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  • Dan Connors

Changing minds in an age of certainty and distrust. New techniques that can open hearts and brains.

How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion

“I feel I change my mind all the time. And I sort of feel that's your responsibility as a person, as a human being – to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don't contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you're not thinking.”

― Malcolm Gladwell

“Understanding how your own mind operates frees you to become the person you truly are.

Your mind wants to keep you safe... but only according to the rules it has learned.

True freedom comes when you learn to choose to change your beliefs rather than running on default.”

― Monty Ritchings

Why do people cling to beliefs when all around them are signs that things are broken? Why all of a sudden are things like cigarette smoking bad while homosexuality isn't so bad? Sometimes it seems like we are stuck in a rut of entrenched belief structures, but once in a while huge changes in attitudes can come out of the blue. How do even the most stubbornly certain people eventually change their minds, and is there anything the rest of us can do to bring them around?

These are some of the questions looked at in a fascinating new book, How Minds Change, by David McRaney. Mr. McRaney is a science journalist and author of a best-seller and blog titled You Are Not So Smart. He produces a podcast that interviews scientists about the psychology of reasoning, decision-making, and judgment. The topic of how we think and decide is one of my favorites, and this book doesn't disappoint as it looks at why some people change and others don't.

McRaney tells the story of several people who left cult-like belief systems, including some members of the gay-hating Westboro church and a 9/11 truther who was ostracized by his community of questioners when he started to agree that the scientists were right about how the twin towers fell. When these people finally came around, they were cut off from their communities, which is one reason people don't like to change their mind too much- the threat of ostracism is a life or death threat from the days of early mankind. We need each other so much that we're willing to put up with absurd or authoritarian leadership rather than rock the boat and risk being kicked out. It reminded me of the Republican congressman from Buffalo who changed his mind on gun control after the horrific mass shooting there, only to be shunned by members of his own party and forced to drop out of his re-election bid.

We have a lot of good reasons for sticking with our guns, even in the face of conflicting information. Our cognitive biases serve us well in that regard. Confirmation bias helps us only look at information that agrees with our current assumptions, while the backfire effect makes us even more certain of our positions when presented with conflicting information. And naive realism makes us believe that those who disagree with us are only lacking the facts that we have, and if we show them our facts they should immediately change their opinion.

McRaney discusses the example of "The Dress", a photograph that broke the internet. Because of the odd lighting of the photograph, some people saw it as gold and white, while others saw it as blue and black (which was the actual color). Many arguments came about because of honest perceptual differences in that picture, and it's a fascinating story. The lesson of "The Dress" is that our brains hate uncertainty, and when we see things that are unclear or ambiguous, as that poor quality photograph portrayed, we make things up based on past experiences and current assumptions. Some saw that photo and saw one thing- others saw it very differently. From their own viewpoints, neither side was completely wrong, but obviously our brain is imperfect in the perceptions and models that it comes up with.

Our brains construct models of reality based on our previous experiences. In that regard, there is no "reality" besides the millions of models inside of our brains. When we see things that conflict with our models, they cause a disequilibrium and force us to do one of three things. We can assimilate that new information into our models if it isn't too threatening, we can accommodate that new information by revising our models, or we can reject the new information by discounting its source. In these days of information overload, we often choose the third option to save time and energy, because conflicting and disturbing things are hitting on us every day. Sometimes the simplest models are the strongest, but rarely are they the best. We live in a complex and interconnected world, and building models that take all of that into account is a long, demanding, and constant process.

McRaney devotes and entire chapter to Westboro Baptist Church and its hateful protests of funerals with their anti-gay messages. I found it fascinating that the founder Fred Phelps, whose children now run the church, may have been excommunicated towards the end of his life because he had a revelation that gay people weren't so bad after all. The paradigm shift on LGBT Americans was so swift and overwhelming that it took a lot of people by surprise, and the two politicians in the middle of it, Barack Obama and George W Bush both did surprising 180's on the subject in the course of a few years.

Humans are social beings, and our mental paradigms are more and more controlled by our tribal allegiances. The problem with tribal allegiances is that they punish the people outside of the tribe, denoting a "them" category upon which distrust, hate, and conspiracy theories can be dumped. The only way around this tribalism, which reinforces itself with threats of ostracism, is by emphasizing multiple levels of tribes and not putting all of your eggs in one basket. Thus a Trump supporter could also be considered a Yankees fan, a father, a union member, a Grateful Dead fan, or one of many other significant tribes that balance out his allegiances. This balancing act and willingness to explore other groups is what saved several of the main subjects of this book- they began relationships outside of their tribe and had the perspective to be able to see their old tribe in a new light.

McRaney highlights several techniques that are showing promise in changing minds- specifically from cult-like groups stuck in airtight conspiracy theories to more accepting groups. These include.

- Motivational Interviewing. This has worked wonders in overcoming vaccine skeptics and is popular with counselors dealing with a lot of bad habits. It uses compassionate dialogue to help people get to the root of their motivations and make positive behavior changes.

- Deep Canvassing. This is a fairly new technique that has been used door to door in campaigns to help people understand why they feel the way they do and become open to other experiences. The canvasser, rather than ask what you believe, asks how do you feel about this topic and why do you feel this way, hoping to get them to go back to significant experiences and stories that molded their beliefs. By asking open-ended questions, building rapport, and sharing their own stories around a topic, this technique has been proven to make lasting change in beliefs, specifically around LGBT attitudes, which is where it was first attempted.

- Street epistemology. This is not necessarily an attempt to change a mind to a desired result, but more an attempt to strengthen thought by inviting participants to look at a deeply held belief and uncover the reasoning behind it. Epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge, and this promising technique invites participants to look at what they think they know a bit more deeply through honest, respectful conversations that establish rapport and ask people to dive deep and justify where their beliefs came from. There are videos of this technique on You Tube that show the process in depth.

Want to change minds? Here's what doesn't work:

-Graphs, charts and numbers

-Yelling and arguing

-Threats to identity

-Talking down to people


-Appeals to external authorities, higher powers, or just recognize the facts

Here's what does work: (Warning, you may end up changing your own mind)

- Rapport, empathy, and friendship plus person to person contact

- Persistence

- Open-ended questions

- Personal stories that show where you're coming from

- Respectful introspection

- Transparency and a genuine desire to build understanding

We all like to think that we're rational, but we're more emotional that we'd like to believe. We'd like to think that we know things, but in reality we're ignorant of the many, many things that we don't know, including why one picture of a dress can confuse us so much. Society has seen some big swings in beliefs regarding cigarettes, LGBT issues, religion, race and gender issues, and climate change, but somehow we still remain stalemated on stubborn blocks that divide and polarize us. In order to make progress, techniques like the ones described in this book will be essential if we're ever to arrive at a national consensus on important things and avoid a descent into chaos or authoritarianism.

This is an important look at a big topic. I also recommend the author's other two books, You are Not So Smart and You are Now Less Dumb, both of which look at how we process our beliefs and attitudes.

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