How to really change someone’s mind

Recently I was thinking about three debates. In the first, held in January 2016, two Harvard students, Fanele Mashwama and Bo Seo, suggested that “the world’s poor will be justified in carrying out a complete Marxist revolution.” In the second, in October of the same year, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump argued over which of them should become the next US president. In the third, author David McRaney discussed the shape of the planet we live on with Mark Sargent, the man best known for his popular YouTube videos claiming the Earth is flat.

I have my own opinion on all three topics, but what intrigues me here is the form rather than the content. What does it mean to argue with someone? What purposes do different styles of debate serve? And, most importantly, if you’re hoping to convince someone to change their mind, how do you do it?

Mashwama and So were arguing in an official competition, the World Championship, no less. They won, but not because they convinced anyone that the Marxist revolution was justified. (I suspect they haven’t even convinced themselves of this.) You win a debate in much the same way you win a figure skating competition: by convincing the judges that you’ve delivered a superior performance judged by established standards and rules. .

The Clinton-Trump debate also had rules, but they were different. Perhaps Trump broke these rules more than Clinton, but if moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz said that Trump was disqualified and therefore Clinton became president-elect, everyone would conclude that Cooper and Raddatz were crazy. In politics, the rules of debate are there to be broken, and they are often deliberately broken in order to have a calculated effect.

McRaney’s discussion with the flat-earther Sargent was again different. McRaney did not provide evidence or arguments for the Earth being nearly spherical, nor did he mock Sargent in the hope of turning the audience against him. Instead, he basically left the floor to Sargent, asking him to explain his reasons and gently inviting Sargent to consider whether the evidence supports his ideas. It was a radically different take on what disagreement might look like.

So what was McRaney trying to do? His new book How minds change, explores why some worldviews seem so stubbornly immune to reason and why people nevertheless change their minds under the right circumstances. McRaney suggests that most people believe what they believe based on social cues, and that this is a reasonable way for social primates to behave.

One consequence of this tribalism is that we rarely examine in detail the reasons why we believe in something. In principle, this issue should be resolved through the logical and honest debate that Bo Seo advocates in his book. good arguments (US) / The art is good to disagree (GREAT BRITAIN). In practice, most people do not respond well to having their beliefs shattered by an experienced debater. However civilized he may be, it is like a frontal attack, and the drawbridge of knowledge is rapidly rising.

Hence McRaney’s mild-mannered approach, inspired by conversational techniques such as “street epistemology” and “deep questioning” that sometimes produce wonderful conversations.

McRaney describes a detailed interview conducted in California before same-sex marriage was legalized. It begins when a marital equality activist knocks on the door of a seventy-year-old gentleman and strikes up a conversation. At first, the man is skeptical. The “gay community” is making such a fuss for more rights, he says, but the country has enough problems already.

But as they talk, the agitator asks the man about his own marriage. Married for 43 years, the man says. His wife died 11 years ago. He will never get over it. The picker listens as the man talks about his wife, how much he misses her, and how she died. They were so happy together. And then, without prompting, he says, “I wish those gays were happy too.”

In in-depth interviews, McRaney says, people “talked themselves so smoothly into a new position that they couldn’t see that their opinions had changed.”

Not always, of course. McRaney’s conversation with Sargent was friendly and thoughtful, but he was no more successful in getting Sargent to abandon the flat-earth theory than he was in getting the Pope to abandon Catholicism. So did McRaney fail? Maybe. But the conversation ended in a tone of mutual respect; the door was open for McRaney to try again. I have seen many disagreements deepen.

It seems like the debate should work the way Seo wants it to. I share his love for the ideals of debate: logic, turn-taking, listening, as well as conversation, non-violence. I’m not an optimist that this often works in practice. Perhaps the deeper problem is that formal debate is a performance similar to professional wrestling. Spectators choose a side and enjoy the show.

But people usually don’t change their minds, not because they like the show, not even because of the dazzling display of logic. People change their minds because they convince themselves. Mutual understanding, listening and inviting people to develop can open space for self-persuasion. But the debating champion of the world cannot change your mind; Only you can do it.

Written and first published in Financial Times July 8, 2022.

Soft cover data detective was published on February 1 in the US and Canada. Name elsewhere: How to fold the world.

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