To the Founding Fathers it was free libraries. To the 19th century rationalist philosophers it was a system of public schools. Today it’s access to the internet. Since its beginnings, Americans have believed that if facts and information were available to all, a democratic utopia would prevail. But missing from these well-intentioned efforts, says author and journalist David McRaney, is the awareness that people’s opinions are unrelated to their knowledge and intelligence. In fact, he explains, the better educated we become, the better we are at rationalizing what we already believe. Listen as the author of How Minds Change speaks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about why it’s so hard to change someone’s mind, the best way to make it happen (if you absolutely must), and why teens are hard-wired not to take good advice from older people even if they are actually wiser.
I think the best teaser for the interview occurred during the interview when McRaney says:
The incepting point of this book was someone in a lecture came up to me and asked about their father who had slipped into a conspiracy theory and they said, ‘What can I do about that?’
And, I told them, ‘Nothing.’ They said, ‘How do I change his mind?’ I said, ‘You can’t.’ And, I really felt, the second I said it, that: I don’t know enough about this to say something like that. I don’t even know if I believe what I just said, but I know one thing I don’t like this attitude I have about this issue. I should at least learn more about it.
And, if I was in that same situation today, I would actually be able to say, ‘Oh, here’s what you should do. Here’s what you should say.’ I no longer believe anyone is unreachable. I no longer believe anyone is unpersuadable.
In conversations that don’t work out the way we think, we blame the other side. We say, ‘They’re dumb. They’re mean. They’re evil. They’re ignorant. They are unreachable, unchangeable, stuck in their ways.’ These are all things that we are using to forgive ourselves for failing.
My selected excerpts:
Motivated reasoning for social acceptance
Reasoning, psychologically speaking is just coming up with reasons for what you think, feel, and believe. And, those reasons are motivated by a desire to–a drive–to be considered trustworthy to your peers.
So, not only are you driven to come up with reasons for what you think you’re going to believe, you want them to be plausible. And, plausible, in this sense is: ‘What would your most trusted peers, your social network think?’ ‘Oh, yeah. That’s a reasonable way to see that.’
[Kris: For example, a quant might not respect reasoning that comes from intuition which they might see as excessively prone to bias whereas someone with a lot of experience might night trust the numbers for some unconscious pattern-matching reasons. The irony is both people recognize the intuitive approach is just pattern-matching but the quant thinks this is untrustworthy and the discretionary trader thinks it is.
I’d add another observation — the criteria for sense-making might be entirely context-dependent. Maybe the quant gets acupuncture when they go home. Our standards for epistemology vary depending on our expertise. The religious doctor doesn’t just pray for their patient.]
The process of radicalization
You feel something happens in the world that gives you this a negative emotion. Some anxiety starts to come up. It could be for really good reasons, but it could also be because you have some sort of prejudice or some sort of political bias.
So, then you do that thing. You go, ‘Hmm. Let me search for evidence that justifies the anxiety that I’m feeling.’
And, when you do that, online, you absolutely will find something that suggests your anxiety was justified.
And, you also might find people talking about that. And, you might end up wanting to talk with them about that. You might end up spending a lot of time talking with them.
And slowly you can radicalize yourself. You can cultivate yourself–cultivize yourself–and by, you start snipping your connections away from people who don’t share the attitudes being expressed in that community and you start strengthening the connections you do have with those.
And, now all of a sudden, you’re in a group. You’re in a community. And, the great sociologist Brooke Harrington told me that, if there was an E=mc2 [energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light, Einstein’s Equation] of Social Science, it would be: the fear of social death is greater than the fear of physical death. And, if your reputation is on the line, if the ship is going down, you’ll put your reputation in the lifeboat and you’ll let your body go to the bottom of the ocean.
