By Joseph Krieger
“How To Change a Mind” was written and published as part of ECore’s special on community organizing and local politics, Operation: People Power.
In the current political climate, polarization and self righteousness are the norm. We interact mostly with the people who think like us and dehumanize the opponents for having the gall to even consider not thinking the way we think. As students who care about the environment as well as other social justice issues, we often have to interact with people who disagree with our goals and worldview. This article will help you to understand why people hold the beliefs they do, and how to have a better conversations with this flavor of person that will increase the chance of changing their mind.
Think of the view or belief you hold the most strongly. Maybe it’s what a woman has the freedom to do, whether or not taxation is theft, if immigration is going to nourish or destroy our country, or whether climate change is a real threat to humanity or a hippy socialist conspiracy to take down corporations. Whatever it may be, there is a high likelihood that there is someone who is equally passionate about the issue but holds the exact opposite view that you do. But other people hold their belief because they’re ignorant, brainwashed, and generally want to see the world go to shit, while we hold our view because we’re well read, thoughtful, free-thinkers who are going to save humanity with our rationality and insight, right? Our righteousness is not unique, it is human.
But where do people even get their beliefs from in the first place? What makes someone believe what they do? Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has spent years researching this issue and has come to many eye-opening conclusions. He aims to help people understand the “other side,” whether that is political, religious, or anything else. Haidt wants us to believe that differences of opinion occur not because other people are stupid, but because they live in a different world, and that world is not too dissimilar from your own.
To begin with, Haidt argues that the majority of our decisions are not made “rationally,” but are made emotionally. When presented with a dilemma, people usually make a decision in a split second. This decision doesn’t happen in the conscious mind, it happens in the “gut.” The metaphor he uses to describe this process is “The Elephant and the Rider” metaphor. Basically, our conscious thought is the rider on the elephant of our emotions. Most control we perceive to have is simply illusory; we are trapped on whatever path the elephant travels. To make matters more difficult, humans are experts at rationalizing decisions we’ve already made emotionally. This is referred to as “post hoc rationalization,” which we use to protect our fragile egos and justify why we ended up on the path we’re currently traveling (1). For example, if I were in a long, happy, successful romantic relationship, but accidently forgot it was our anniversary, I would likely deliver a string of justifications for my thoughtless mistake, such as, “it’s been such a busy month” or “I probably have an undiagnosed brain injury which led me to not remember.” At the time I may fully believe the truth value of these claims, but that doesn’t mean that they are actually true. I would really be making these excuses as an attempt to protect my own ego and deflect blame onto something out of my control.
This issue of post hoc rationalization is just as prevalent in politics as it is in everyday life. We see this in arguments against immigration, where people’s views against it are most likely made in their gut because they are emotionally offset by the idea, but their argument devolves into something along the lines of “the U.S. will never solve the problem of world poverty, so why try to make an impact by allowing a couple million people into our country?”(6) By understanding common thought patterns and recognizing the fact that we are all subject to these logical downfalls, we can gain empathy for people who have very different beliefs and more the conversation forward in a more productive way.
A difficulty we face as hopeful changers-of-minds is dealing with people who are seemingly so entrenched in their beliefs that their minds will not budge. Frustration boils over for both parties during these interactions because it feels as if you aren’t even communicating with each other. One piece of data that can help you fully let go of this frustration is the evidence that people are genetically predisposed to have certain sets of beliefs. Studies have shown that genetics have a large influence in affecting a person’s personality (rather than purely environmental factors), which brings into question how much we really choose our beliefs (5). The implications of these studies in the context of passionate disagreements are immediately clear. When interacting with people, we must understand that they are not fully at fault for the beliefs they hold; everyone’s beliefs are, to some degree, something that happened to them rather than something they freely chose.
Further reason to accept this understanding can be gained through introspection: think of how many of your personal beliefs came naturally to you, or how relatively easy it was to change your views on certain issues. Of course there are exceptions, considering the nature versus nurture debate is not black and white and culture can strongly sway someone’s views. But what Haidt argues is that our genetics give us a “rough draft” of the way we view the world (1). Sure, your culture can edit this draft, but the path of least resistance is the path that confirms the beliefs you already feel emotionally. Understanding this is key to changing the dynamic of disagreements from a heated, unproductive mess to an understanding, open-minded, mutually-beneficial experience.
