How Do We Change Our Minds?

In his State of the Union Speech a week and a half ago, President Obama harkened back to the speech that launched his national career in politics – the one he gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention.

You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America or a conservative America; a black America or a white America — but a United States of America…

Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws — of which there are many — but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, naïve…

I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong. I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long.

He’s right, of course. Most people think that when he talks like that, he’s being hopelessly naive.

But what if he has a method to his madness? That’s what I wondered when I read this article by Maria Konnikova about the research around why facts are not sufficient to alter our most closely held beliefs. Overall the news is quite depressing (facts don’t change our minds). But there is one ray of light.

Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without.

What this research indicates is that perhaps before facts can have an impact, minds that are already made up need to be opened up. Other research in this area shows that simply wielding the facts can actually have a backfire effect – the lid shuts even tighter.

I suspect that one of the things affirmation accomplishes is that it triggers the activation of our mirror neurons and biological need for belonging – allowing us to release our grip on false beliefs as a method to sustain our identify. In other words, it’s a game changer.

As President Obama said later in that SOTU speech, he has no illusions that we’ll all come to agreement on the issues. He’s simply doing what he can to promote an open discussion with open minds.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.