Neuroscientists have confirmed that openness to novelty lessens with age. It is not a function of neuroplasticity but has more to do with the social costs of changing positions or beliefs. Changing one's mind can create dissonance and discomfort, but it may also present risks to one's ego, relationships, or reputation. Scientists value new evidence as the north star, but a true commitment to evidence does require a level of neuroplasticity that might be more challenging than previously understood. The reality is that most people choose a position first, and then find the facts that fit their beliefs. Sloman and Fernback (2017) call this the knowledge illusion.
Humans constantly draw on expertise and information from communities that surround us, resulting in thinking that we all know more than we do. This is grounded in the reality that we rarely think alone; in fact, we think as tribes. Our ability as humans to think as groups has been a value in survival. In general, the environment in which we navigate and live predicts our thinking and beliefs. Our tribe is us, and all other tribes are them. This is a fundamental underpinning of the power of interprofessional teams. A larger community of connections can promote brain changes and ways of thinking. It can also open perspectives and change behavior, practices, and outcomes.
Although changing one's mind might be important in the face of new data and findings, it comes with costs that can be difficult to overcome. When a generation of cardiologists and nutritionists had to disavow the low-fat, trans fat diet recommendations of several decades, it required great humility. It became very clear that this long-held advice was harmful and worsened cardiovascular disease. When gastroenterology recognized H. pylori bacteria as the cause of gastric ulcers rather than the long-held belief that the causes were always stress induced or eating spicy foods, it was a significant shift in treatment, as well as beliefs, and was not without some ego costs.
Today, COVID-19 has many mysterious aspects that are not yet well understood. It certainly has respiratory affects, and in some manifestations there are vascular and clotting impacts. The thinking surrounding the extent to which the virus can be communicated by vectors has changed significantly over the past few months. The extent to which the virus is infectious versus deadly is highly dependent on the populations in which it is present and the environmental and social aspects of those populations. The variables are huge, and the science is changing and will continue to change as more data are acquired, analyzed, and stratified. For caregivers on the front line in acute COVID-19 units, the perspective is shaped by intense experiences both personal and professional. Like a war zone, the intensity is exhausting. Just 2 months ago, the statistics on ventilator mortality were 90%. A recent reevaluation of those statistics has revealed some new data and some new ways of analyzing the data that suggest mortality to be in the 30% range (Hamilton, 2020). There is still insufficient knowledge to land on a reliable data point. However, what is clear is how much is still unclear. For caregivers working in acute units with highly compromised patients, the statistics may not confirm their experiences with mortality. It is hard to change one's mind when one's daily experience contradicts reported data.
COVID-19 is an example of how important it is to continue to take in new data, not formulate hardened positions, and be open to new ways of thinking. Although it is the most visible and present example, many more examples exist in professional practice and personal relationships. The more hardened a position or point of view has become, the more difficult it is to accept new data. It is also true that holding firm positions is seen as a more attractive trait—decisive, committed, firm—than appearing to be equivocal—flip-flopper, indecisive, unreliable. These characterizations perpetuate the belief that changing one's mind is not desirable or valuable.
What Is a Professional Development Leader to Do?
Understanding the communities in which people live and work provides great insight into their ways of thinking and being. “We do not think alone,” as Sloman and Fernback (2017) asserted, and they went further to say: “Awareness that knowledge lives in a community gives us a different way to conceive of intelligence. Instead of regarding intelligence as a personal attribute, it can be understood as how much an individual contributes to the community” (Sloman & Fernback, 2017, p. 206). First, understand the community and the basis for the current thinking. Encourage a broadening of the community either through dialogue or shared experiences. This can take the form of discussion groups with small-group breakouts and well-formed activities. Initially, topics that are not high risk or explosive in nature can minimize the effects of ego challenges. Using examples of past changes in knowledge and practice as cases for exploration can provide a more positive view of mind changing. Over time, through a series of activities with increasing levels of risk, controversy, and diversity of thinking and community, the professional development leader can cultivate the notion that changing one's mind can be a powerful advantage, both personally and professionally. Such changes are transformational to the success of teams because the team is a combination of the inputs of the individual and vice versa. Professional development leaders who invest in complex skills such as mind changing can influence new thinking at scale.