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How To Change A Person’s Mind

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I’ve been thinking about my Facebook news feed lately. Like many of you, I have friends of various political and religious persuasions who make it their life’s work to make you aware of their views on issues.

Some of it is spice of life stuff. Something you might have found interesting, interspersed between pictures of adorable pets, or children, or feet on a beach in some desirable place. For others, it’s a calling and they spend their time either preaching to a handpicked, self-selected choir or trading comments with the chronically argumentative or bored.

These are good people, I think. They want to help educate the world. If that’s what you want to do with your free time, more power to you. But there’s some bad news that you should know before you spend too much time on this endeavor: People don’t want to change their minds.

A year old article in The New Yorker lays out the crux of the issue associated with the challenge: Any logical approach to changing minds simply doesn’t work.

In one such study, a team of scientists followed around a group of 2,000 parents for three years. Could they affect their views on vaccines based on a variety of methods?

Each household received one of four messages: a leaflet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that there had been no evidence linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (M.M.R.) vaccine and autism; a leaflet from the Vaccine Information Statement on the dangers of the diseases that the M.M.R. vaccine prevents; photographs of children who had suffered from the diseases; and a dramatic story from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about an infant who almost died of measles. A control group did not receive any information at all. The goal was to test whether facts, science, emotions, or stories could make people change their minds.

The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. None of the interventions worked.

Oof! And not only did they not work. In some of the cases, they made matters worse!

Logically, you would think that one or all of these besides the control group would have a positive impact on vaccination rates and attitudes. The fact that not a single one did speaks to a greater issue at hand: Beliefs can be very difficult to change, especially if they are closely held or part of our identity. In fact, the most difficult beliefs to change are those that are embedded in our sense of self.

You are, at a very basic level, trying to change the identity of an individual when you are trying to change their mind. When you challenge people with appeals to facts or emotion, you are also challenging who they are at their very core. The more important an issue is to the identity of the person and the longer they’ve held that point of view, the tougher it is to change their mind.

Study after study has shown that facts and stories are processed incredibly selectively based on how you identify as an individual. For example, people with high racial biases persisted in racially profiling crimes negatively against a minority, even after being corrected. Conversely, people with low racial biases persisted in racially profiling crimes positively toward a minority, even after being corrected.

There’s even a more problematic issue here: These studies dealt with mostly assessing views on factual information as it relates to a person’s identity or belief structure. The difficulty in convincing people on issues where there is no factually correct answer is even fuzzier. There is no factually correct minimum wage, or tax structure, or government subsidy for women’s health. It leaves more issues up for interpretation and a conclusion that can be taken in many different directions.

What’s the solution? Are we to think that it is utterly pointless to try to change minds?

Not exactly.

For one, people who haven’t firmly chosen or identified themselves with a particular issue are fairly easy to reason with. While you may not be changing a mind, you may be helping illuminate an issue they don’t know about.

For bigger issues, trying to present them in ways that don’t address political affiliation, ideology, or a reflection of who you are is a start.

That may seem like a Charmin soft approach to discussing and challenging issues that are near and dear to us. It certainly runs counter to the “punch you in the face” headlines and the “punch you in the nuts/ovaries” comment sections and social media commentary that seems to be the norm.

But that approach isn’t working. As someone who has had a closely held belief changed, it wasn’t through a pan slapped to the side of my head or some sort of lightbulb moment that made it happen. It was a culmination of years of being exposed to new information and people, and ultimately came to a true change in my own self and beliefs.

I don’t expect my social media feeds to change anytime soon. For some people, the exercise of political or ideological thought isn’t about discussion or changing minds. For some people, discussing issues isn’t about thoughtfully moving people in a positive direction. I don’t know anybody’s motives besides my own.

If you do care about changing people’s minds, you should know that it’s generally not easy or quick. The place it happens the least frequently is probably the comments of any website.

But, it’s a start.

Unfortunately, it’s usually the end, too.

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