We saw that with a lot of reactions to COVID [coronavirus disease]. As soon as the issue became politicized, as soon as it became a signal–a badge of loyalty or a mark of shame to wear a mask or to get vaccinated–as soon as it became an issue of ‘Will my trusted peers think poorly if I do this thing or think this thing or express this feeling or attitude or belief,’ people were willing to go to their deathbed over something that was previously just neutral.
[Kris: calling all reflexive contrarians!]
This is a concept that has been studied extensively in the context of clinical therapy.
They would come to the therapist and the therapist would say, ‘Well, you know what’s your real problem is. You should be doing this.’ Or, ‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you don’t do this very much. You should do this.’..All that feels pretty good. They now call that in psychology the “writing reflex”. And, we’ve all felt that whereas someone is saying something and you’re like, ‘Oh, I have the advice for them. I know what to tell that person.’
But, you also have also experienced this other thing that happens, and this seems to be something that’s universal to human beings across all cultures. It’s just something that the brain that we’re issued at birth, it’s something that’s a feature of human thinking, rationality, psychology. Human brains do this. It’s called reactance. In the psychological parlance, they’ll say something along the lines of, you feel motivationally aroused to remove the influence of the attitude object, which just means: ‘You made me feel a feeling I don’t like and I want it to go away. So, I’m going to push you away,’ or ‘I’m going to disengage.’
What is the feeling that’s causing the motivational arousal? It’s the sense that your agency is under threat–your autonomy is under threat. It’s the ‘Unhand me, you fools,’ feeling. You’ve all felt this. If you’ve ever been a teenager or you’ve ever spoken to a teenager, you know what I’m talking about…”You shouldn’t do this. You should study more.”‘ This is good advice that the person when they’re 35 will go, ‘Man, my parents were right about that.’
But, in that moment it’s just the fact that you’re saying, ‘I have a thing in my head that should be in your head and I want it to be in your head.’
And, oddly enough, it’s the want that creates the reactance. The person’s feeling that you have approached them in some way and said, ‘I want you to think, feel, or believe, or act in a certain way that you’re not doing right now,’ and it feels coercive. It feels like they’d come at you and they’re threatening you. They’ve got a knife in their hand, and they’re saying, ‘Walk this way.’ That’s what it feels like.
We just, at a visceral level, will react by saying ‘no thanks’ to that, and we’ll push against it.
Basically, what you’re saying is ‘I have a goal and I’m not even concerned with what your goal is. This is the goal that I want you to go toward.’ Then they say, ‘Oh yeah, well, no. How about I don’t do that? I want you to stop talking to me that way.’ Well, now you feel reactance, because you’re like, ‘Oh, you’re telling me how to talk to you? How about I double down?’
And, then you enter into a horrible feedback loop.
This happened so often in therapeutic frameworks that they’re like, ‘We should really develop a way to stop doing that.’ Because what started happening was people would come in wanting to extinguish a behavior and then they would leave therapy more likely to engage in the behavior than if they had never seen a therapist because something along the lines of: they had these arguments for and arguments against. So, they were at a state of ambivalence when they arrived, but they wanted a little bit more in energy on the side of ‘Let’s not do the thing anymore.’ But, because of that, they counter-argued with the therapist. They generated counter-arguments inside of them that put more weight on the side of continuing to do the thing. So, they walked away with more arguments for than against than when they walked in.
This is also what happens when we have a conversation with someone where we disagree on an issue. Very often, if we create that feedback loop, they will walk away with more arguments in their mind than they had coming in to continue believing or feeling in the way they had before we had the conversation.
What I want to emphasize here is you can be very much correct. The facts can be on your side. You can be really trying to reduce actual harm in this world. You can have the moral high ground, and you can be dealing with a person whose intent, they’re, like, their action and behavior, their political stance harms you. They may even hate you.
So, what I’m saying is you can be on the right side of all of this, however you want to define the word right–you can be on the correct side of all those things. And yet, if you generate reactance from the other person to what we’re talking about, you will not be able to change their mind. You lose out.