Up until this point, I’ve only discussed why people believe the things they do and I’ve yet to explain how to change those beliefs. This is because when we’re blinded by emotional frustration and self-righteousness, we tend to be grossly ineffective at achieving the goal of changing a view. So once we gain an understanding that many of our beliefs are emotional, post hoc rationalized, and genetically predisposed, we can move forward with patience and curiosity when discussing the great controversial topics of our time. The methods for changing a mind are Dale Carnegie’s friendship techniques, Robert Cialdini’s insights on persuasion, and Haidt’s research on appealing to person’s own moral foundations.
In Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which was first published in 1936, Carnegie outlines many strategies that involve everything from leadership skills to interactions in everyday life. Two of his points that are most relevant to the topic of changing someone’s mind are “the only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it” and “show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say ‘you’re wrong’” (2). In the first point, Carnegie contends that in an argument, there is no winner. If we lose the argument, we lose, but if we win the argument, the other person loses face, feels uncomfortable around you, and is less likely to change their way of thinking. Rather than arguments, we should strive for calm and open-minded disagreements, keeping our own emotions at bay and strongly considering the opposing side’s point of view. The second point ties in very closely with the first: when discussing a heavy topic, avoid saying “you’re wrong” to the other person. This will most likely lead the person to feel hurt, humiliated, or angry – all of which have no use in the task of gently changing someone’s mind. Furthermore, there is still a possibility that you are the one that is wrong, and stating your position so abrasively could embarrass you later on. Although Carnegie’s book is over 80 years old, filled with personal anecdotes, and gives advice that is for the most part extremely intuitive, these obvious mistakes are made constantly by otherwise very thoughtful people. There is a reason this book has sold over 30 million copies: because it works.
Psychologist Robert Cialdini wrote Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion to explain what tactics are used to make people say “yes.” Although his book is much more focused on marketing and consumer behavior, there are points that are equally valuable for the strategy of changing someone’s mind. One of the points made is to find common ground with the person you’re disagreeing with, whether that be ideologically or just a common interest (3). Once the person sees you as someone similar to themselves, they are more likely to be open to a change of mind because they have a greater trust for you and your opinions. Another way of developing a closer relationship before approaching a disagreement is complimenting them. Once the other person views you in a relatively positive light, they humanize you and your perspectives. There is also evidence that shows that people are more likely to change their views or actions based on whether other people who are similar to them are acting in that way. So, for example, to convince a right-leaning person to care more about the environment, you could reference prominent conservative politicians (which is also an appeal to authority) who hold environmentally conscious views. Although Cialdini and Carnegie’s teachings seem to have an undertone of manipulation, when used with care, they can be harnessed to help make the world a better place.
Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues have developed a theory called Moral Foundation Theory (7), which argues that people of different political beliefs hold different amounts of six moral foundations: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. This can get kind of complicated, so I encourage you to read more online if you’re interested, and especially read Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. The basic concept is that we have these moral “taste buds” and that certain people like certain tastes more than others. Liberals care more about care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, libertarians care mostly about liberty/oppression, and conservatives care equally about all six. So when discussing issues to the “in-group,” meaning discussion between ideologically similar people, the language used is highly specific in order to appeal to these moral foundations that we connect to on an emotional level. This is why you get excited and inspired when you hear a politician speak who you agree with, but confused and irritated when you hear the opposing party’s speeches.
With the acceptance of the Moral Foundations Theory, more research has been done to figure out what specific wording and conceptualizations of arguments change a person’s mind. The result is, unsurprisingly, if you take an argument that a particular political ideology tends to not agree with, and frame it in a way that appeals to that person’s moral foundations, then you have a much higher chance of changing their mind. From a 2013 study, researchers found that, “reframing environmental messages in terms of purity and sanctity can reduce or even eliminate the differences in liberal and conservative environmental attitudes” (4). For example, when discussing the concept of environmental protection with someone who identifies as a Republican, it has been shown that by framing the issue in terms of how disgusting it is that we are degrading the environment and showing extreme disrespect to the earth rather than diving into the complicated, somewhat boring science behind climate change and pollution, you have a better chance of getting them to change their views on that issue.
Ultimately, trying to change someone’s mind is a long, difficult, complicated, and occasionally futile process. We have all evolved to thoughtlessly defend our views at the expense of logic and reason, so it is crucial to understand that when trying to alter someone’s fundamental belief, you are at war with human nature. With the wisdom of Haidt, Carnegie, and Cialdini, we can do our best to spread the messages we firmly believe will make the world a better place. However, there may be times when we need to take a step back and analyze our own righteousness, because there’s a good chance that we all hold views that are worth discarding, and the only way to realize this is to be open to changing your own mind.
(1) The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
(2) How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
(3) Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini