A picture of a primate in the thinking posture from Nick Byrd's "Is Reflective Reasoning Supposed To Change My Mind?"

Is Reflective Reasoning Supposed To Change My Mind?

Yes and no. (Listen: I hate that answer as much as anyone, so hear me out.)

1.  Define ‘Change my mind’

First, let’s get clear on what we mean by ‘change my mind.’ By that I mean a change in belief or a change in the reasons for one’s belief. Here’s an example:

You: Hey Nick, what is 121 × 17?

Me: 2040

You: Try again.

Me: Hmm. 

[I reflect on my math and realize that I made an error. So I redo the calculation — this time, without making the same error.] 

Me: 2057!

You: Correct.

In this case, reflection changed my mind.

2.  Two Kinds Of Change

In the example above, reflection changed my mind in two different ways. It changed both my belief  — “121 × 17 = 2040” vs. “121 × 17 = 2056” — as well as my reasons for my belief — my first calculation vs. my second calculation.

Importantly, it’s not clear that a change in one always entails a change in the other. For instance, I might change my reasons for a belief without thereby changing my corresponding belief. That might sound counterintuitive, so here’s an example.

A professor poses a moral dilemma to a room full of students. Then the professor asks the students to choose one of two responses to the dilemma.

Every time a student gives their answer, the professor asks for their reasons. The professor even asks follow-up questions. Sometimes students change their answer as a result of this questioning.

After class a student comes forward and says to the professor, "Why did you want to know what we believe about the moral dilemma?" 

"I didn't", said the professor. "I wanted to know your reasons for what you believed." 

"Why?", asked the student.

"Because sometimes our reasons for believing aren't very good. And a bit of reflection can reveal that to us. Or better, reflection can help us find better reasons for our existing beliefs."

The point of this example is that reflection is not always supposed to change my beliefs. Sometimes, reflection is only supposed to change (ideally, improve) my reasons for my beliefs.

So is reflection supposed to change my mind? Yes: reflection is supposed to change my mind. But it might only change my reasons; not my beliefs.

3.  Who Cares?

Educators care a lot about so-called critical thinking — my own institution has a website dedicated to it! Educators might think that critical thinking will help us overcome our false or otherwise erroneous beliefs. But perhaps that is wishful thinking (Kahan & Braman 2005). What if critical thinking merely helps us find better reasons for false and otherwise erroneous beliefs? Would that be enough?

Surely reflection — or critical thinking — changes some of our beliefs, especially when (i) our error is obvious and (ii) the cost of changing our belief is low (like the math example above).

But it’s not clear that reflection will necessarily change our beliefs when the cost of changing our belief is high — even if our error is obvious (ibid.). So the cost of changing our beliefs is a crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to changing (or not changing) our minds. 

For instance, consider religious beliefs. It’s not clear that we can easily and/or conclusively arrive at answers to questions like, “Does a god exist?” or “Is __________ the effect of a supernatural cause?” Further, if we’ve spent most of our life investing in certain religious beliefs, then the cost of abandoning these beliefs is high. For instance, if a Christian pastor stops believing that God exists, then they lose their livelihood and their community. (And they might lose more than that.)

So even if we realize that some of our beliefs are erroneous (thereby changing our reasons for our beliefs), it might still be very difficult to change our beliefs.

4.  Conclusion

Reflection might not be very helpful in changing certain beliefs. For those beliefs, reflection might only change our reasons for the beliefs — not the beliefs themselves. In these cases, reflection might just be something like post hoc rationalization (Schwitzgebel & Ellis forthcoming).



Kahan, D. M., & Braman, D. (2005). Cultural Cognition and Public Policy. (Free PDF)

Schwitzgebel, E. & Ellis, J. (forthcoming). Rationalization in Moral and Philosophical Thought in Moral Inferences, ed. J.F. Bonnefon and B. Tremoliere. (Free PDF)

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. When he is not teaching, in the lab, writing, exercising, or relaxing, he is blogging at www.byrdnick.com/blog