I was 22 when, prodded by some friends, I decided to give vegetarianism a try. I had never been a big meat eater, and, now that I was out on my own, I’d already discovered I didn’t have the stomach for dealing with raw meat in the kitchen.
Though I was not an evangelist for animal welfare, I liked the idea that no animal had to die for my nourishment. As the friends that had converted me went back to meat one by one, I never did. Even when I was pregnant, a time when I’d heard that even the most ardent herbivores can be driven to devour a juicy steak, I didn’t waver.
Still, when dinner companions asked, “So do you do dairy and eggs?”, my response was always, “Oh, yes. I’d die without cheese.” In recent years, the prevalence of veganism — avoiding animal products all together — has grown, but I viewed the practice as extreme, masochistic, and contrarian. Why so much self-inflicted suffering when milking a cow didn’t kill it, and chickens lay eggs regardless of whether humans collect them? When I opened an ice cream shop six years ago, I was adamant that the milk and cream I used be organic, but I never thought seriously about not using them.
Recently, my thinking on the matter has shifted.
Before I get to what changed my mind, I’d like to zoom in on the mental process of changing one’s beliefs about a topic. Researchers have found that it is an exceedingly difficult thing to do because of the twin concepts of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, both of which describe humans’ tendency to only see what supports their existing beliefs. If all humans have this predisposition, then it must serve an evolutionary purpose.
As far as social scientists can surmise, it has to do with social order. Humans out-evolved other species by being able to envision the future and devise complex plans to prepare for it. To do that, we have to have working models of how the world operates. Our plans are only useful insofar as they help us survive. If they do, then we favor them, so we no longer have to expend mental energy working out that particular problem.
But evolution had to build into us a mechanism for adapting our operating models to new circumstances. That mechanism is at work in the instant we go from discounting a certain condition as an outlier to revising the rule about it.
This is the part that I find so magical: for there to be such a tipping point, our brain had to be tallying the previous outliers it was encountering, even as it was discounting them. Parents are using this mechanism to their advantage when they plead with their recalcitrant children to “just try one bite” of a new food. They know that even if their children don’t fall in love with it, their brains have at least classified the food as “not poison,” making them more receptive to eating it again in the future.
So, in my case, my brain had been recording the information it was receiving about veganism, even as it was discrediting it. At a certain point, a critical mass of evidence was met and my brain revised the rule. Understanding this process made it curious for me to watch in real time. It happened when I was listening to a podcast in which the subject being interviewed was talking about the dramatically reduced environmental footprint of a plant-based diet versus an animal-based one. I’d heard this fact more than once, but it was that particular encounter with it that changed my mind. I went from not being inclined toward veganism one minute to being receptive the next.
The bargain I made with myself was to give it try for a couple of days. After that, I would know how easy or hard it was and could make a choice about whether to continue. Turns out, about two months into the experiment, being vegan isn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be, and I still find eating just as pleasurable as it was before.
As far as how I intend to incorporate my new worldview into my dairy-based business, I can only say that those plans are in the works. The change by necessity will be incremental.
As I think about how our minds reprogram themselves in small ways every day, I am reminded of my dad. Ten years ago, we had a heated disagreement about climate change. He didn’t believe that elevating a non-pollutant like carbon dioxide could radically alter the planet. For the sake of the relationship, I decided not to discuss the topic with him anymore. Then, a couple months ago, I was surprised to hear him derisively describe an acquaintance as someone who “doesn’t even believe in climate change.” I let it slide without bringing up our argument from years past. Instead, I took private pleasure in knowing that his brain had rewritten its model on climate change without him even realizing.
With political polarization threatening to crack the foundation of our democratic system, I find it comforting to dwell on this brain change function. It’s good to know that even as a faction seem impossibly, intractably dug in, a part of their brains, unbeknownst to them, is listening and quietly tallying the new information. One day, perhaps without them even knowing how or why, they may find themselves thinking differently.
Katie BurfordRocky Road is a column dedicated to the mind and human behavior written by Katie Burford, who, as a former social worker, journalist, university instructor, nanny and barista, has had a lot of time to observe the species. These days, she’s a mom, professional ice cream maker and writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.