About two weeks ago, halfway into the final semester of my undergraduate career, I withdrew from a class for the very first time. It probably sounds a little absurd, even dramatic, considering I only had about eight weeks of college ahead of me. But it was becoming increasingly clear to me that the course wasn’t providing an environment where I could thrive, so I decided to take matters into my own hands and drop the class.
When I saw the “W” appear on my transcript the day after my adviser cleared my request, I felt myself swell with a very triumphant sense of freedom. I understand that this might not seem like a big deal at all — people withdraw from classes all the time for all kinds of reasons. But some of you reading this also understand the unbridled joy that can come with dropping a class, especially if it was a decision you agonized over for a while.
So, in an attempt to turn this quotidian experience into a broader, more practical takeaway on how to “live your best life,” I encourage you to always feel free to change your mind.
It’s definitely a lot harder than it sounds. Because at some point, holding on to a certain circumstance or point of view strays away from the matter at hand and morphs into a test of resolve that’s somehow indicative of who you are. And it’s a pretty natural impulse to want to exhibit all of the positive traits that are associated with standing by something and sticking through it.
Tenacity is a valuable quality to find in a person, and there’s a lot of admiration that surrounds grit, the cross between passion and perseverance. To be strong-willed and unwavering in what you believe to be right and true is often seen as a mark of strength. Of course, there’s good reasoning that accompanies these assessments, but there seems to be a lot about a person’s character that is forfeited when they decide to step away from a less-than-ideal situation or update a belief based on new information. And whether it’s coming from the judgement of others or your own, the end result — to be seen as weak or inadequate — is an intensely undesirable and discouraging verdict.
It also doesn’t help that we’re biologically wired to want to win arguments more than to have sound, logical reasoning. In a New Yorker article titled “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” Elizabeth Kolbert discusses the enigmatic and almost silly reluctance that people have toward changing their minds. Kolbert runs through multiple social psychology experiments that shows people consistently falling victim to confirmation bias, or “the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.” But confirmation bias, which seems like a giant flaw in human reasoning, is a result of evolution.
Taking from the findings of cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, Kolbert writes that “reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.” Because humans have evolved with a distinct ability to communicate and socialize, our survival instincts reflect that.
Confirmation bias speaks to a personal need to find our own perspectives as correct and contrasting ones as unreliable, an asset that probably prevented our hunter-gatherer ancestors from being taken advantage of by others in their group. And it even goes back to the performative aspect of wanting to be seen as a specific kind of “strong” — as social beings, there’s a lot riding on our image.
When it comes to thoughtfully changing our minds, we’re essentially trying to clear hurdles that are innate impulses — trains of thought that have been ingrained in us because they once promoted the survival of our species. There’s some comfort that can be found there, though, since this very idea can help us be a bit more forgiving toward ourselves.
We are inevitably insufficient. And that’s OK. It’s a part of being human. Being open-minded, being self-aware and having the willingness to rethink a perspective or change the circumstances of a situation is effortful and tough, but it’s a worthy challenge.
It can be good to withdraw from a class, because in doing so, you’re taking ownership over your education. It can be good to change your opinion on heavily-debated political issues like the Affordable Care Act after learning about the nuts and bolts of the reform law or hearing testimonies of people’s experiences with it. Basically, it doesn’t really matter what it is — changing your mind is always an option that can ultimately improve your outlook or your lifestyle.
My hope is that instead of being boxed in by our held beliefs, we’ll always aim to increase the complexity of our opinions and confront why we hold them. And that instead of feeling trapped in unsatisfying situations that we once wanted or once believed to be worthwhile, we’ll understand that it’s OK to change the conditions, if that’s available to us. I hope that eventually, changing your mind becomes a reaction that is a given, one that we can gladly welcome and expect from each other.
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Email Janice Lee at [email protected]