Why is it so hard to change your mind? How can you make it easier?

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SATURDAY, AUGUST 13, 2022

Malcolm Gladwell on the power of perspective

Why can changing your mind be so difficult? And how can we get better at it? Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell has some ideas.

In This Interview

Think Again is a new series from Apple News In Conversation. It’s a guide to reimagining work, home, relationships, and more. In the first episode, In Conversation host Shumita Basu talks with Malcolm Gladwell about how to be more open-minded and rethink old ideas. Below are excerpts from the interview.

WHY IT’S SO HARD TO CHANGE YOUR MIND

MALCOLM GLADWELL: There is a kind of fetish that develops around what we call hypocrisy or contradiction, particularly in public life. And I think that leaks into personal life. It’s a tremendous mistake to insist that politicians never change their mind. I mean, of any profession that should be completely wide open, it’s that.

If you’re asking someone to be a leader in an extraordinarily complicated environment, of course they should be able to revise their opinion on things or be free to say, At that point in my life, I felt that the right decision was X. Now I feel that the world has changed so much, the right decision is Y.

SHUMITA BASU: And instead you get branded as a flip-flop-er on the political stage.

GLADWELL: I mean, I realize why we do that, because we vote for people we agree with. But I would suggest that maybe that strategy’s wrong, that you should vote for people whose way of thinking you like — so whose approach to the world is similar to yours, not whose specific positions are similar to yours.

GET OUTSIDE OF YOURSELF

GLADWELL: The way we fund science is broken. All the money’s going to the same group of people year after year. We seem to be discouraging good ideas and all kinds of things.

I read this proposal about how to reform science funding … The idea was you disband all the central funding authorities in this country. You give every scientist a sum of money, the same sum of money. Some portion of that they can use to fund their own research, but the biggest portion … they are required to give to someone else to fund an idea they like. So not their own idea, but another idea out in the world that appeals to them. Every scientist is required to move outside of their own set of ideas for a moment and ask, What would I like to see someone else do?

BASU: That’s really interesting.

Malcolm Gladwell. Celeste Sloman

GLADWELL: Really interesting. I love that as a kind of practice of forcing people outside of themselves, which, by the way — why is the idea of service so important in religious traditions? For this exact reason.

The discipline of service is the discipline of operating outside of your own interests. That’s why it has been such a powerful part of religious traditions for thousands of years — because they have always understood that pushing people outside themselves is important in pushing people toward a more meaningful and moral life.

MIDDLE SPACE

GLADWELL: I have a kind of middle space in my mind where I put things [that] I think I know what I believe but I’m not sure. So what I’ve wrestled with a lot is — this is gonna sound super geeky, but — [I] can’t make up my mind about the Supreme Court. Can’t decide whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

If you say, I think that [the] Supreme Court’s a bad idea, people will always say, Well, you know, [the] Supreme Court played a key role in … desegregating schools. The Brown [v. Board of Education] decision — where would we have been without that?

But actually, I did a podcast episode a couple seasons ago about the Brown decision from the perspective of African American families and talked about how the result of the Brown decision was that an entire generation of African American teachers were fired.

What white schools did when integration was compelled by the courts was they took the occasion to fire thousands and thousands and thousands of black teachers and replace them with white teachers.

“Why do we need, like, nine cranky people who’ve been there forever telling us how to live our lives?”

—Malcolm Gladwell

So if you think about that, and then you think about all the backlash to Brown that happened, and then you think about the fact that American schools still aren’t particularly integrated — on some measures they’re as segregated as ever — then you have to ask yourself: We’re celebrating this decision that the court made, but then the outcome of the decision was not all that great, maybe we should have just waited for the political system to catch up.

I don’t know. Like, I don’t know how I feel. Given what a mess reproductive rights are right now, are we sure Roe v. Wade was a good idea?

I mean, states were, at the time in the early ’70s — there was a broad movement toward liberalization of abortion laws. Would it have been better just to let that play out than have the kind of just craziness that we’ve had for 50 years over this thing? I don’t know. Why do we need this group? Why do we need, like, nine cranky people who’ve been there forever telling us how to live our lives?

BASU: So it sounds like you’re leaning [toward] I think we don’t really need the Supreme Court, but you’re willing to keep it in this sort of middle space, the I-don’t-know bucket.

GLADWELL: I’m not convinced I want to do away with it. But I’m really open to arguments about — could the world be a better place without it?

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