Caplan on Irrational Belief Changing

Bryan Caplan has recently been writing blogs about how people often change their minds for irrational reasons. His belief that people do so is based on the observation that many people don’t seem to have a very good understanding of their previous ideologues and cannot give good reasons for abandoning them. This is certainly true in my experience with talking to people who have shifted ideologues. However, I think Caplan is focusing on the end state of a process that occurs over time.

Anecdotally, it seems that there are many people who change their opinion about something who at first have a fairly reasonable explanation of why they change their views and the new view they have adopted is as close to their old view as is possible while addressing their initial concern. As time goes on, their views become increasingly detached from their previous concerns, and their explanations for why they left their previous ideology because less rational.

This is purely speculation, but I think a few simple psychological process might explain this phenomenon:

Memory. People forget information they do not use and when you are not spending time defending an ideologue you stop using that information. So you forget it. This is especially true if you don’t spend a lot of time arguing against your past positions either. The people who understand their previous ideologies the least well also tend to interact the least with it.

Social influence. Once people shift ideologue, they are surrounded by a community of people who oppose their old view. The group thinks that the old view is really dumb, and they probably mock people who hold such a view. New converts want to be part of the group, and so they mock their ex-ideology and call it really dumb, too. This becomes what they actually think and neutralizes any need to deal with their previous ideology in a serious, analytic, fashion.

Shifting core values. Ideologues differ in terms of their core values and core values are fundamentally emotional in nature. Being surrounded by a new ideological community can shift your core values and this can cause you to simply not care about arguments you previously found compelling.

The example of this process that I have the most experience with is anti-statist libertarians who come to favor alt-rightist ethnonationalism.

For many such people, they initially abandon libertarianism in response to fairy data rich arguments about how culture is unalterably tied to race. Reluctantly, they come to advocate for border control while still generally wanting a libertarian minarchist like society.

With time, they forget how libertarians defend their ideas. They engage in sophomoric arguments that all libertarians have answers for. They made fun of libertarians in ways that imply that the average anarcho-capitalist has a learning disability. And they have a shift in core values such that they simply no longer care about freedom and liberty nor, in many cases, general human happiness.

I know that this sort of process has happened to me before. For instance, when I initially stopped advocating anarcho-capitalism I had lots of long arguments about the plausibility of privatizing legal structures and defense. I haven’t argued about the topic in years now, and I don’t remember what many of my arguments were.

Going back further, there was a time when I supported the Iraq war. I have no idea why, and I don’t think I could defend that view in a plausible way today.

In a way, this is all rather surprising. We might expect people who used to believe something but no longer do to understand it really well. I think this expectation is rational if the convert just changed their beliefs.

On the other hand, I can’t think of any good reason why we would expect people to maintain their nuanced understanding of an ideology years after they stopped espousing it, so maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising.


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