If you haven’t already noticed, people hate changing their minds.
Reality is a tough thing to grasp and over the course of thousands of years, our brain has developed ways to cope with this cognitive and existential load – through simplification. We don’t just simplify things to make our lives easier, we try our best not to change as well.
We all have our own daily habits, belief system and way of navigating the world. When we are presented with new information or confronted by someone who might be a threat to these things, our natural reaction is to turn away from them. As the economist J.K. Galbraith once wrote, “Faced with a choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy with the proof.”
Not many people are open to changing their minds, and that includes you and me. Some people are even more locked away in their own beliefs and way of doing things than others. There is one particularly effective way though of breaking down those barriers and changing someone’s mind on something: by becoming a friend.
This may sound crazy and self-help guru cliche-y, but the only way that you can get through to anyone is for them to trust you and your opinion. I’m not encouraging friendship in order to mind manipulate here, I’m talking about genuine friendship. Because when you start to open yourself up to trust, empathy and connection with other people, your sway will naturally be increased and you will be able to do more good for the people that you care about.
Why is it so hard to change someone’s mind?
Minds are tricking things and getting a brain to change what it already thinks is no small feat. Whether it be convincing a small child to eat their greens rather than sweet treats, trying to reason with someone stubborn to take their prescribed medication or even convincing your own mind to stop procrastinating, there is no easy way to break down the walls that have been put up.
Most of these walls are so impenetrable because of our own innate desires to fit in. While truth does matter to us to an extent, we also have the desire to belong playing a big role. Truth and belonging don’t always come to into conflict but when they do, that is when you run into problems with getting people receptive to your ideas.
As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits, “Humans are herd animals. We want to fit in, to bond with others, and to earn the respect and approval of our peers. Such inclinations are essential to our survival. For most of our evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in tribes. Becoming separated from the tribe—or worse, being cast out—was a death sentence.”
Although belonging to a group might just seem like a petty desire that we kind of want, it is actually deeply-engrained into the ‘survive-at-all-costs’ part of our brain. Ideas and beliefs about certain things make us part of a group (or an ‘Idea Giant‘) and we aren’t that good at distinguishing between staying part of a group that ensures our survival and staying part of a group that we chose and are entirely free and safe to leave.
The line between the two gets fuzzy in our ancient brains, forcing us to defend our groups and ideas that they contain at all costs. As Carl Jung once said, “People don’t have ideas, ideas have people.”
Are they playing to learn or playing to win?
Some might call me ignorant whilst others might call me disengaged but there’s a reason that I don’t involve myself much when it comes to politics: It’s tribal warfare, not information about the truth of the world.
It is all about reinforcing that tribal part of your brain that is fixed in group survival mode, rather than freeing you from it. Politics and the word ‘debate’ are often indicators of a game that is being played to win, not being played to learn, grow, compromise and progress.
Take a step back and you most likely know that the world is messy and full of complex systems. I am messy, you are messy, people are messy, society is messy. If you are really truthful with yourself, you will realise that you don’t know much about anything. And neither does anyone else. This is good news though because it means that the walls are down and anyone that you engage with is open to having their mind changed, as are you. Approaching life with an empty cup is how you learn.
On the other hand, not just in politics but in some people’s minds, the world is much easier to understand. Everything is nice and crisp and perfectly clear. Good guys and bad guys with good ideas and bad ideas. Right and wrong. Smart and ignorant. Virtuous and evil. Safe and dangerous. In my experience, the more conviction someone has with regards to a certain idea or certain group of people, the more likely they are to be playing to win rather than playing to learn. Trying to signal their virtue to their own in-group, rather than thoughtfully trying to reason with and persuade the out-group.
Anyone who is playing to learn is open to having their mind changed whereas anyone who is playing to win is much harder to converse with and convince otherwise. However, there is still a way forward…
Become a friend, not a foe
Have you ever had your mind changed by someone that you hate or someone that stands for an idea that you can’t stand the thought of? Probably not. And for all of the reasons mentioned above, you probably dug in your heels and became a more extreme version of yourself when defending ‘your group’ than you would be otherwise with a person who is neutral on the subject.
This tendency is natural and exists in all of us. Again, it comes down to your group, its ideas, your identity and your survival. Of course, those last two aren’t tied in any way to your political beliefs or the diet you swear by, but we tend to think that they are. It is natural to treat like-minded people as friends and those that share different beliefs as foes.
In the world of politics and black-and-white thinkers, the only difference is that the friend vs foe tendency is more extreme. These sorts of people are a lot more likely to believe in Flat Earth theory if it came from a friend and much more likely to dismiss the Moon Landing as a conspiracy if their foes claim it to be real. More measured people try and judge the evidence based on what it is, not where it comes from. However, each of us still has the tendency to favour information from friends and disregard information from foes. So how do you change someone’s mind? You become a friend.
As James Clear again highlights on this subject:
Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing them to change their tribe. If they abandon their beliefs, they run the risk of losing social ties. You can’t expect someone to change their mind if you take away their community too. You have to give them somewhere to go. Nobody wants their worldview torn apart if loneliness is the outcome.
The way to change people’s minds is to become friends with them, to integrate them into your tribe, to bring them into your circle. Now, they can change their beliefs without the risk of being abandoned socially.
Have you ever disliked someone just by the way they walked or talked or looked? Maybe at a party or in the office or in a supermarket. Then for whatever reason, you end up talking to them and you realise that they’re actually a lot nicer than you thought. That’s one of the many downfalls of boxing people in. It’s easy to dismiss someone that you don’t know or don’t like because you don’t need to interact with them. However, what usually happens when you start speaking to someone is that you see why they do what they do and believe what they believe. You change your own mind and start to see them for what and who they are, not what you thought they were.
Understanding what beliefs people hold and why they hold them is not just the biggest step towards changing someone’s mind, more importantly, it is the biggest step to understanding and befriending the fellow human that you are interacting with. When you start to understand someone, you naturally start to create trust, compassion and empathy. You are much more likely to have a productive conversation with a person that you have some connection with, rather than someone who is just seen as a ‘stranger from another camp’.
The dynamic changes from a battleground where people fight each other, landing low blows and trying to discredit the other to an idea lab where ideas size each other up and are tested against each other based on merit, evidence, integrity and many other factors. When it comes to intellectual conversations and changing someone’s mind (including your own), ideas should be the ones in the boxing ring, not people.
It can be fun to shout at strangers on Twitter but if you really want to make a difference and change people’s mind, you need to have the patience and empathy to befriend them first. Human beings are generally quite good at communicating and compromising – we only tend to fall short when we let our differing ideas lead the charge.