changing a mind

It feels nigh-impossible to change a person's mind on matters of importance: political affiliation, abortion, immigration, or climate change. We often struggle to change even our own mind because once an opinion is expressed with strong conviction, the ego will resist changing it later. Yet, there inevitably will be situations where the best course of action is to change one's mind. Painful as it might have been, those who adored Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos eventually had to revise their opinion when it became clear she was defrauding investors. This is not easy, even though some think it should be: "...we weren't born with our opinions. Unlike our height or raw intelligence, we have full control over what we believe is true." -Adam Grant (AG)

My opinions on this topic were largely shaped by these two books:

Published in 2021

Published in 2020

what doesn't work:

  • Lecturing does not change minds because it turns the audience into passive receivers instead of active thinkers. "Lecturing was especially ineffective in debunking known inspiring message...the audience forgets more of the content even while claiming to remember more of it." -AG

  • Presenting information doesn't change minds. "Providing scientific evidence from the CDC didn't correct the misinformation. In fact, just the opposite: it made them less likely to want to vaccinate their kids." -Jonah Berger (JB) "If you present information without permission, no one will listen to you." -AG

  • Pushing against a false belief doesn't work. "When a core belief is questioned, we tend to shut down rather than open up. The technical term for this in psychology is the totalitarian ego, and its job is to keep out threatening information..." -AG

  • People will ignore or even deny the existence of a problem if they're not fond of the solution.

    • Escalation of commitment is a subset of this. A person who has spent 10+ years on the speaking circuit denying a phenomenon (e.g., CO₂ does not cause warming) is loathe to change their position. "Escalation of commitment happens because we're rationalizing creatures, constantly searching for self-justifications for our prior beliefs as a way to soothe our egos, shield our images, and validate our past decisions." - AG

    • Although we revere grit, a desirable combination of passion and perseverance, "grit may have a dark side. Experiments show that gritty people are more likely to overplay their hands in roulette and more willing to stay the course in tasks at which they're failing and success is impossible. Gritty mountaineers are more likely to die on expeditions." -AG

what does work:

tl;dr: try carefully listening with no motivation to change, only seeking to understand.

Adam Grant and Jonah Berger both make the same point in their respective books: people need to feel heard and they're extremely unlikely to change their mind until they are thoroughly listened to. "When we try to convince people to think again, our first instinct is usually to start talking. Yet the most effective way to help others open their minds is often to listen." -AG. Truly, the only person who can change their mind is the owner of that mind. Yet, each of us is not always completely and clearly aware of why we believe certain things. "...find the root. Discover whatever needs and motivations are driving the behavior in the first place. Find the root and the rest will follow." -JB. Sometimes the root is a well-conducted scientific study, sometimes it is an opinion, sometimes it is an irrational desire to fit in. "...people are motivated to seek belonging and status." -AG Suppose a person really wants to fit in or belong to a certain group, but that would require espousing a particular belief that they don't even think is true. They will just drop that belief, right? Not necessarily. Psychologist George Kelly observed that "we become especially hostile when trying to defend opinions we know, deep down, are false."

motivation matters

When asking questions of a person with whom we disagree it is possible that a line of query will subtly express a disapproval or an attempt to influence. "Psychologists have found that when people detect an attempt to influence, they have sophisticated defense mechanisms. The moment people feel that we're trying to persuade them, our behavior takes on a different meaning." -AG. The only pure behavioral motive is a desire to help, to assist a person with achieving their goals. There is a certain arrogance exhibited when we presume to know a better course of action for another human when we don't know their whole story. A 60 y.o. vegan Christian Caucasian truck drive likely can't advise a 20 y.o. pacifist disabled Hispanic neuroscience student the best course of action in life. Therefore, adopting a more humble position of deeply listening with an intent only to understand.

Journalist Kate Murphy writes: "It starts with showing more interest in other people's interests rather than trying to judge their status or prove our own. We can all get better at asking 'truly curious questions that don't have the hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing or correcting.'" Sometimes our own thoughts seem clear in our heads, but they don't come out clearly when spoken. An active listener can facilitate another person's clear expression of thoughts. "When people have a chance to express themselves out loud, they often discover new thoughts." -AG. Put another way by writer E. M. Forster: "How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?" This is critical. People strive for internal consistency. "People get uncomfortable when attitudes and behaviors conflict. To reduce this discomfort, or what scientists call cognitive dissonance, people take steps to bring things back in line." -JB. Sometimes only the act of listening reveals to the speaker their own internal inconsistency!

Forster was evidently an excellent listener because a biographer of his wrote "To speak with [Forster] was to be seduced by an inverted charisma, a sense of being listened to with such an intensity that you had to be your most honest, sharpest, and best self." Deep listening engenders trust. You can actually build a surprising amount of trust with a total stranger in less than an hour. Since I'm only inclined to listen to alternative ideas from someone I trust, this hour is well spent.

listening well may change me instead of the speaker

By listening carefully, we may even discover that our strongly-held contrary position looks less attractive after hearing another person's well-reasoned argument. Dale Carnegie offered this suggestion: If a person makes a statement that you think is wrong—yes, even that you know is wrong—isn’t it better to begin by saying: 'Well, now, look. I thought otherwise, but I may be wrong. I frequently am. And if I am wrong, I want to be put right. Let’s examine the facts.' There’s magic, positive magic, in such phrases as: 'I may be wrong. I frequently am. Let’s examine the facts.' Nobody in the heavens above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth will ever object to your saying: 'I may be wrong. Let’s examine the facts.'"

has listening changed anyone's mind? ever?

In Quebec, Canada there had been two measles outbreaks in a ten year span and doctors were unsuccessful convincing parents to vaccinate their children with facts and figures. So they turned to vaccine whisperers, people who simply sat and listened. Actually they did slightly more than that: they asked open-ended questions, engaged in reflective listening, and affirmed the person's desire and ability to change. After an hour, the whisperer "reminded [her] that she was free to choose whether or not to immunize and trusted her ability and intentions." -AG. While the experience with the doctor had reeked of condescension, hour-long interview was began with: "I accept your decision, it was yours to make. I just want to understand it better." -AG

Respecting of another persons right to make a decision is, paradoxically, the key to change. [AG quote about I change me, not others]. "When people's ability to make their own choices is taken away or even threatened, they react against the potential loss of control. And one way to reassert that sense of control—to feel autonomous—is to engage in the forbidden behavior." -JB.

In the rare cases where someone undergoes a massive switch from life-long republican to democrat or heading to their abortion appointment then deciding to keep the baby instead, it was not because options were taken away. "A few key individuals helped shift their views. Not by telling them what to do or pushing them to change, but by reducing reactance. By allowing for agency. By guiding or shaping their journey and opening their eyes to new information and new ideas." -JB. My wife witnessed this change occur in someone first-hand.

the abortion story