to the possibility that I was hearing something new, I might have enjoyed that piece a little instead of sitting there with the huff. I can’t explain how ashamed I felt when I realised my error.
I’m glad I had the opportunity to rectify my ignorance but I wonder how easily I would have changed my mind if there had not been evidence in print right before me. The thing about being a stubborn cow is that I like to find proof that I am right so I would probably have done some googling when I got home but the damage would have already been done. I could have missed out on appreciating the complexity of the show that night, upset by flaws that did not exist except in my own head. As it was I had an absolutely amazing evening and I went home with a greater awareness of my need to be receptive to new knowledge.