And, it’s a very difficult thing to offer a person the space and give them the respect that would avoid reactance when you are dealing with a person that you feel like doesn’t deserve that treatment from you.
Shaming will cause the same defenses to kick in
If you say something that is interpreted–you may not mean to come across this way, but if it can be interpreted as, ‘You should be ashamed for what you believe. You should be ashamed for what you feel. You should be ashamed for that value or that intent to behave,’ even if I’m putting my hand at the side of my mouth. Even if they should be ashamed. If you communicate it that way, then you’re going to activate the person’s fear of ostracism. And there’s nothing more–like we said, there’s nothing more fearful for a social crime made than the suggestion that they may be ostracized. So, if you tell them they ought to be ashamed for feeling that way, it’s going to cause them to feel very viscerally upset and angry, and they’re going to push away from the conversation.
Unblocking the discussion
All you have to do is get out of the debate frame with the other person. Don’t make this feel like, ‘I need to win and you need to lose. I am and you are wrong.’ Just get out of that frame.
And, the easiest way to get out of that frame is to, first of all, say something along the lines of–instead of saying, ‘I want to show you what you ought to think, feel, and believe,’ you say, ‘Hmmm. You seem to know a lot about this issue and you seem to care about it a lot. You seem to see that these problems are problems. I’m wondering, given what you know, I wonder how it is that–because I look at a lot of this stuff, too. I wonder why we disagree on this issue? It’s really curious to me. I would love to talk to you a little bit more about that. I wonder if we could look at this issue and see what is it we disagree on here?’
What you want to do in that frame is give the other person a chance to feel like, instead of being face to face, you’re going to go shoulder to shoulder, and we’re going to–instead of looking at each other as obstacles, we’re going to turn and face in the same direction and look at the problem at hand, the goal at hand, the issue at hand. And, we’re going to collaborate now. We’re going to work together and say: Well, you’ve got your side of things, and your views, and your experiences, I’ve got mine. I bet if we joined forces, we could get to an even deeper truth on this or higher truth or a solution that works well for both of us.
You don’t even have to put it in those words. That’s another thing we have an innate inclination for which is, ‘Oh wow, we get to snap together and work together on a problem.’ You can frame things that way with just a slight change in approach and language and you will escape the debate frame that leads to reactance; and it’s much more fruitful.
Specific approaches that work
The thing that was most surprising in all that was discovering that there were all these different organizations that had said, ‘Okay. Well, what do we do about this?’ And, they started A/B testing conversation techniques. I found deep canvasing, and street epistemology, and smart politics, and then all the therapeutic models that I mentioned–motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral therapy. And, on and on and on. There’s so many.
And, the thing that was most surprising was: Most of them had never heard of each other, never seen each other’s work. Many of them, the majority of them weren’t aware of the–if they weren’t in therapeutic domains–they weren’t aware of the science that would support what they were up to. Yet, independently, they all came up with pretty much the exact same technique. And, if you put it in a step-by-step order, it’s almost in the exact same order every time, too.
That seems to me like something almost in the world of physics or chemistry, and that if you were to build an airplane–the first person to build an airplane, it was always going to look like an airplane. It doesn’t matter where they built it. It doesn’t matter what culture they were from. It doesn’t matter how old they were, what they looked like, what they knew about anything. Airplanes have to look like airplanes because physics works like physics on the planet Earth.
Conversational techniques that actually shift attitudes and open people up to different perspectives, that get past resistance, all pretty much work the same way because brains resist for universal reasons and brains work in a very particular way.
Diving into street epistemology
Street epistemology came out of the world of the angry atheists and the militant agnostics who were having their own reaction to getting online and meeting each other. And, they’ve gone through several phases of growth and evolution themselves where they have schismed off. And, there’s some who are still very angry and there are some who are much more humanistic and empathetic.
And, within all of that, there was this movement that came about where they wanted to know, like, ‘How do we talk to people in a way that could avoid the angry pushback that we so often get when we speak with people who are not in our subculture or do not see or have our same theistic or atheistic views?’
