WHEN WAS THE last time you changed your mind about an important issue? Many people will jokingly claim “I thought I was wrong once, but the more I thought about it, I realized I was right.”

Have you thought about how hard it is to get a person to change their mind about something unless some sort of personal crisis erupts? Joe Queenan, a freelance writer from New York, opined on this subject in an article in the May issue of The Rotarian.

“My liberal friends could never be persuaded to vote Republican,” said Queenan. “And my conservative friends could never bring themselves to support a Democrat.

“I bet you have friends that have argued the merits of things for years and no matter what happens or what is said, none have been persuaded to change their opinion about anything. Sure, they are stubborn, but their brains and their experiences just won’t allow them to change.”

Believing that people can be persuaded to change their minds runs counter to what has been documented. The fact is, most people have entrenched positions about most things and not even a major intervention will get them to change their minds. It becomes futile.

Experts have discovered that in most spheres of activity, humans are basically nonrational. We compulsively associate with people who share our opinions and values. We seek out echo chambers.

We look for a tribe of “like thinkers.” Tribes do not welcome strangers. To defect from a tribe is a form of treason. Members of the tribe will remain loyal even when they suspect that the tribe is wrong.

Studies have found that once a person has decided they are a Democrat or a Republican, they will not change. As for independents, they are just fooling themselves. They just don’t want to admit they are on one side or the other, so they tell their friends they are swing voters.

Mike Gazzaniga, a big name in the field of cognitive neuroscience, has conducted many experiments. He believes that social media has exacerbated this tendency to seek out echo chambers.

Before social media, you had to actively seek out other people who shared your opinion. Now, you have a subnetwork of thousands of followers on Twitter who believe the same things you do.

Scientific research supports this view. When you have a following of this magnitude, you will be unlikely to change your mind about something even when new information comes to light that proves your opinions wrong.

People don’t waste their time talking to and listening to different viewpoints anymore because it is so easy to find lots of agreeable people on our social media networks. Why try to change other people’s opinions when you can find comfort and support within the tribe?

It explains the fact people develop beliefs and habits over time and are reluctant to change. For example, people with heart disease are told that unless they clean up their cardiovascular act, diet and exercise, they are at a high risk of death.

The fact is, only one patient in seven implements the needed lifestyle changes. The same is true with the bad habit of smoking. Despite repeated warnings of cancer risks, smokers choose to continue. It is easier to claim they are addicted and can’t stop.

Let’s ask again. When was the last time you really changed your mind? You may have tried to change your point of view, but it probably didn’t remain changed. Once the brain is wired one way, it isn’t likely to change.

The notion that dramatic lifestyle change is easy or even possible, is not supported by the data. Think of the people who started a diet. It may work for a while, but we can’t stick to it. Rehab may work temporarily, but most people slip back to old habits.



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A FEW years ago, Brian Hall told this story about his son who was just a few days away from graduating from high school. He wasn’t sure who to blame, his mother or the public school system, but his son didn’t know how to send mail through the U.S. Postal Service.

Hall said his son was a typical, above-average student. He had a smartphone, a tablet and a laptop, did some basic coding, was pretty good at computer-assisted design, and got along well with teachers and fellow students.

He could tap out about 60 words per minute using only his thumbs, but he could not write a letter. The thought of properly addressing an envelope was foreign to him. Is this a true story? Hall assured me “I’m not making this up.”

Hall said he discovered this because his wife told their son to send graduation announcements to his grandparents, aunts and uncles. They told their son this tradition would likely be highly profitable.

As Hall watched, his son wrote the mailing address on the top right of the envelope and only the address, no name. Hall corrected him and then, handed him a stamp. This seemed to baffle him. “A stamp is required,” Hall told him.

The son placed it, carefully, in the top left corner of the envelope. Hall said he began to lose patience. The stamp was ruined. “We started again,” he said. This time, he put the stamp on the top right, level straight, as he was instructed.

“OK, now, put the return address on the top left,” said Hall. “Print clearly.”

His son stared back at him. “What’s a return address?”