David Olney: How to change minds, one at a time

When I was teaching Strategic Culture, International Security, and Complex Problem Solving at University, a couple of things remained constant:

when you present people with an endless parade of abstract theories and facts without engaging context, they learn almost nothing. In contrast, when you tell people stories about characters with motivations and emotions, and difficult decisions to make, most people become engrossed and learn quite a lot. Significantly, when people learn a lot, their minds often change.

I didn’t appreciate why this was the case when I was teaching, and only began to understand why certain kinds of communication have a more significant impact on people’s beliefs when I started my Master of Media in Strategic Communication. I only achieved a satisfactory understanding of what makes people open to new material, and what enables them to change their minds, when I listened to the following three books:

Damasio, Antonio (2021). Feeling and Knowing: Making Minds Conscious. Hachette Audio, Audiobook Edition.

McRaney, David (2022). How Minds Change: The New Science of Belief, Opinion and Persuasion. Penguin Audio, Audiobook Edition.

Boghossian, Peter and James Lindsay (2019). How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide. Hachette Audio, Audiobook Edition.

Antonio Damasio’s book confirmed my growing belief that our feeling mind is more influential than our thinking mind, and that we primarily rationalise via thought what our feeling mind has learned through experience. If you want to get people to consider something new, then you have to give them a feeling or situation to reflect on that resonates with their experiences, otherwise they won’t ruminate on what you are putting in front of them. The most reliable way to get people to reflect on something new is to talk about a character’s motivations and dilemmas in the context of a story. We can all think about a story, but more importantly, we all feel for the central characters and compare these feelings to our own experiences.

David McRaney’s book effectively demonstrates that people don’t change their minds until their world-view fails to deliver, the outcomes of their choices become intolerable, or when they are losing connection with their social group. Experience is hard won, and the beliefs that grow out of experience tend to last longer than they serve us well. In historical terms, changing our minds too quickly was a recipe for disaster. Consequently, now that our world changes so quickly, our beliefs regularly lag behind our experiences, causing increasingly uncomfortable instances of cognitive dissonance.

Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay make a strong argument for why we should create opportunities for us to investigate issues together, because when we learn together we are more open to changing our minds than when we think someone is trying to persuade us. People need time and space to reflect on new insights and old feelings, so we should give ourselves and others the opportunity to reflect and reconsider free from stifling pressure.

If you want to change your mind, or to give someone else the support to change theirs, tell stories, focus on experiences and emotions, work out what can be learned together, and don’t apply pressure. People change their minds when their beliefs don’t deliver positive outcomes and social connections, and when they are given the encouragement and freedom to reflect on their feelings and experiences.

David Olney
6 December, 2022

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