15 June 2022  |

Why and how do people change their minds? Why do we forget important things and remember trivial ones?  Do we remember events as accurately as we think we do? How come two people can be equally confident of different memories of the same event? And regarding prophecy, how do our minds change when prophecy fails? These questions summarize the issues that have fascinated me for the past several years.

Evidently, when we experience an event, our minds change to preserve a record, so to speak, of that event. However, each person records that memory in totally idiosyncratic ways, based on the prior experiences and current expectations that form the context of our perspective on that experience. To the degree that each of us experiences that event individually, the memory formed is unique. What is more, these memory records are not organized images at all. Rather, they are more like scrambled puzzle pieces in a box, that must be reconstructed each time we retrieve the event.

So, what happens if additional pieces get secreted into the box when you are not paying attention? The likely result is that you will reconstruct an image that is different than the one you experienced. The resulting false memory has been demonstrated by various cognitive psychologists, such as Ulrich Neisser, Elisabeth Loftus and Henry Roediger, among others.  That matters a great deal because we depend on our memories, not just to reconstruct our private experiences, but to make important life decisions, and to give testimony that has life consequences for other people as well, like jury decisions. 

While the facts we store in mind seem easy to change, the things we believe turn out to be much more resistant.  When a belief comes under factual challenge, or when a prophecy fails or appears to fail, we are left to reconcile beliefs with the evidence or the facts as they have emerged.

This discrepancy is what social psychologist Leon Festinger came to call cognitive dissonance. The result is that we must either change our minds about the prophecy or the belief, or we must hold on to the belief, but either deny the facts or reinterpret those facts.  A familiar example for us Adventists is the non-appearance of Jesus on October 22, 1844.   What emerged as the sanctuary doctrine represents a reinterpretation of what the prophecy predicted.  A more contemporary example is response of many so-called prophets to the failure of their prophecy that President Trump would be re-elected in 2020. Cognitive dissonance has resulted in many insisting that he was elected but defrauded of the result. Others have even suggested that he has somehow been secretly reinstalled as president and is in place as commander-in-chief, but that the current incumbent is merely a mirage of some sort.

I recently published research showing that people tend to go through a protracted process on the way to changing their system of beliefs, such as their religious or political worldview. Such changes are often triggered by a significant event and accompanied by acute emotional turmoil. Similarly, societies tend to change their minds with difficulty, and often only after significant social ferment. It took a civil war in the 19th century to change America’s position on the enslavement of people, and further civil unrest in the 20th to change its views on racial equality. Signs remain that these changes are not yet complete.  A recent example of dramatic change in the society is its attitude regarding same-sex marriage. This appears to be an exception as this change seems to be occurring even more rapidly, and without the social turmoil observed in the other instances. Social scientist Michael Rosenfeld suggests that a key element here was that as LGBT+ persons came out of the closet, people were able to identify that these were people like them –relatives, coworkers, colleagues, and friends – making them appear less alien and their life choices more acceptable.

Understanding the fragility of memory makes us humble about the decisions we make affecting others and should cause us to reconsider public policies we advocate such as the death penalty. Our society must also change to meet the challenge of racial and ethnic inequality, and of environmental degradation. On the other hand, such changes are not easy for a society to make because people’s beliefs tend to be resilient. Yet, notwithstanding the turmoil that accompanies them, we are challenged to change as individuals and societies when such changes bring us closer to fulfilling Jesus’ prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth …”

(This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of Westwind, the journal of Walla Walla University.)


Austin Cameron Archer, PhD, is a lifelong Adventist from the island of Tobago. He is an Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Education at Walla Walla University, after 30 years on the WWU faculty. His academic specialty is in cognition and learning, and he has had an enduring interest in the ways in which these psychological processes interface with religious experience.


Raj Attiken is retired as president of the Ohio Conference, and teaches as an adjunct professor at Kettering College.

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