And, they did the same thing that people did in deep canvasing. They went out. They had conversations with people. They recorded those conversations. They shared them with other people in the group. And, when something seemed to work well or get them closer to having a good conversation, they kept it. Anything that made it go the other way, they threw it away. And, through thousands of A/B-tested conversations, they started to zero in on something that worked.
And, now they’ve expanded it to: this can be applied to anything. You don’t have to be in their sub-community or have their theistic views to use it.
In the book, I talk about how there are techniques that work well on politics, techniques that work well on attitudes and values. And, then this one specifically works best with fact-based claims, things like, ‘Is the earth flat?’
How it works
It’s a stepwise method for having the conversation that we all should be having on any issue. Without going through an hour of trying to go through all the steps, I’ll give you sort of the quick version of that, which is: You open with a lot of the stuff we’ve talked about before–you open by establishing rapport. That’s that assuring the other person you’re not out to shame them. Assuring the other person, you’re not even there to change their mind. What you are there is to explore their reasoning. You ask them, ‘I would love to have a conversation with you in which we explore your reasoning on a topic and see what your views are and understand it better.’ Maybe: ‘You might shift, but you will have a deeper understanding of what we’re talking about.’ However, you want to frame it. Use your own language. You’re telling a person you’re going listen. And, most people will take you up on that offer.
I’m doing it right now. You asked if I would talk about something; you said you would listen; and I’m doing that right now. The podcast world depends on the fact that we’re all very willing to tell people what we think and feel about things.
So, give people that opportunity. You open the space for it. In this method, you ask for a claim. You ask for a very specific claim. It could be: Is the earth round or flat? And, then the person tells you–and then you repeat back the claim in the other person’s words. You make sure that you’re always using the other person’s words, because the big lesson in all of these techniques is that you are in their head, not yours.
You stay on their side. And, your job is to hold space for the other person to non-judgmentally listen and give them a chance to have a safety net, to metacognate and introspect.
And so you repeat the claim back to them. If they have definitions for terms, you ask for them; and you use their definitions, not yours. Like, if they say ‘the government,’ don’t assume that they’re talking about something from a civics textbook the way you look at it. They might be thinking of a group of reptiles in a round room talking about how they’re going to divide the country up to play golf. They have a different view of it. Let them–use their definitions.
And, then this is the big moment–and this is true across all of the conversation techniques. They all open in a pretty similar way with this space-creating moment. And, then they move to this thing that is magic.
It is asking the other person on a scale from zero to 10, or one to 100. The scale is a great way to get out of the debate frame and to assure the other person that this is not going to be a binary, right/wrong, black-and-white view of things. And, it even will work with the movie example you gave earlier, which is like, ‘Hey, Top Gun Maverick, what did you think of it?’ A person will say, ‘I loved it.’ That’s a very, like, black, white binary abstract. ‘Oh yeah? What would you give it on a scale from zero to 10?’
There is a moment when you ask a person a question like that, where they’ll go, ‘Oh, well,–that moment is, when they pop into that metacognating frame; and it could be like, ‘What did you think of this talk?’ ‘Loved it.’ ‘What would you give it on a scale of one to 10?’ ‘Oh, well–.’ That moment is what you’re looking for on any conversation topic.
[Kris: this is similar to asking someone to bet on their claim or handicap an outcome — the thinking switches from emotional to deliberate]
And you ask them, ‘What would you put it on a scale from one to 10, or zero to 10, or one to 100?’ Whatever they tell you, ask, ‘Why does that number feel right to you?’
This will encourage the other person to engage in reasoning–motivated reasoning most often. And, you let them do it. Let them do it the way they could do it. They’re going to come up with reasons that seem plausible for that position. But, what’s likely is that they’ve never done this. Not in this sort of like, ‘Please, present your reasoning to me’ kind of way.
