Understanding when to abandon beliefs and when to recommit to them can help us ride out this pandemic and prepare for the next one.
By Olga Khazan
In the spring of 2020, as Americans continued to proclaim their excitement for basketball games and parades, an ER doctor named Dylan Smith watched in dismay. Was everyone else ignoring reality? That March, New York City hesitated to close its schools during the city’s first COVID wave. Smith was horrified. A major pandemic was arriving, and softening its blow would require closing schools, which he believed was the best way to protect kids. “There were a lot of suggestions that kids would be these super–carrier vectors,” he says, “where they would come home and they would infect Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa, and they would infect teachers at school.
Now, two years later, Smith has changed his mind. He thinks schools should’ve reopened much sooner—by early 2021 at the latest. In other words, Smith admits to rethinking one of his positions on COVID-19, an act that sometimes feels as risky as telling 17th-century Florentines that Earth revolves around the sun. Not everyone will agree with Smith’s reassessment. But maybe we can learn something from his willingness to do it.
Then, he began to see kids come into the hospital with mental-health emergencies at alarming rates. Kids were having panic attacks and trying to kill themselves; some were saying they were stressed out because they couldn’t see their friends. What he saw mirrors national trends: 37 percent of high schoolers have experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, according to a CDC survey.
But as in other parts of the country, pediatric psych wards in Northern Virginia were so full that the kids would remain in the ER for three or four days while the doctors tried to find an open psychiatric bed. “They were just sitting in an ER room,” Smith told me. A social worker would stop by each day to check on them, and someone would roll a TV console from room to room. In the summer of 2020, he started to see younger and younger kids involved in shootings and stabbings. (Gun violence among kids younger than 17 spiked nationally in 2020.)
It’s hard to know what to chalk all of these issues up to—the ennui of Zoom school; less structure and supervision; the pandemic that, in teenage years, has seemed to grind on forever. But Smith noticed that movie theaters and restaurants were opening back up. Schools seemed more important. After vaccines became widely available in 2021, Smith didn’t see any further justification for school closures. When people expressed doubts about school reopenings, he made his opinion clear: The science supported it.
Many of us have updated our beliefs about COVID at some point in the past two years, even if we haven’t said so publicly. Perhaps you started out worried that the coronavirus was easily transmitted via surfaces, then you discarded that fear upon further evidence. Maybe you are a major infectious-disease specialist who at first thought that young, healthy people didn’t need boosters, then decided they should get them after all. Maybe you committed the ultimate noble flip-flop: You overcame your skepticism of vaccines and opted to get vaccinated.
Confessing that we’ve changed our opinion is hard, and not only because we don’t like feeling stupid, or looking stupid, or being exiled from certain circles of Twitter. “If I admit I’m wrong, then I have a harder time relying on my own judgment every time I make a decision or have an opinion,” says Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the author, most recently, of Think Again. “I’m admitting that my convictions about the world are often incorrect, and that that makes the world a little bit scarier to live in.”
People get especially rigid in frightening and unpredictable situations. The pandemic has made many of us “seize and freeze in order to restore that sense of control,” Grant told me. The restaurants that are still using QR codes rather than paper menus—ostensibly for COVID reasons—are perhaps practicing a little terror management alongside their cost cutting.
Tenelle Porter, a psychologist at UC Davis, studies so-called intellectual humility, or the recognition that we have imperfect information and thus our beliefs might be wrong. Practicing intellectual humility, she says, is harder when you’re very active on the internet, or when you’re operating in a cutthroat culture. That might be why it pains me—a very online person working in the very competitive culture of journalism—to say that I was incredibly wrong about COVID at first. In late February 2020, when Smith was sounding the alarm among his co-workers, I had drinks with a colleague who asked me if I was worried about “this new coronavirus thing.”
“No!” I said. After all, I had covered swine flu, which blew over quickly and wasn’t very deadly.
A few days later, my mom called and asked me the same question. “People in Italy are staying inside their houses,” she pointed out.
“Yeah,” I said. “But SARS and MERS both stayed pretty localized to the regions they originally struck.”
Then, a few weeks later, when we were already working from home and buying dried beans, a friend asked me if she should be worried about her wedding, which was scheduled for October 2020.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “They will have figured out a vaccine or something by then.” Her wedding finally took place this month.
Smith talks like an ER doctor, giving you just enough information but not so much that it might slow him down. He’s 30 and has one of those apathetic buzz cuts that busy guys get. In our Zoom calls, his cat, Bucky, would periodically yowl in the background.
One thing that allows people like Smith to talk so openly about changing their mind is a loose attachment to their opinions. “Don’t let your ideas become part of your identity,” said Grant, the organizational psychologist.
Here, he’s using science-speak: acknowledging the contradicting evidence, evaluating the claim, and coming to the best conclusion you can under the circumstances. His is an attitude born of the emergency room, where you don’t always have a patient’s full test results before you have to treat them. He’s not saying it was wrong to close schools in 2020, just that as we accumulated more evidence and developed vaccines, the evidence pointed in the opposite direction.
According to Grant, the best way to keep an open mind in an unclear situation is to do just this: Think like a scientist. (The other, lesser ways to think are like a “preacher, prosecutor, and politician,” which are what they sound like.) The writer Julia Galef calls this “the scout mindset,” as opposed to the “soldier mindset.” The scout and scientist mindsets are approximately the same thing: “The motivation to see things as they are, not as you wish they were,” she writes in her eponymous book.
Thinking like a scientist, or a scout, means “recognizing that every single one of your opinions is a hypothesis waiting to be tested. And every decision you make is an experiment where you forgot to have a control group,” Grant said. The best way to hold opinions or make predictions is to determine what you think given the state of the evidence—and then decide what it would take for you to change your mind. Not only are you committing to staying open-minded; you’re committing to the possibility that you might be wrong.
Because the coronavirus has proved volatile and unpredictable, we should evaluate it as a scientist would. We can’t hold so tightly to prior beliefs that we allow them to guide our behavior when the facts on the ground change. This might mean that we lose our masks one month and don them again the next, or reschedule an indoor party until after case numbers decrease. It might mean supporting strict lockdowns in the spring of 2020 but not in the spring of 2022. It might even mean closing schools again, if a new variant seems to attack children. We should think of masks and other COVID precautions not as shibboleths but like rain boots and umbrellas, as Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus-response coordinator, has put it. There’s no sense in being pro- or anti-umbrella. You just take it out when it’s raining.
Understanding when to abandon beliefs and when to recommit to them can help us ride out this pandemic and prepare for the next one. In a pandemic, we need “to be continually discovering and learning new things,” Porter told me. Still, she added, in a moment of intellectual humility: “I don’t know that we have hard data on that.”
Though people often deride those who change their mind as hypocrites, Grant and others think it’s a mark of integrity. It’s a sign that you’re committed to the truth, not committed to an idea.
Smith didn’t publicly advocate for schools to reopen for in-person learning. He’s on Twitter, but he has few followers and rarely tweets. The only person who called him on his about-face was his wife. “I remember when you said that schools should close down and that people are being idiots for not closing schools down,” she told him.
“Yeah,” he said, evaluating the evidence. “You’re right.”