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How to change people’s minds

It’s no secret that lots of our present debates (climate change, vaccines, genetically modified organisms, even national broadband) have two sides with deeply entrenched views. In these circumstances, there is a tendency for people to shout their points of view louder. Unfortunately, this tends to reinforce the views of the other side if they feel they are being personally attacked (there’s even a name for this phenomenon: the “worldview backfire effect”).

To understand why this happens, we must look at the nature of our long-term memory. Although we are capable of remembering facts and figures (“semantic memory”), marketing has long been aware that people have better recognition and recall of memories relating to their own personal experiences (“episodic memory”). These memories are largely based on our senses and emotions.

This is where the phrase “hearts and minds” comes from. Changing someone’s mind intellectually is very hard when facts are tied up with their self-identity. However, research has been published into how you can most effectively debunk misinformation.

Here are the four main scenarios where you might want to change someone’s mind, based on their attachment to the information and their interest in the information:

  1. Low attachment, low interest. Misinformation can be “sticky” when it gains a certain amount of currency. However, when a person has low interest in the topic they have low patience for complex alternative explanations. Keep it short, factual, and simple, and don’t restate the myth (which psychologically reinforces it). If you must explain the myth, you must state beforehand that you are about to say something incorrect, a technique known as “priming”. Ideally, you should also find a way to tie the presentation to your target’s self-identity or a positive emotional experience in order to increase their attachment to your explanation. This makes it more likely that your explanation (which is of course the correct one!) will be remembered next time the topic comes up.
  2. Low attachment, high interest. This is the easy one. The person you are talking to is prepared to listen to alternative explanations. The goal here is to actively engage them in the thinking process and not merely preach at them. More interaction with the information presented will increase personal “elaboration”. Elaboration means they are building links in their brain with other facts and memories, and is one of the most effective ways of ensuring later recall.
  3. High attachment, low interest. This may sound counter-intuitive but is actually quite common. It just means that the view held was obtained through a personally important experience, such as listening to a trusted figure (eg a friend, preacher, celebrity) or a personal epiphany. Here the key is to present the information in a way that doesn’t feel like a challenge to their personal identity, or (trickier) to suggest that the source of their information may not be the best one to trust. The other techniques for addressing a person with low interest listed above also still apply.
  4. High attachment, high interest. The battle of the experts – not for the faint of heart. You will need to strongly rely on facts while simultaneously detangling their feelings from the facts that they hold. This approach is by no means guaranteed to succeed. As Max Planck wrote: “… truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

What do you think? Are there other techniques that can be usefully applied to changing people’s minds?

Source: Skeptical Science
Original version posted on Stephen Bounds’ personal blog

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Stephen Bounds

Stephen Bounds is an Information and Knowledge Management Specialist with a wide range of experience across the government and private sectors. As founding editor of RealKM and Executive, Information Management at Cordelta, Stephen provides clear strategic thinking along with a hands-on approach to help organisations successfully develop and implement modern information systems.

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