Why Changing Minds Is So Hard

Anyone who’s spent more than ten minutes on Facebook (or five minutes listening as Uncle Tommy shares his alien abduction theories over the Thanksgiving table) knows that changing people’s minds is surprisingly difficult.

Why is that? Why are beliefs, even plainly irrational ones, so stubbornly resistant to change?

That’s the topic of a recent article in UC Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine, which seeks (as described in its tagline) “Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life.” Author Elizabeth Svoboda investigates why we – all of us – resist rational persuasion and lean instead on emotions and group affiliation when forming opinions.

The question is significant. How are scientific beliefs changed? Religious beliefs? Political ones? Christians and Muslims, theists and atheists, Democrats and Republicans, even people in different scientific camps, will differ over precisely which beliefs are misled or misinformed. Yet they would agree that false beliefs – and the actions they inspire in individuals and groups – are enormously costly.

Established beliefs and convictions have a tight hold over us. They shape our identities, define our groups, and identify our enemies. When our beliefs are challenged, altering them feels risky, destabilizing, and threatening to our tribal identity. “Defection, in short, feels as terrifying as stepping off a window ledge,” writes Svoboda. “When you think and behave in ways that separate you from members of your close community, you’re likely to experience at least some level of exclusion.” Change your views, and you may have to change your relationships – or may find them changed for you. The benefit may not feel worth the risk.

In addition to facing alienation from a tribe, researchers have noted that “most people would rather deny or downplay new, uncomfortable information than reshape their worldview to accommodate it.” The construction of a worldview, in other words, takes work. Change your views in one area, and your new belief may conflict with other beliefs you still hold, and require their reconsideration. Either you accept the strain of the cognitive dissonance or you must engage in the meticulous work of reconstructing your view of the world piece by piece.

Photomosaic of a seagull | ORBITER magazine

Image courtesy of Wikipedia via Creative Commons

We tend to think of worldviews as orderly sets of beliefs about the world. What if they’re more like photomosaics – where thousands of smaller images blend together into a general view of reality? And what if each of those smaller images is a mosaic itself, a mishmash of opinions and impressions, collected haphazardly over time? Change a few of those images and our eyes can still discern the overall picture. Change a few more images, especially the critical ones, and the weight of all the surrounding images will lead us to try to force the few discordant ones back into conformity with the rest.

Back to Svoboda: she notes too a classic study in which participants favored beliefs that justified their earlier actions. If adopting a belief implies that I have acted in ways that were unwise, unjust, or even embarrassing, the psychic cost of the new belief becomes all the greater. Think here of cult members who would rather cling to irrational beliefs than admit that they had made extraordinary sacrifices on false premises.

There’s more to be said on the topic than what Svoboda summarizes. Different camps also appeal to different authorities (the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend examined how this functions in competing scientific schools of thought) and regard each other’s sources of information with suspicion. We differ, in other words, not only over the right interpretation of the facts, but over what is factual and where facts come from. Different audiences will hear the same information differently. Cognitive scientists Mercier and Sperber have dubbed this error of inductive reasoning as myside bias. “Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.” Social scientists (the seminal work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman is much in the news lately, due to Michael Lewis’ recent book) have also documented dozens of ways in which psychological quirks lead to false beliefs and ill informed behavior.

For all these reasons, altering our convictions is not a simple process. Seeking to alter the beliefs of others is even more difficult. So how is it best approached?

Boting Zhang, a Seattle-based author and the creator of Between Americans, is documenting how relationships between Trump and Clinton supporters are changing in the months after the election. Based on participants’ conversations, Zhang advises approaching challenging conversations with the assumption that you won’t change the other person’s views. Instead, first seek to listen deeply, and to care about the person you’re engaging with. To those ground rules Svoboda add three additional recommendations for building bridges while discussing potentially divisive topics.

  1. Learn about your conversation partner. “Talk to them about their early years, or about the biggest personal challenge they’ve faced,” Svoboda recommends. “Their answers may give you unexpected insight into why they behave as they do.”
  2. Ask open-ended questions. When approaching controversial subjects, avoid being confrontational with your questions. Frame the question neutrally, for example, “How did you feel about the recent executive order?”
  3. Cut out contempt. Contempt can be signaled through language and behavior, such as eye-rolling, personal insults, sneering, stonewalling, and biting sarcasm. Psychologist John Gottman has identified this argumentative style as devastating to close relationships, even citing it as the top predictor of divorce. “It conveys [the] message: ‘You, your thoughts, and your views are utterly beneath me.’”

Of course, the kind of persuasion that endures long-term, in Svoboda’s words, “isn’t a one-sided sales job.” Few listeners will grant an open mind unless they sense an open mind in their interlocutor. Transformative conversation is “a fertile exchange—one in which your own thinking may evolve in ways you hadn’t expected.”


Editor in Chief, ORBITER magazine