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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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Sanahin-Haghpat Hike

1960799_1404414203131407_8919080854450028645_o This weekend we joined a hiking group for one of their day drips –  people from all walks of life rent a couple mini-buses and leave town for lots of laughs and wonderful comaraderie. It was a great way to enjoy Armenia’s beautiful landscape together. We sang songs, walked up waterfall streams, and sang Armenian folk songs. We would have liked to do this every weekend! It was great fun, and we learned a lot about Armenians – some of them doctors, lawyers, programmers, etc. – who love nature and love to have a good time. IMG_0900 This time the group went to Debed Gorge in Lori province (near Georgia). We walked from Sanahin to Haghpat, two important 10th century university monasteries across the gorge from one another. In between was the Kayan Berd (fortress) built in 1233, and sacked by the Mongols.


Sanahin has a very neat scriptorium, and has this first example in Armenian architecture of a narthex, or meeting area before you enter the church. It’s impossible not to walk on graves – this is because people thought walking on graves was a good thing in the 10th century – it gave you the power and energy of the people buried beneath.



Ruins of a small chapel, where you can see the watchtowers signaling the Mongol invasion.


After a nice cool dip in the river, we walked to the edge of the gorge to the surprise entrance route to Kayan Berd fortress.


On the precipice of Debed Gorge. We took a nap in the fortress below.



On top of Kayan Berd, across from Haghpat monastery.

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Haghpat – I thought this one was slightly better than Sanahin. One room had holes in the ground (buried karas gourds) where monks stored food, honey, wine. Haghpat also has the first instance in Armenia of Jesus carved on a khachkar, with God staring down at him.

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Apparently these corner details are Seljuk in origin.


Separate bell tower. Still works.


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Upcoming posts

In three weeks we’ll be back in Winnipeg. Today the kids were playing “going to Winnipeg” by putting on all their winter clothes. After a month hiatus from writing, I have a couple things on my mind now that I should write about.

1) Finally a post related to education. It involves applying some teaching strategies from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion and reflecting on the highs and lows of middle school madness.

2) Peace talks in Colombia. The father of one of my classmates in Colombia (Russell Stendal) is involved in peace talks in Cuba between the Marxist guerrillas and the government. Because of his frequent visits to the FARC, he was arrested for “rebellion” and promptly set free (Feb. 20). His daughters, Lisa and Aletheia, made a film about their incredible mediation between FARC and Paramilitary forces.

3) And finally, I will be saying farewell to Armenia after a great but short five months, and gearing for Tbilisi, Georgia. A top 10 list of things I will miss about Armenia is in order, and maybe that promised interview with Armenian refugees from Aleppo, Syria.

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hasmik musicToday we went to an amazing concert by the Shoghaken Armenian folk ensemble, and Jane’s music teacher, Hasmik Harutyunyan. She was very happy to see Jane at the concert and made sure to take a picture with her afterwards! This was one of the best concerts I’ve been to in a long time.

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Jane with music teacher Hasmik Harutyunyan, and her kindergarden teacher, Hasmik Vardanian.

Here are a couple clips from other youtube recordings: This one switches to 9/8 rhythm: Our favourite instruments were the blul, shvi, and the qanun (and of course the duduk). Here is Levon Tevanyan on the blul and then shvi: I’m not sure what the difference between a qanun and a dulcimer is. Karine Hovhannisian is really great: And of course, the apricot wood, double reed duduk: As you might have guessed, Hasmik and the Shoghaken ensemble are world wide performers. They also featured on the Silk Road recording project, and in the film Ararat. Goodnight…

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From Carr’s blog, Rough Type:

11. Personal correspondence grows less interesting as the speed of its delivery quickens.

19. Instagram shows us what a world without art looks like.

23. Hell is other selfies.

26. Who you are is what you do between notifications.

28. People in love leave the sparsest data trails.

50. A bird resembles us most when it flies into a window.

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The most striking part of Tsitsernakaberd is the communal walk up the hill toward the memorial – 25 minutes contemplating the death marches of Armenians 100 years ago.


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American born Garin Hovannisian writes in The Atlantic about his father’s 2013 presidential bid in Armenia:

Political experts offered ideas about what our strategy ought to be: exude power and confidence in victory. Dress your candidate in the finest suits. Surround him with bodyguards. No more stops in villages to plant trees and such. The Soviet psychology doesn’t respond to Western notions of childish compassion—only to fear, to power, to reality.

What these experts didn’t consider was that my father had no concern for reality. He would be campaigning against reality itself. He wanted to displace not just a president but also the entire culture of fear and cynicism that had taken root in his land. As his director of publicity, I wasn’t planning to run a political campaign, either. I wanted to present my father as a living embodiment of what it meant to be an Armenian—noble, defiant, emotional, even self-contradicting. We were determined, in short, to run a campaign of complete fiction: the first literary presidential race in history.

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