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 Your Mind?

Yes. Reflective reasoning is supposed to change your mind. But it might not change your beliefs. Hear me out.

1.  Define ‘Change my mind’

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

Me: Hey you, what is 121 × 17?

You: 2040

Me: Try again.

You: Hmm. 

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

You: 2057!

Me: Correct.

In this case, reflection changed your mind.

2.  Two Kinds Of Change

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

Obviously, changing our reasons doesn’t always change our belief. For instance, I might change my reasons for a belief without thereby changing my corresponding belief. In case that sounds counterintuitive, so here’s an anecdote to explain.

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 reflective reasoning 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 your mind? Yes: reflection is supposed to change your 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?” Some have spent most of their life investing in certain answers to these questions. Perhaps they’ve just completed their 30th year pastoring a church. If they stop believing that God exists, then they lose their livelihood, their community, and potentially more. It’s a different story for the people in their church who started believing in God just last week. If they stop believing in God, things go back to normal.

So some people face powerful incentives to maintain their beliefs — even if they have serious doubts. For these people, it will be very difficult for reflective reasoning to change their beliefs. It might only change their reasons for beliefs.

4.  Conclusion

Reflective reasoning might not change your beliefs, but it can change your reasons. Sometimes this is good — like when you come up with better reasons for your beliefs. Sometimes, however, this is bad — like when we resist changing our beliefs by coming up with bad reasons to maintain our beliefs (Schwitzgebel & Ellis forthcoming).

Published by

Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog