Changing People's Minds
By Arnold Kling
What causes people to change their minds? On this blog, I have argued that people do not change their minds on ideological issues. I have argued that econometric regression results typically do not change people’s minds. Why is that?1. Changing your mind could mean acknowledging a loss of status. If you are an academic, and you achieved status because of your articulation of theory X, then you will not give up on theory X, even if years later much of the profession has switched to theory Y. As Max Planck put it, “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”
2. Changing your mind could mean loss of group identity. I suppose I could use the unkindest cut example. But let me stick with economic beliefs. If your think of yourself as belonging to a group of conservative Republicans, you probably are going to resist any analysis that promotes Keynesian economics.
On political issues, the cost of dogmatic beliefs is small. First of all, your beliefs have almost no chance of affecting policies, much less affecting your personal well-being. Hence Bryan’s rational irrationality for voters.
Second, in the realm of public policy, there is always evidence that supports either side. As my father would have put it, it’s the First Iron Law of Social Science: sometimes it’s this way, and sometimes it’s that way.
There are dozens of factors involved in the financial crisis. By focusing on the factors that involve private sector misconduct and market failures, you can build a case for enhanced government power. By focusing on factors that involve policy errors and bad incentives created by regulation, you can build the opposite case.
On political issues, I think that it is harder to change the mind of someone who is highly educated than someone who is not. The highly-educated person is more likely to have his sense of status and identity tied up in his political beliefs. He is more likely to have a made a larger investment in finding facts and theories that confirm his beliefs. See Jeffrey Friedman on “ideological elites.”
I am still staggered by Mark Thoma’s remarks about potential Democratic support for vouchers. Yes, there are pro-voucher Democrats. And there are pro-choice Republicans. But if you are prepared to believe that the Democratic Party is anything other than anti-voucher or that the Republican Party is anything other than anti-abortion, I have to think that you are suffering from some sort of defense mechanism for avoiding cognitive dissonance. That is, you have the problem that “I like my party. I believe in policy X. My party opposes policy X.” You need a strategy to resolve the dissonance, and one strategy is to pretend that your party is not really hostile to party X.
In politics, love is blind, in the sense that you tend to filter out negative information about your preferred candidates and parties. The more highly educated you are, the more powerful are your filters.
In theory, higher education teaches “critical thinking,” the scientific method, and the need for an open mind. In practice, this is not so simple.
What about instances in which people’s minds have changed? Here are some:
1. Economists have changed their minds on the main sources of economic growth. They used to focus entirely on capital accumulation. Now they look at the intangible factors that Nick Schulz and I describe in our forthcoming book. Some of this change of mind even can be attributed to an econometric result–Robert Solow’s finding of the “residual” in an equation that used capital to explain economic result. I would say, in retrospect, that this sort of equation by itself would not have persuaded anyone strongly committed to the view that capital accumulation explains growth. This may be a case where no one’s status was really threatened by the finding, and eventually other economists developed status by confirming and Solow’s the finding. Is this an example of academics changing their minds and, if so, what accounts for it?
2. Policy makers changed their minds about treating inflation as a problem of controlling the “wage-price” spiral. It is now viewed as a monetary phenomenon. Evidently, the notion that wage and price controls damaged the economy has sunk in. That is quite remarkable, when you consider all of the policies that I think have damaged the economy where the fact has not sunk in–housing policy, for example. Wage and price controls seem to me to be an exception. What accounts for it?