What made you choose this particular topic?

It all started with a story. Back in the 1990s, the famous physicist Andrew Lyne made a stunning discovery. A few months after he had published it and shortly before he was due to give a major presentation on this, he found out that he had made a mistake in his calculations and his findings were spectacularly wrong. On the day, Lyne walked onto the stage and publicly admitted his mistake to hundreds of colleagues. The auditorium exploded in applause. How often do you see such a thing happening?

Text by: Nick Michelioudakis

Where did you come across this story?

I pinched it from Adam Grant’s excellent book ‘Think Again’ [p. 73]. The book is all about reconsidering our beliefs, why it is difficult and how we can facilitate the process (all page references from now on are from this book). Incidentally, I think that a number of ideas from the book could also be excellent for professional development purposes. I’ll point them out as they come up in the course of our discussion.

So why is this story interesting?

Well, it is interesting because it is extremely rare. We are extremely reluctant to change our views. Here is a quote from Grant again [p. 4]: '[we update, change phones, clothes etc.] When it comes to our knowledge and opinions though, we tend to stick to our guns. Psychologists call this seizing and freezing'.

So, how can we ‘unfreeze’? How can we help the process of changing our minds?

One thing that might help would be to make a list of things that we know very little about or that we are ignorant of [Idea No 1]. I am amazed at how often I see people on social media opining on things which are well beyond their fields of expertise (often in order to signal to others that they hold ‘the right’ views…)

Is it true though? That we are reluctant to rethink our views?

Yes – and this is supported by evidence too. For instance, we know that when taking an exam students are very reluctant to change an answer they are unsure about, despite the fact that a meta-analysis of 36 studies showed that when they do occur, most such changes are from wrong to right. In Grant’s words ‘We don’t just hesitate to rethink our answers. We hesitate at the very idea of rethinking’ [p. 4].

So how can we help people become less hesitant?

To quote Grant again, 'Psychologists have long found that the person most likely to persuade you to change your mind is You' [p. 112]. If you show people that they have changed their views in the past, they are more likely to do it again in the future. A good activity therefore would be to ask colleagues to think of ONE thing they have changed their mind about over the years [Idea No 2].

So this is another step. How can we take this futher still?

One of the hardest things for us to do is to publicly admit that we have made mistakes. There is even a great book under the title ‘Mistakes Were Made (but not by ME!)’ – strongly recommended. I remember once at an IATEFL event, Ken Wilson organised a little event which was supposed to be a ‘celebration of mistakes’. This is actually a brilliant idea, but most people only talked about funny incidents where they had brought the wrong materials along, or they made a faux pas somehow. I think what we need instead is to admit to big mistakes – serious mistakes. Exactly like Andrew Lyne did * [Idea No 3].

Is there anything else that might make people more likely to rethink their views?

Well, interestingly enough, something that might help is making fun of ourselves. This signals to others that we don’t take ourselves too seriously and, importantly, that we can take criticism. Grant had this great idea to get some colleagues to make a video reading out some of the worst comments they have come across in students’ evaluations. ** [Idea No 4] Sharing this in public also sends a message to ourselves: ‘I am the kind of person who welcomes criticism because I believe it can help me change and grow as a result’.

OK - I know that you usually like to end with a quote, so this is your chance… That’s true. In A. Grant’s book, there is a fantastic cartoon of an old man in a boxing ring. The commentator calls out ‘And in this corner, still undefeated, Frank’s long-held beliefs!’ Amazing! So here is the quote: ‘The best time to change your long-held beliefs is 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.’

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