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The Malleability of Mind

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How many of us have felt dismay over a friend or family member’s stubborn resistance to our arguments or evidence showing (we believe) that Donald Trump is (or isn’t) making America great again, or that immigrants are (or aren’t) a threat to our way of life? Sometimes, it seems, people just stubbornly resist change.

 

Recently, however, I’ve also been struck by the pliability of the human mind. We are adaptive creatures, with malleable minds.

 

Over time, the power of social influence is remarkable. Generations change. And attitudes change. They follow our behavior, adjust to our tribal norms, or simply become informed by education.

 

The power of social influence appears in current attitudes toward free trade, as the moderate-conservative columnist David Brooks illustrates: “As late as 2015, Republican voters overwhelmingly supported free trade. Now they overwhelmingly oppose it. The shift didn’t happen because of some mass reappraisal of the evidence; it’s just that tribal orthodoxy shifted and everyone followed.”

 

Those who love history can point out many other such shifts. After Pearl Harbor, Japan and Japanese people became, in many American minds surveyed by Gallup, untrustworthy and disliked. But then after the war, they soon transformed into our “intelligent, hard-working, self-disciplined, resourceful allies.”  Likewise, Germans across two wars were hated then admired then hated again then once again admired.

 

Or consider within thin slices of recent human history the transformational changes in our thinking about race, gender, and sexual orientation:

  • Race. In 1958, only 4 percent of Americans approved of “marriage between Blacks and Whites.” In 2013, 87 percent approved.
  • Gender. In 1967, two-thirds of first-year American college students agreed that “the activities of married women are best confined to the home and family.” Today, the question, which would offend many, is no longer asked.
  • Gay marriage. In Gallup surveys, same-sex marriage—approved by only 27 percent of Americans in 1996—is now welcomed by nearly two-thirds.

Consider also, from within the evangelical culture that I know well, the astonishing results of two Public Religion Research Institute polls. The first, in 2011, asked voters if “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Only 30 percent of White evangelical Protestants agreed. By July of 2017, with President Trump in office, 70 percent of White evangelicals said they would be willing to separate public and personal conduct.

An April 22, 2018, Doonesbury satirized this “head-spinning reversal” (quoting the pollster). A cartoon pastor announces to his congregation the revised definition of sin:

“To clarify, we now condone the following conduct: lewdness, vulgarity, profanity, adultery, and sexual assault. Exemptions to Christian values also include greed, bullying, conspiring, boasting, lying, cheating, sloth, envy, wrath, gluttony, and pride. Others TBA. Lastly we’re willing to overlook biblical illiteracy, church nonattendance, and no credible sign of faith.”

In a recent essay, I reflected (as a person of faith) on the shift among self-described “evangelicals”: The great temptation is to invoke “God” to justify one’s politics. “Piety is the mask,” observed William James.

 

This tendency to make God in our own image was strikingly evident in a provocative study by social psychologist Nicholas Epley and his colleagues.  Most people, they reported, believe that God agrees with whatever they believe. No surprise there. But consider: When the researchers persuaded people to change their minds about affirmative action or the death penalty, the people then assumed that God now believed their new view. As I am, the thinking goes, so is God.

 

But the mind is malleable in both directions. Many one-time evangelicals—for whom evangelicalism historically has meant a “good news” message of God’s accepting grace—are now changing their identity in the age of Trump (with Trump’s support having been greatest among “evangelicals” who are religiously inactive—and for whom the term has been co-opted to mean “cultural right”). Despite my roots in evangelicalism, I now disavow the mutated label (not wanting to be associated with the right’s intolerance toward gays and Muslims). Many others, such as the moderate Republican writer Peter Wehner, are similarly repulsed by the right-wing takeover of evangelicalism and disavowing today’s tarnished evangelical brand.

 

Times change, and with it our minds.

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About the Author
David Myers received his psychology Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has spent his career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has taught dozens of introductory psychology sections. Hope College students have invited him to be their commencement speaker and voted him "outstanding professor." His research and writings have been recognized by the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize, by a 2010 Honored Scientist award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, by a 2010 Award for Service on Behalf of Personality and Social Psychology, by a 2013 Presidential Citation from APA Division 2, and by three dozen honorary doctorates. With support from National Science Foundation grants, Myers' scientific articles have appeared in three dozen scientific periodicals, including Science, American Scientist, Psychological Science, and the American Psychologist. In addition to his scholarly writing and his textbooks for introductory and social psychology, he also digests psychological science for the general public. His writings have appeared in four dozen magazines, from Today's Education to Scientific American. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org). For his leadership, he received an American Academy of Audiology Presidential Award in 2011, and the Hearing Loss Association of America Walter T. Ridder Award in 2012. He bikes to work year-round and plays daily pick-up basketball. David and Carol Myers have raised two sons and a daughter, and have one granddaughter to whom he dedicates the Third Edition of Psychology in Everyday Life.