A picture of a primate in the thinking posture from Nick Byrd's "Is Reflective Reasoning Supposed To Change My Mind?"

Is Reflective Reasoning Supposed To Change Your Mind?

When you step back and question your beliefs and assumptions, do you expect to change your mind? Should you? I think that reflective reasoning is supposed to change our minds. But it might not change our beliefs. Sometimes reflection reinforces our beliefs. And sometimes reflection makes our beliefs more extreme or partisan. I’ll explain below.

1.  Define ‘Change my mind’

First, let’s get clear on what we mean by ‘change your mind.’ By that I mean a change in belief or a change in the reasons for one’s belief. Here’s an example:

Me: Hey you, what is 121 × 17?

You: 2040

Me: Try again.

You: Hmm.

[You reflect on my math, realize your error, and recalculate.]

You: 2057!

Me: Correct.

In this case, reflection changed your mind.

2.  Two Kinds Of Change

In the example above, reflection changed your mind in two different ways. It changed both your belief  — “121 × 17 = 2040” vs. “121 × 17 = 2056” — as well as your reasons for my belief — your first calculation vs. your second calculation.

Obviously, changing our reasons doesn’t always change our belief. For instance, I might change my reasons for a belief without thereby changing my corresponding belief. In case that sounds counterintuitive, consider an example.

A professor poses a moral dilemma to a room full of students. Then the professor asks the students to choose one of two responses to the dilemma. Every time a student gives their answer, the professor asks for their reasons. The professor even asks follow-up questions. Sometimes students change their answer as a result of this questioning. After class a student comes forward and says to the professor, “Why did you want to know what we believe about the moral dilemma?” “I didn’t”, said the professor. “I wanted to know your reasons for what you believed.” “Why?”, asked the student. “Because sometimes our reasons for believing aren’t very good. And a bit of reflection can reveal that to us. Or better, reflection can help us find better reasons for our existing beliefs.”

The point of this example is that reflective reasoning is not always supposed to change our beliefs. Sometimes, reflection is only supposed to change (ideally, improve) our reasons for our beliefs.

So is reflection supposed to change your mind? Yes: reflection is supposed to change your mind. But it might only change our reasons; not our beliefs.

3.  Who Cares?

Educators care a lot about so-called critical thinking — my own institution has a website dedicated to it! Educators might think that critical thinking will help us overcome our false or otherwise erroneous beliefs. But perhaps that is wishful thinking. Sometimes critical thinking results in ignoring evidence and then adopting more extreme and partisan beliefs (Kahan & Braman 2005; Kahan et al 2013; Schkade, Sunstein, Hastie 2010).

3.1  The Cost of Change

But surely reflection — or critical thinking — changes some of our beliefs. So why might reflection change those beliefs? One reason might be that the cost of changing certain beliefs is low (like the math example above).

If that is right, then perhaps reflection is less likely to change our beliefs when the cost of changing our belief is high. For instance, perhaps reflection is less likely to change our beliefs when doing so would violate our perceived identity (as a liberal, as a Christian, as a [insert how you identify here]), displease our community, and / or threaten our security.

3.2  Example: Religious Beliefs

How likely is it that reflection will change your belief about the existence of God, the creation of the world, etc.? It might depend on the cost of changing your belief. To see what I mean, compare two people: a church pastor and a church visitor.

The pastor’s lifework is theirs and others’ faith in God. They’ve just completed their 30th year as the pastor. Their entire community is the church. And they need to work as pastor for another 5 or 10 years before they can afford to retire. So if the pastor stops believing in God, then they lose their livelihood, their community, and their otherwise secure retirement.

The visitor is attending church for the third week in a row. Last week, the visitor started believing in God. So far, their faith hasn’t cost them much other than this week’s hour at church. So there is no substantial cost associated with changing their mind about their new faith. So if the visitor stops believing in God, then things just go back to normal.

The point is that we can be more or less incentivized to maintain our beliefs. And the more incentivized we are to maintain our beliefs, the less likely it is that reflective reasoning will change our beliefs. In these cases, reflection might only produce additional reasons — any reasons, even bad reasons — to maintain our beliefs.

4.  Conclusion

Reflective reasoning might not change your beliefs, but it can change your reasons. Sometimes this is good — like when you come up with better reasons for your beliefs. Sometimes, however, this is bad — like when we resist changing our beliefs by coming up with bad reasons to maintain our beliefs (Schwitzgebel & Ellis forthcoming).

Published by

Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog