Changing Minds

by Ann Heitland, First Vice Chair

An interesting article by a former rocket scientist dropped into my inbox and since it pursues a theme we’ve been discussing, I wanted to share it with you along with some highlights that I took from reading it. The article is “Facts Don’t Change People’s Minds. Here’s What Does.”

As a former scientist, the author describes his past approach to persuasion as one of “drowning people in facts.” But he has discovered that approach doesn’t work. “Facts, as John Adams put it, are stubborn things, but our minds are even more stubborn.” 

You may have heard of “confirmation bias,” which means that the mind overvalues facts which confirm a pre-existing belief and undervalues those facts which contradict that belief. Thus, we could play Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth on a continuous loop before some audiences and they still will not believe that climate change is real. 

So what to do? “The key is to trick the mind by giving it an excuse. Convince your own mind (or your friend) that your prior decision or prior belief was the right one given what you knew, but now that the underlying facts have changed, so should the mind.”

That is so very hard to do. We so often go the opposite direction, rubbing in the idiocy of the other person’s position. And when we do that easy thing, we’ve lost the battle. “Once you’ve equated someone’s beliefs with idiocracy, changing that person’s mind will require nothing short of an admission that they are unintelligent. And that’s an admission that most minds aren’t willing to make.”

According to the author of this article, we’re not going to win the 2020 presidential elections by convincing Donald Trump supporters that they were wrong to vote for him in 2016 or that they’re responsible for his failures in office. Democrats must offer Trump supporters a way to get out of their prior commitment while saving face: “Well, of course you were in a position to make that decision… because no one knew about X.”  (That he’d turn around and demand that taxpayers pay for the wall; that he’d use eminent domain to rip ranches apart, stealing land that’s been owned by American families for generations; that the U.S. military experts don’t think a wall will work.)

This, however, isn’t an argument for seeking out Trump supporters to convert.  Keep it in mind when you’re face-to-face with one. Give them an out if you can rather than fruitlessly forcing them to confront facts. 

But I think we can apply the same approach to people we are targeting — those who don’t vote regularly, for example. Don’t argue the importance of voting by hitting them with a list of elections that were decided by just a few votes. Instead, perhaps something like this (and I’m sure you can make this script better):  “I know it’s hard to find time to vote and get ready to vote and that in the past it may have seemed pointless.  But, it’s actually gotten easier to vote and now we can all see that things have changed so that there really is a stark contrast in candidates so it has become important to vote. May I tell you about voting by mail and promise you you’ll get a sample ballot from us to make your job of voting easier?” 

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