When I taught my first course at Northwestern University, I was nervous. What would happen if I got caught saying something that was wrong? How would I look? After thinking about it, I realized how easy that would be—all I had to do was say, “Good point! I never looked at it that way.” After teaching for many years, I now look at some of my teaching highlights, many where I learned from my students. Indeed, later I began every course by saying, “Everything I’m teaching you is wrong.”
The strength of science is that it is self-correcting. New explanations improve upon older ones as new information is discovered. I recently looked at my Intro Psych book of 45 years ago and laughed at the misinformation I learned (and taught.) When a small group of us began exploring behavior modification at Harvard Medical School, we were greeted with overt scorn and hostility by the reigning Freudian psychiatrists as being dangerous. One research psychiatrist demonstrated that schizophrenia was a biological disease and he was pressured to leave by the Freudians. Now, both behavior modification and psychobiology are widely accepted.
As in science, we should never get too attached to ideas. New information should be allowed to enter our minds and influence us. Being rigid about our beliefs when the information is contradictory causes unnecessary defensiveness. Bryce, a 19-year-old college student, whose father remarried, was convinced that his stepmother was a “lying mean bitch.” When I asked him specifics, he could not relate one mean act or one lie. When I asked him to reflect about his opinion of her, he became defensive and said, “Nothing you can tell me will change my mind!” His convictions led to predictable corrosive hostility in the family, from his ruining of family dinners to preventing him from enjoying closeness with his father. Obviously, Bryce’s rigidity led to conflicts with his stepmother and conflicts between his stepmother and father.
An unfortunate human trait is that we seek information that we agree with, and avoid information that challenges our convictions. Conservatives watch Bill O’Reilly, while progressives watch The Daily Show. Conservatives dismiss the New York Times and progressives dismiss Glenn Beck. This leads us to be insulated rather than challenged. I formed a political discussion group with informed people of the left and right. One friend, whose beliefs were contradicted by information, dropped out and admitted that he could not handle the tension of defending his positions. All he had to do was change his mind.
Family grudges often resist change. Ed was angry with his sister, Joan, because he bore virtually all the responsibility for burying their mother. Joan, as I pointed out in a previous column, did not have his administrative skills and avoided difficult situations. He became convinced that his sister was a cold, indifferent person and refused contact with her. He then interpreted every interaction with her as corroboration of his beliefs until he stopped talking to her some 25 years ago. Family members, who like both Ed and Joan, have tried to make peace to no avail. In my opinion, Ed has made himself a victim by his rigidity. He is correct that Joan could have helped more, but his rigidity in characterizing her as uncaring is simply wrong. Because “…nothing can change my mind,” Ed has missed out on family functions, enjoying his nephews and their kids, and enjoying the company of Joan.
There is no shame in being wrong. It is often vital to change opinions and strategies as the information changes. People are criticized for changing their minds when it is actually a strength. When I have a client who is not improving, I’ll reflect on different approaches that I can take. I will never say, “Nothing will change my mind.”