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New research says once we change our minds, we forget we ever thought otherwise

Dec 11, 2017

New research suggests when we change our minds on an issue, we forget we ever thought otherwise.
Credit Piyushgiri Revagar / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCl0

Think for a moment about your most deeply held beliefs. Can you recall when you first formed them? Has it been so long that it feels as if they've just always been there?

Research suggests our beliefs may change, for better or for worse, without our even noticing. And that’s being reflected in public opinions that have shifted since Donald Trump launched his campaign for President.

Michael Wolfe, professor of cognitive psychology at Grand Valley State University, joined Stateside to discuss his research on memory and learning. He recently published the results of an intriguing experiment in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology that looked into how we change our beliefs.

Listen to the full conversation above, or read highlights below.

On the experiment’s procedures and results

Wolfe’s research sought to discover whether people are aware that their beliefs are changing. His research asked people about a number of social science issues, like the impact of television violence or the effectiveness of spanking, for instance. Participants in the experiment reported their opinions on a topic, then after a couple of months read an article on the topic and reported their opinion again, trying to recall what they had previously answered.

Wolfe found that people who were given information that ran counter to their original opinion tended to move closer to the middle on the issue, indicating their opinion was changing. Wolfe also found that people tended to believe that their older answer was similar to their newer answer, although usually they were quite different.

“People seem to be acting as if their current beliefs have always been their beliefs, and this is what led us to interpret the results as people being relatively unaware that their beliefs had in fact changed,” he said.

On the research’s political implications

Wolfe’s research has major political implications.

“It is quite possible that people appear hypocritical, but are not actually being hypocritical,” he said.

As an example, Republicans’ opinions on Russian President Vladimir Putin have turned on a dime since Donald Trump rose as the leader of the party. Prior to Trump’s presidential run, only 12 percent of Republicans viewed the Russian leader favorably. Now, that number is 32 percent.

“[Our research] would suggest that people who change their belief, in this case about Vladimir Putin, may be unaware that their beliefs have changed,” Wolfe said. “In that poll, they don’t ask people, ‘Did you support Vladimir Putin a few years ago?’ But if you asked a question like that, you may find that people would say, ‘Yes, I’ve always supported Vladimir Putin.’”

Wolfe also noted that his research cuts across party lines and applies to people on both sides of the aisle.

On whether people recognize their changing minds

Wolfe’s research indicates that people do not realize they have changed their minds on a given topic.

“In order to understand that your view has shifted, you would need to be aware that your old view is different than your current view,” he said, “and we found that people do not seem to be aware that their old views and their current views are different.”

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