George Benard Shaw once wrote, "Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything". In biological science, it's clear how change happens. For example, if this was an article about changing muscle mass during strength training the science is complex but much clearer. In psychology, the answer is arguably more complex, and harder to actually see. So if Shaw is right how do we change our minds?
To answer this we can focus on times when change happens naturally. I think everyone would agree that our minds change throughout our childhood and adolescent years as our nervous systems become gradually more sophisticated. I remember as a child thinking, when watching a black and white movie on the TV, that the world was actually black and white back then when the movie was made. As I grew I, of course, realised that the monochrome on the screen was a facet of the film and not of life itself.
My thinking had changed, but how?
The explanation of transitions through psychological developmental stages is rooted in the biological process of adaptation. Adaptation, in biological terms, is made up of a balance of two connected processes called assimilation, and accommodation. Assimilation takes information from the environment and transforms it to fit what already exists and accommodation changes perceptions of the structure of the environment to meet the demands of the incoming information. According to seminal developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, we develop new thought processes through these two distinct processes.
When we apply this to our thinking, the process of assimilation occurs when a person's thinking habits help them to fit incoming information with what already exists in their assumptions, opinions, beliefs and knowledge. On the other hand, the process of accommodation involves the shaping of assumptions, opinions, beliefs, and knowledge so that the incoming information can be, and there's a clue in the title here, accommodated.
Many scholars believe that what produces any sort of change in human behaviour are modifications to thinking habits, such as our opinions, beliefs, and knowledge. But how, exactly does our thinking change?
Resolving Cognitive Conflict.
Well, Piaget's answer was the "equilibration theory". This theory spotlights cognitive conflict which we experience as contradictions, inconsistencies, discrepancies, and incongruences as pivotal for changes in thinking, and therefore, behaviour. This is because these conflicts in our thinking create opportunities for adaptation by changing our assumptions or shaping them in some way. For example, if evidence from the environment suggests that you can achieve something, like doing well in a test, a competition or receiving an award for a project that you initiated there is an opportunity for this information to run counter to opinions you have had about your capacity to perform. Successful past performances are building blocks of confidence because they challenge your previous cognitive equilibrium and can spark a re-think of your capabilities. The only way to re-establish balance in your mind is through processing your actions and re-organising your opinion, maybe even changing it altogether. Of course, this will only happen if you pay enough attention to your successes and the contradictions that arise in light of them! Take a look at my last article to understand how we can build from what already works for us.
As well as cognitive conflict, "reflexive abstraction" is also thought to be a vital generator of thought change and development. "Reflexive abstraction", as named by Piaget, is the process of structured self-reflection which takes what is noticed or novel information in a situation and "re-organises" it. The term "re-organise" here means that the process of reflection offers an important time and attention to your experiences and helps you to fit them into your mind. It's a bit like taking time to complete one of those 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles. The opportunity for re-organisation of assumptions, opinions, beliefs, and knowledge is crucial for development. This is because it allows us to think beyond the limited information available to us in a given moment, to understand our performances and gain a broader view of events. If I sit down following a day of "performing" in some way and use my mind to think about the broader context in which my performances occur, I can begin to understand the pivotal points of action, the choices that lead me forward and the ones that hold me back. Doing so offers me a greater opportunity for assimilation and accommodation to take place, for my thinking to develop and for my behaviour to change. This means that by functionally reviewing the past, what is new to me becomes a part of my opinions, beliefs, assumptions, and knowledge and a sense of being psychologically "at peace" is restored. At the same time changes in thinking have occurred. This is a process that Piaget called "equilibriation" and the more "equilibriation" that occurs in the direction of a goal the greater the chance is of its achievement.
Both resolving cognitive conflict and structured self-reflection can change our thinking and changing our thinking is where our development begins, continues, stalls or reverses.
You can change your thinking, anyone can. And if you can get good at doing so who knows what else you can change. Simply being aware of how it works can help. What conflicts or reflections are you noticing in your thinking?
Have a good week,