How to really change someone’s mind

I recently thought of three debates. In the first, which took place in January 2016, two Harvard students, Fanele Mashwama and Bo Seo, proposed that “the poor of the world would be justified in pursuing the complete Marxist revolution”. In the second, in October of the same year, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump discussed which of them should be the next president of the United States. In the third, author David McRaney discussed the shape of the planet we live on with Mark Sargent, a man best known for his popular YouTube videos claiming the Earth is flat.

I have my own views 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 objectives are achieved by the different styles of debate? And most importantly, if you are hoping to persuade someone else to change their mind, how should you do it?

Mashwama and Seo were arguing in a formal contest, the world championship, no less. They won, but not because they convinced anyone that a Marxist revolution was justified. (I suspect they haven’t even convinced themselves of this.) Win a debate contest in much the same way you win a figure skating contest: by convincing the judges that you produced a superlative performance, judged to set standards and rules.

The Clinton-Trump debate also had rules, but not of the same kind. Trump probably broke those rules more than Clinton, but if moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz had declared that Trump had been disqualified and that Clinton was therefore president-elect, everyone would have concluded that Cooper and Raddatz had lost their minds. In politics, the rules of debate exist to be broken and are often deliberately broken for calculated effect.

McRaney’s discussion with the flat earth Sargent was again different. McRaney has not offered evidence or argued that the Earth is nearly spherical, nor has he mocked Sargent in hopes of turning the public against him. Instead, he largely gave the floor to Sargent, asking him to explain his reasons for him and kindly inviting Sargent to further reflect on whether the evidence supported his ideas of him. It was a radically different view of what a disagreement might look like.

So what was McRaney trying to do? Her new book, How Minds Change, explores why some worldviews seem so stubbornly immune to reason and why people will change their minds under the right circumstances anyway. 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.

A consequence of this tribalism is that we rarely examine in detail why we believe something. In principle, that problem should be solved by the kind of logical and bona fide debate that Bo Seo advocates in his book Good Arguments (US) / The Art of Disagreeing Well (UK). In practice, most people do not react well to the dismantling of their beliefs by a skilled speaker. No matter how civilized it is, it feels like a frontal assault and the cognitive drawbridge is quickly lifted.

Hence McRaney’s sweetly soft approach, inspired by conversational techniques such as “street epistemology” and “profound propaganda”, which sometimes trigger extraordinary conversations.

McRaney describes an in-depth interview conducted in California before same-sex marriage was legal. It begins when a marriage equality activist knocks on the door of a 70-year-old gentleman and starts a conversation. At first, the man is skeptical. The “gay community” is making such an uproar demanding more rights, he says, but the country has enough problems without all of that.

But as they talk, the artist asks the man about his marriage. Married for 43 years, the man says. His wife died 11 years ago. She will never get over it. The seeker listens as the man talks about her wife, how much he misses her and how she died. They were so happy together. And then, spontaneously, he says: “I wish these gays were happy too.”

During in-depth propaganda interviews, McRaney says, people “talked about a new position so smoothly that they weren’t able to see that their views had changed.”

Not always, of course. McRaney’s conversation with Sargent was friendly and thoughtful, but she was no more successful in pushing Sargent to reject flat-earthism than he would have in pushing the pope to renounce Catholicism. So did McRaney fail? Perhaps. But the conversation ended in a tone of mutual respect; the door was open for McRaney to try again. I’ve seen many disagreements get worse.

The debate looks like it should work the way Seo wants it to work. I share her love for the ideals of debate: logic, shifts, listening as well as speaking, non-violence. I’m not optimistic that it often works in practice. Perhaps the deeper problem is that formal debate is a performance, like professional wrestling. The audience chooses their side and enjoys the show.

But people don’t usually change their minds because they’re enjoying a show, or even a dazzling display of logic. People change their minds because they are convinced. The relationship, listening and inviting people to elaborate can open a space for self-persuasion. But a world champion debater can’t change your mind; only you can do it.

First written and published in the Financial Times on July 8, 2022.

The Data Detective paperback was released on February 1 in the United States and Canada. Title elsewhere: How to add up the world.

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