It’s marvelous to witness a person saying–well, if they’re talking about Top Gun Maverick, they’ll have to start thinking, ‘Why do I have this emotion? Why was that so quick–why was it just like–it popped right in my head. What caused that to happen?’ And, they start coming up with reasons why that could be. Most of these are exploratory and they’re definitely going to be justifications and rationalizations.
Then, if you are actively hoping to get the person to see things closer to your perspective, if you’ve already done this for yourself and you know where you’re at on the number scale, ask the person how come they’re not in the other direction that you–appropriate to the issue. So, if I feel like–if a person says–if I say, ‘Is the earth flat?’ And, they say, ‘Absolutely.’ And, I say, ‘How certain are you of that from a scale from zero to 10?’ They say, ‘I’m probably a seven.’
Well, what you would ask is–first, you’d ask, ‘Why a seven?’ The next thing you’d ask–and this comes from motivational interviewing–is, ‘How come you didn’t say eight? How come you didn’t say nine?’ Because you’re asking how come they didn’t go all the way to 100% confidence. And, they must, on their own at that moment, generate their own counter-arguments against their position. But, you didn’t do that. No reactance. You’re not telling them what to think, feel. You’re not giving them your counter-arguments. It’s not your reasoning. They have to generate reasoning that counter-argues their position that will be new, that will be fresh, and that’ll be added to the collection of counterarguments in their mind. And, it will affect how they see things going forward.
With street epistemology, it’s more about just getting the person to examine: are they using a good epistemology to vet what they think and feel? So, after you have done all of these things with the number scales, you’d ask them what method that they used to judge the quality of those reasons that they presented. And, then you just stay in that space for the rest of the conversation as long as they’re willing to do it, and continue to listen and summarize and repeat and wish them well. And, try to make it so that you can have more than one conversation.
People do experience 180s in these moments sometimes. But, usually what happens is it’s by degrees, by increments. And, at the end of the day, the street epistemology people, they’ll tell you, ‘We’re not interested in changing people’s minds. We want people to just be critical thinkers. We want them to have more robust epistemologies.’ Which is sort of an even deeper way of changing a person’s mind. Getting a person to change their epistemological approach to the world is even more powerful than getting them to change just one belief, or attitude, or value.
This is a huge complex idea, but I think it all kind of plays into what we’ve been talking about previously, which is that sense of naive realism, where you just think that: ‘All people have to do is see the things that I’ve seen and they’ll naturally agree with the things that I think,’ if you don’t believe.
And it just takes–what it shows is a complete lack of cognitive empathy that other people come from completely different priors and experiences and social influences that affect the way they see–the way they form their beliefs–but also the way they interpret evidence.
An example of empathy failure:
I’ve seen this recently with a lot of these political ads that I’m seeing come across social media for places that I don’t live where they keep making these–I saw one today where someone was, like–they were in, like, the Midwest and they had these two people trying to survive in the desert. And, one of them is doing everything right because they’re a cowboy and they understand how to survive in the wilderness. And, the other one is a Senator who has no idea how to survive in the wilderness. But, the cowboy dies on Day 2 from a heart attack, because he doesn’t have good healthcare; and the Senator lives, because he’s got great healthcare, the Senator.
And the whole idea of the ad is: See. Senators have the healthcare that you don’t get to have. And, even though you’re a good, rugged individual who lives out there in the wilderness, who can survive in the wilderness, they’ll out-survive you because they’re taking away the healthcare you need.
That seems like a great political ad because it focuses on the identity of the individual that you’re approaching. But, that is an awful political ad based off of everything that I’ve learned in this domain, because it only feels like a great political ad to people on the Left–to liberals. It feels like a great ad for people who already have the values to which that makes you angry about that. It’s the inability to see that you can’t make an argument from your moral framework to a person who is in a different moral framework and expect it to land. You have to actually couch the argument in that person’s moral framework and their values. [ie “Moral Reframing”]