Research shows that cognitive flexibility—the changing of one’s mind—is vital in a number of areas: decision making, learning, adapting to changing circumstances, creative expression. It tends to be easiest to access in areas where there isn’t a lot of emotional investment: "I’m more likely to change my mind about skincare routines than the need for Palestinian equality." This is particularly true when it comes to what professor of law and psychology Dan Kahan terms as “identity protective cognition,” or the tendency to selectively credit or shelve ideas according to the beliefs that dominate one’s social, gender, and racial group. When we’re faced with information (or, more crucially, misinformation and propaganda) that is identity-affirming, we’re more likely to uncritically accept it. The more emotionally charged the presentation? The more irresistibly it’s accepted.
It must be stated: according to the research, I’m admittedly not the best person to be writing a piece on changing one’s mind. I am Palestinian American in this horrible moment. I will be presumed to have an agenda. My intentions might be looked upon with suspicion, and perhaps rightly so. I accept that suspicion—and will only gently ask that people extend it everywhere.
Propaganda exists in all sorts of sectors: public health, education, politics. It often entails themes of exceptionalism and relies on the same recycled arguments. These days, the talking points I encounter—equating a populace with terrorism, denying control or occupation, pink-washing, narratives about an unmatched democracy—are so commonplace I can recite them on the spot.
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The truth is that people believe all sorts of cognitively dissonant things about themselves. Deeply militarized societies are filled with people who consider themselves—and their nation—to be peace-loving and valuing of life. Populations that are marked with extreme economic and racial inequity speak sincerely, unironically, of freedom and equality of all.
Some propaganda presents ideas with the sheen of rationality, using scientific language or legalese; at its most effective, it is earnest without being seen as manipulative. It might appeal to virtuous notions of reason, humanity, exceptionalism, with an undertone of “stand with us and you’ll be on the right side of history.” At its most strident, propaganda resorts to derogatory language, scapegoating, bandwagoning, scare tactics. In many ways, it relies as much on indoctrination as on indifference. The notion of narrative complexity can sometimes be intentionally curated by politicians, educators, even media outlets: for instance, the issue of Palestine and Israel is often spoken of as being too complicated for outsiders to understand. This can be a clever form of silencing and erasure: the exceptional mystification of the history of the region, even when there is a sea of voices—historians, activists, journalists, Palestinian and Israeli alike—who are explaining exactly how it can be known.
So it comes as no surprise that changing one’s mind is an art form in and of itself—a practice of endurance and flexibility. It resembles marathoning or playing an instrument: something that gets better the more you do it, with an element of muscle memory. It necessitates exposure to new information and ideas, goodness of fit in terms of the timing and delivery of that information, and one’s own predisposition to cognitive adaptability. It is a process of privilege. One must have access to information that can change one’s mind, one must have the temperament and time to absorb it.
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Societally, the pathway towards normalizing changing an individual’s mind hinges upon practices of collective redemption and contrition. A society that doesn’t know how to apologize well—that doesn’t know how to forgive well—will understandably not have many blueprints for changing its mind.
America’s legacy as a nation—and the legacy of many nations—is to make firm and unwavering stances on war, to actively participate in violence and displacement, both on this land and elsewhere, then in retrospect blame the detritus on a handful of isolated, often low-ranking individuals. But if history shows that dominant narratives and entities are constantly wrong, then the true indignity is that they don’t sit with that wrongness for a beat longer than they have to. Nelson Mandela was on U.S. terror watch lists until the aughts. Martin Luther King Jr., now praised as a hero, was considered a divisive, nettlesome figure by most white Americans during his lifetime. Slavery was a blithely legal and morally defended norm in this country until about six grandfathers ago. We rob ourselves when we try to sanitize history, position it as though the now-lauded were always lauded, as though the dominant narrative was always in the right. If we keep positioning injustices as bygone eras, we risk not recognizing when they are unfolding in real time, in front of our very present, open eyes. This speaks to a mindset that mushrooms everywhere—from celebrities to institutions to presidents—one that resists any true reckoning, because it resists true humility.
In the realm of cognitive flexibility, without humility, it is impossible to admit to wrongness, to an attachment to a flawed idea. You become your thought, your narrative; you equate anything challenging it to a challenge of your very self.
Amends within capitalist societies are associated with guilt, which are associated with reparations, which is associated with zero sum. This means one will lose something: my checkbook, my reputation, my tenure track job. My peace of mind. My comfort. My belief that I am a good person. This reflects upon larger themes of personal reconstruction: are the mistaken to be given a chance to be redeemed? Can we allow people to change their minds? Restoration can of course involve costs and there are certainly people and entities acting in bad faith. But it is also true that in practice people have often been exposed to misinformation and indoctrination; we risk losing them as potential allies because they fear being berated for making amends imperfectly, or not quickly enough.
What one is looking for is an opening—which almost always manifests as curiosity. As a psychologist, I think one of the most tactical approaches is to meet people where they’re at. There are five stages of change, often used to work with individuals who struggle with addiction or eating disorders, that are helpful to consider in this moment: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance. Someone who is precontemplative is going to be resistant to outreach, because they are not considering change. The most powerful, crucial stages to provide support are contemplation and preparation: the revving up, the soft gathering of courage to enter a new era—of self, of self as it relates to the world, a slow questioning of what one has been told, what one has believed potentially all their life. The low, uneasy sense that something isn’t sitting right anymore. It is in these moments of quiet reckoning that people need to be most welcomed, allowed to take their time, connected to new information and resources. People who are changing their minds about views that are deeply entrenched—especially when that changed mind might cost them work, relationships, social capital—should be met with radical empathy, facts, an emphasis on already-existing common ground.
It's vital for movements of equality and liberation to include in their messaging the notion that one cannot be “late” to justice. That rather than shaming people for their indifference, those who have the capacity and platform, might rely on more inclusive strategies, particularly a focus on facts and historical realities. We should welcome people whenever they show up to these discussions, wherever they’re coming from, whatever stage they’re at. We must be both willing to change our minds and welcome people who have changed theirs.
The difficult thing is not to meet dehumanization with dehumanization. To remember a machinery is not its people. Politicians are not their voters. This is particularly difficult to do when you are the dehumanized end of propaganda. When I see videos of crowds cheering the razing of Gaza or making taunting clips of electricity and running water, or soldiers marching stripped and blindfolded men through the streets I can feel myself harden. I can feel the contraction. The heart closing off to protect itself. I let it. Then, when I feel the glimmer of an opening, I try to remember: anyone who dances in the street taunting the death of children is either not well—or has not been told the truth about something.
The task, impossible at times, is to dialectically hold two uncomfortable truths: that people who have been exposed to indoctrinating narratives most of their lives are not at fault for that, and that they are simultaneously responsible—assuming exposure to free information and accessibility—for examining the validity of those narratives. To consider what voices and historical perspectives have been offered, hold them up to the light, and evaluate their truths.
The real mark that propaganda has worked is that sense of contraction. It is the beginning of apathy, of disengagement, of looking away. It is the risk of curiosity, to open something new that reminds us of our aliveness—and that of others. Seeking this curiosity isn’t easy. It can come at the largest social costs—inner destabilization, relational losses. People get their values from the world around us. We all do. The slow, winding work of figuring out what our values are, detangling them from those around us, can be the work of a lifetime. And when people do it, let us try to welcome them, however long we think it took them to get there. Because, often, it took exactly as long as there were hurdles to overcome.
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