How to convince people

Have you ever pulled your hair out talking to a conspiracy theorist?

It turns out that new information will never change their mind, because what matters to them is not more information. They love new facts. It’s the source of information they are worried about.

More information sometimes drives people even further from the point you’re trying to make.

There is a neuroscience reason for this. We like to conform to established patterns and views, so new evidence is usually assumed to be mistaken. This can be seen in brain scans of people who are presented contradicting statements to their own. First of all, the dorso lateral frontal cortex associated with reasoning was quiet, while the areas associated with processing emotion, conflict resolution, and rewards, were lit up (orbital frontal cortex, anterior cingulate, and ventral striatum).

Does this mean that rationality is overrated?

Absolutely not!  Check out this wonderful podcast over at the British Psychological Society blog about how to convince people.

One way is to assume that they are fully rational, and then gradually push their statements to logical extremes. This is in essence the philosophic technique of providing counter-examples. The Socratic Method!

Using the principle of using logical extremes, Baraz Hamiri, a graduate student in the University of Tel Aviv, exposed subjects to a propaganda video that presented a slightly more extreme view of their own. While tanks and patriotic music played, a statement flashed on the screen: Israel needs the occupation and war against Palestinians so that we can have the strongest military in the world. Participants were willing to find fault in this view because it wasn’t exactly what they had in mind. The first step in being convinced was the willingness to judge their own view against another.

Another more Socratic strategy was Hamiri’s use of what he calls “living questions”. Subjects were asked to respond to a researcher. “Why do think that the real and only goal that Palestinians have is to annihilate us in a matter that transcends their basic needs, such as food, water, etc.” When confronted with some logical extremes of their own views, people were willing to admit nuance and re-think entrenched positions. Hamiri checked in with test subjects a year later, and found that they were more willing to vote for moderate political parties.

These “living questions” try to do away with the illusion of understanding. We function with the default view that our views are correct, or that we understand exactly what we mean. But if you’ve ever had to teach something, you might have realized that you don’t know what you’re talking about. However, most of us are not often confronted in this way. Psychologist Steven Pinker once said that if there was one thing he could eradicate from the world it would be overconfidence.

(Us teachers have the distinct pleasure of experiencing this often. So why are many teachers narrow and dogmatic? I think it’s because experiencing ignorance too often without the support of a dialogue community leads to cognitive dissonance – it’s much easier and more effective to teach things when you believe that they are true and adopt them as your own)

One key to living questions is that they assume competent rationality on the part of the respondent. Mindset is just as important as the facts. Carol Dweck has shown this in her research on the effects of “growth mindset” in students. Those who believed they could achieve greater results often did so despite having the same IQ as those without a growth mindset.

So a belief about the importance of dialogue turns out to be rather important. One way to encourage others to share this belief is by assuming our interlocutor is rationally competent, and allowing them to think for themselves. You have to be very careful to phrase questions so as to exclude your views, and focus only on their views. Socrates does this relentlessly in Plato’s dialogues. As a result, characters are always asking Socrates what he thinks, but he never tells them (directly). Was he successful? You’d have to ask 2000 years worth of philosophy students.

So next time you want to convince someone of something, ask them to explain in detail what they believe. Repeat back to them what they just said – “Do you mean that….?” Next, gradually offer some counter-examples, or logical extremes of their views.

But most importantly, believe in their ability to think rationally. With any luck, they will return the favor.

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One thought on “How to convince people

  1. Hi Andrew, I found this to be a helpful post. My son recently decided to not be a believer. I respect his honesty but wanted to tread carefully lest I drive him to entrench his position. The approach you describe in your post seems very suitable to my situation. Now I have to do some cognitive gymnastics to articulate careful questions and follow-up extrapolations. Thanks. Bruce

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