Much of my business life is spent coaching and supporting people through change, both personal and professional. One of the many reasons people seek me out is because I’m viewed as being someone who is comfortable with change; somebody who is able to navigate complex, uncertain and ambiguous environments where events seem to be constantly upsetting apple carts. And it’s true. Too much certainty and stability makes me nervous. I’m constantly looking for new and better ways to do things, challenging the status quo and generally enjoying poking the shibboleths of received wisdom. Except that recently I found myself realising that I was often reluctant to change my mind. And when I dug deeper I had to confess that I in many things rather than changing frequently I had in fact retrenched into a rather stubborn fixity.
We’re all guilty of not changing our mind. We’re slaves to confirmation bias where we seek out information that confirm our views and ignore facts that don’t comply. We let our hot cognition dominate our executive functions; we favour fast thinking over slow; and we’re too often swayed by emotions over logic. To be fair, it’s not just that we’re stubborn. The paradox of choice means that the more things there are to consider the more anxiety we feel about the decision-making. So it’s often far better to stick to what we know rather than venturing out into an uncertain world.
Political affiliation often produces fixed thinking. As WS Gilbert’s First Lord of the Admiralty sings in HMS Pinafore: “I always voted at my party’s call and never thought of thinking for myself at all.” Slavish adherence to ideological positions may make for more efficient party management but it doesn’t encourage independent thinking. On the other hand, the debate on Europe that is just kicking off in the UK provides an interesting case study of what happens when a degree of latitude is allowed. Stayers and leavers are found across the whole political spectrum. The right is as likely to be split on the issue as the left. And how are we to make up our minds? Both sides have their supporters (eminence gris, academics, economists, business leaders, and celebrities). Each side is able to lay out irrefutable evidence in the form of facts. If confirmation bias doesn’t get us first we’ll all probably either be using our fast thinking or we’ll take the easy option and opt out altogether.
Anyway, the point of all this is that last week I changed my mind. There’s an issue on which I’ve moved from being implacably opposed to being implacably curious to being implacably contemplative. The issue is that of a universal basic income. I’ve always thought that the whole idea was rather silly. I thought that such an idea went against all my principles of self-resilience; that it would encourage the wrong behaviours (including free riders) and that it couldn’t work. And then the Royal Society of Arts (disclosure: I’ve been a fellow for 20yrs) produced a very thoughtful report. The idea has supporters (and detractors) from across the political spectrum, so rather than picking a response off the shelf I had to do my own thinking. My journey from closed mind to potential advocate allowed me the opportunity to challenge my thinking about welfare, self-motivation, fairness, the nature of work, and of citizenship. I’m still thinking, but the more that I think and read about it, the closer I become to changing my mind. [You can read the RSA report here http://bit.ly/1PwyDJ1 together with a blog from @RSAMatthew http://bit.ly/1OkrLgQ]
So how about, as a New Year’s resolution, a bit less fixed thinking and a bit more recognition of the benefits of changing one’s mind. It can all be rather refreshing. Out with the old and in with the new. As Isaac Asimov once said: ”Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”