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The Curious Case of Half-Changed Minds

During the last year of my doctoral program, I spent several weeks in a Rhode Island high school, talking to students who were learning to recognize stereotypes in popular culture. Most of my focus group participants clearly enjoyed classes where they were analyzing magazines and animated films. However, sometimes they said things that left me confused. These young people were worried about stereotypes and at the same time emotionally attached to them. What’s more, they seemed to be unaware of this inconsistency. In my dissertation, I decided to call this phenomenon “half-changed minds.”

I explained that half-changed minds happen when we honestly want to accept a certain new idea but do not notice how our habitual behaviors actually go against it. For example, you can wholeheartedly believe that stereotyping working class people is not cool and at the same time have no problem laughing at Cletus Spuckler, a redneck character in The Simpsons who is married to his sister Brandine and loves eating fresh skunk.

I wrote my dissertation back in 2015, and since then half-changed minds have been an inspiration to me. More broadly, I became intrigued by the various inconsistencies of human beings. Homo Sapiens is truly a walking paradox: at the same time emotional and rational, cruel and loving, creative but stuck in patterns of behaviors and thoughts. No wonder we are having such a hard time trying to understand ourselves!

Why are people so inconsistent? Like many essential characteristics of human beings, this one is related to our species’ main goal: to survive in an unpredictable and chaotic universe. Our rational mind’s priority is to focus on consistencies around us and to work on maintaining order through our behaviors and thoughts. But because the world is, indeed, chaotic and unpredictable, the only way to keep our balance is by filtering out some of the inconsistencies around us and within us. They do not go anywhere, of course, and instead get manifested through reactions of the so-called emotional brain.

It appears that half-changed minds become especially prominent when we are trying to change. Considering the classic psychological concept of conditioning, this should not come as a surprise. We are all conditioned by our environment – in this sense humans are not too complicated. The tricky part is that our environments are complex and in many ways unique: they include all the people we have interacted with, and all aspects of our backgrounds and experiences. That is why it is so hard for us to fully comprehend our own actions and reactions – to say nothing about modifying them. If you have ever tried to quit a harmful habit or cultivate a beneficial one, you know what I mean.

The idea of half-changed minds acquired a new significance for me in the context of polarization – the situation when we see those who disagree with us as “bad guys” and even enemies. I would hear from somebody how important it is to bridge political divides, and then would observe the same person seemingly unable to understand the reasons behind the actions of an individual with a different political affiliation. To be honest, initially I was carried away by my emotions. I was mostly frustrated and did not make the connection between these inconsistencies and what I by then knew about paradoxes of the human brain. My own reaction eventually gave me a clue to what was going on.

Although human beings are emotional and rational, our emotions come first. We are conditioned by our circumstances to see the world and react to it in a certain way. For example, if we grow up in a culture that divides people into good and bad guys, we will be unconsciously looking for this division everywhere. We may rationally decide to go beyond this simplistic view. Yet when we get especially emotional, our nice reasoning will fly out of the window, and we will fall back on the familiar patterns of thinking.

It is helpful to imagine our rational and emotional side as a rider and an elephant. While the rider may seem to be in control, it is the elephant - our emotions - that actually decides where to go. This surprising hierarchy makes more sense if we think about the evolution of our brain. Its most basic parts - the “old brain” that we share with other animals - evolved to help us survive. If we start crossing the street and suddenly perceive a car moving quickly toward us, it is the emotion of fear that will make us jump back to the sidewalk before the rational part of the brain understands what we are doing. Our emotions can be similarly triggered by opinions that tap into the “old brain” by going against what we believe. In this case, even if we want to be open-minded, our unconscious reactions will get in the way.

To an outsider, this might seem like a weakness or hypocrisy. You profess one thing, but then you turn around and do something completely different. But the truth is, we all do this at times simply because we are human. And if the judgmental outsider is brutally honest, he will notice the same behaviors in himself.

So how on earth are we going to beat polarization if our half-changed minds are against us?

First of all, give yourself a break. Inconsistencies are an essential aspect of being human, they do not make you “bad.” But this also means that you should give others a break as well. We all have our triggers that bring emotions that make it very difficult for us to keep our promises. You may decide not to argue with your neighbor, but when they mention the topic that you feel so upset about, it will be hard not to get into a confrontation. By the same token, if your neighbor suddenly says harsh things to you, it might be because you have inadvertently touched their “old brain” nerve with the way you started a conversation.

Without self-judgment, you can gradually learn to notice what triggers you, what emotions come up for you, how you react when you are emotional, and what happens as a result (this practice of mapping habit loops comes from the book Unwinding Anxiety). You can work with your half-changed mind to see inconsistencies between how you want to behave and how you actually behave when you are really anxious, upset, or angry. For example, you might decide not to argue with people online, but what happens when you see a friend posting an opinion different from your own? Caught up in your emotions, you might easily type and send something that you will later regret.

Understanding half-changed minds can also help you be kinder to others. When you hear somebody embrace a value that is important to you and then you see them seemingly go against this value, you can choose empathic curiosity over accusations of hypocrisy. Why did this person contradict themselves? What might have been their strong emotion and the trigger that brought up this emotion in the first place? What kind of experiences and circumstances might explain the reaction that seems confusing to you? How could you compassionately explore this realization with them?

In the last decades, political and cultural divisions have become baked in our thinking and behaviors in ways that are difficult to notice and overcome. If we want polarization to end, we should take into consideration our half-changed minds. Otherwise, they will continue to take over when our emotions are triggered, sabotaging our efforts to understand people with different backgrounds and points of view. This will probably be a long and frustrating learning curve for all of us. Breaking an old habit is impossible without some false starts and failures. I hope that we will all persist, because behind that curve we are likely to find a safer and happier world.


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