How to tell if you are a jerk to talk to.



We all like to think that we give other people’s ideas a fair hearing, based on the evidence.  We like to think that we don’t reject people just because they have a different point of view, only when their reasoning is flawed in some way.  After all, only jerk refuse to accept other people’s point of view…. right?

I’ve recently started keeping track of when I change my mind, and it’s been quite instructive, and I’d like to persuade everyone to try it.

By ‘changing my mind’ I don’t mean ‘I thought I wanted cornflakes but now want toast’.  I actually mean changing my position on an issue, any issue, from things as big as abortion and war to things as small as “is it acceptable to use a disabled toilet if you are not-yet-disabled and there isn’t a queue?”.

I also don’t mean  ‘changed my mind due to being provided with additional information’. Obviously,  I fairly regularly have conversations of the form:

Me: I believe X
Labmate: Actually Y, and here’s the link to a peer-reviewed article that shows Y under experimental conditions.
Me : I totally believe Y now.
Labmate: Y doesn’t need your belief to be true.

I mean I have been keeping track of how often I have changed my (reasoned) position on an issue solely on the basis of someone else’s (reasoned) argument.

The reason for this is that last year, in the heat of the moment, I challenged some I was arguing with (the arguee?) to name a single time they had changed their position on anything in the last decade.  The problem was, to my mounting horror, I couldn’t think of a time I had… Ever…

When you start thinking about it, this gets pretty worrying. If I can’t remember changing my mind, then it’s probably because I didn’t.  So either I’ve been right every time someone argued with me, or I’ve not been willing to admit the concept that I’ve been wrong.  If I’m not willing to be open enough to ‘lose’ (actually, ‘be persuaded’) then what right do I have to try and convince anyone else? Or, for that matter, to make any pretensions to call myself a researcher, if I can’t recall accepting another point of view on it’s own merits.

So recently I argued with a friend over abortion, and as a result of a number of sensible points that she raised, I’ve mildly changed my stance regarding how valid certain types of medical advances are to the debate.   Since then I’ve changed slightly my position on nationalisation and privatisation on the back of  a conversation with a man on a train, and also immigration following a conversation with a colleague at work. None of these are massive changes, but they are changes and they’ve moved me from one point in a spectrum of opinion to another.

I’m not being a doormat – I’m probably less pleasant to have a conversation with than before. But if you can’t recall a time in the last week/month/year that someone persuaded you of something by reasoned argument, then I recommend that you that you should try keeping track of it.  That way the conversation is about learning and consensus, not winning and bullying by force of personality.

So, when was the last time you changed your mind?

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