How to Change People’s Minds

What follows is a transcript of Mike Innes’ presentation from the Winnipeg Skeptics‘ second annual SkeptiCamp Winnipeg, an open conference celebrating science and critical thinking.

Computer! Make me an idea! or How to Change People’s Minds

I’m hear to talk to you about how to change people’s minds. With any luck perhaps I’ll be able to change yours as well. Wish me luck…

As you may know, skepticism is about a certain way of looking at the world, just like any other “ism” out there today. But Ideally it is more than that; more than just maintaining a particular list of beliefs. Ideally it should be a way of understanding how we form beliefs in the first place. This is what ought to set a skeptic apart. A skeptics tool-set might be said to include:

  • a curious mind
  • a rational method
  • and a willingness to question everything (especially one’s self)

Such have been the tools of the modern enlightenment. With ideas is big as these, it’s not surprising that we’d want to not just act on them, but to share them, and with any luck to change the world we live in.

But how do we do that?

I’d like to start the task of answering that question with a quote from Einstein:

“The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution.”

—Albert Einstein

I think I could speak for many here that we have participated in, if not experience second-hand many debates where it seemed like one or both of the people involved could never be persuaded by any argument, no matter how logical. I might have sounded something like “YOU’RE WRONG BECAUSE <insert logical argument here>, SO CHANGE YOUR MIND ALREADY!” I liken this to kicking the tires on your car when it won’t start and demand it to answer for itself. Or for the geeks in the room, like being on Star Trek and saying “Computer, make them understand!” We just want to know what the trick is. What’s that bit of magic that unlocks Pandora’s Box? What’s the solution?

If you hold to the notion that all people or even most people believe what they do for reasons which they’ve carefully thought out… think again. In his article “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science”, Chris Mooney describes how “we may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers” when prompted to evaluate our most favoured beliefs. In other words, we can sometimes become so emotionally invested in our beliefs that we seek to defend them like a lawyer who will use any argument necessary to win.

So you might ask “why all this emotional investment”? Have we not yet evolved to realize that the truth or falsehood of something is more important than how we feel about it? Certainly it would be advantageous if we had.

Dan Pearce of the Single Dad Laughing blog in a post titled “Why do you believe what you believe?” wrote that “everything always went so much smoother in all the dynamics of [his] life” when he adopted the beliefs of his family and friends. He said it was fear that motivated him; fear that discouraged anything that might threaten the family bond. You see, these beliefs are not merely a database of discovered facts collected and stored in the brain:

They are the building blocks of our identities, the social glue that ties us together and the measure by which we judge those whom we encounter. They mean a lot to us!

One of the most important adaptations in our evolutionary history was to become a social animal. It would seem that this was more immediately accessible and advantageous for our survival than developing swollen heads with three pound brains in them capable of rational thought. So I think that this might be why those simplistic and self-preserving instincts are still more prevalent in us than unbiased rationality.

Evolution is not perfect after all. It is not survival of the fittest, but merely survival of the good enough.

Evolution is change, and change is struggle, and adaptation often comes at the fringes of normalcy.

What seems relatively fringe even now in this age of supposed enlightenment, is having a nature of true self-awareness.

Robert Kegan, developmental psychologist of Harvard University and author of The Evolving Self says that “successfully functioning in a society with diverse values … requires us to have a relationship to our own reactions rather than be captive of them.”

By “reactions” what he means is “our tendencies to make right or true, that which is merely familiar, and wrong or false, that which is only strange.”

But we don’t just do this with ideas. We also do it with people. If we are not self-aware, we have a tendency to think of the people we’re trying to persuade as embodiments of wrongness and falseness without being consciously aware of it. Not just incorrect, but bad and unworthy.

While our words may be all fact and logic, we may also be communicating unwittingly and sub-consciously these perceived value-judgments of them as people. If this is the case, you might as well be holding a gun to their hand and demanding that they trust you as you will have already triggered their psychological defenses.

Historically new ideas have been spread by one of two methods:

  1. By decree of authority, power and force.
  2. Through relationships of trust.

If you were at the MASH film festival you might remember the RSA video about the empathic civilization. It talked about how as a species, we have redefined many times what community means to us. We have expanded our concept of community from our immediate blood ties and tribes, to religious and national identities, and to identities based simply on shared ideology.

I’m here to say that the key to unlocking ideological barriers with others in this global community is not the BIG GUN of a better, stronger and more logical argument. At least not exclusively. The key is empathy. To have empathy is to see that other person as someone who is (for the most part) like you, sharing many of the same values, needs, and reality. This attitude is emitted subconsciously and helps to unlock the door of trust. Even for me it took hearing it from someone I could trust before I would try on some of the new ideas that are now core to me.

Of course I’m not saying that facts don’t matter. Of course they do, but when it comes to changing minds, facts are like food. It’s hard to eat when it’s being thrown at your head. 😉

You might be disappointed at this point that this was not a step by step “how-to” with lots of tips and psychological tricks on how to win at the game of bending people to your will. There’s a parallel that comes to mind here from a personal story of mine.

I remember a few years ago being drawn into the PUA (or pick up artist) online community. I remember thinking “This is so cool!” If I can just learn all their awesome tricks, I can make women like me, and then I’ll be popular and happy and life will be perfect. What happened though, was that in listening to all their tricks and the explanations and why they worked, it became apparent to me that these tricks were designed to emulate something more substantial and fundamental than just behaviours. It also became apparent that trying to keep up a facade of something that wasn’t really there would be exhausting, and besides I didn’t just want to emulate that thing. I wanted to have it. So instead of becoming a PUA, I decided to work on becoming a better person.

And so we come full circle to the quote at the beginning by Alfred Einstein. Sometimes choosing the right goal is more important than figuring out the best methods. To rework a complex machine requires spending some time figuring out how that machine works. But more than that, we might find out that the best place to start, is to rework ourselves.

Thank you.

The video of this talk, and of the other eleven from SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2011, will soon be available right here on the Winnipeg Skeptics blog. Stay tuned!


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