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How To Change Someone's Mind, According To Science

Belief change is a war of attrition. There's usually no one argument that can suddenly get someone to see the light.

How To Change Someone's Mind, According To Science

U.S. President Barack Obama arrives alongside his U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland (R), and Vice President Joe Biden (L), for the nomination announcement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C.

[Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images]

As soon as the news broke that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died last month, Senate Republicans made it clear they wouldn't be holding a vote on any candidate President Obama nominated. Two weeks ago, Obama went ahead and nominated Merrick Garland for the vacancy. Now Democrats are trying to change Republicans’ minds about holding a confirmation hearing. It won't be easy.

Why Persuasion Is Usually An Uphill Battle

Psychologically speaking, changing someone's mind is pretty difficult, even when you don't have politics to factor in. A handful of Republican senators facing tight re-election campaigns in November have shown signs of being a little more flexible, but they're in the minority. In politics, public statements are hard to roll back, which makes Democrats' push to confirm a new justice in the remainder of Obama’s term a doubly difficult proposition.

But changing someone's mind about a high-stakes position is a challenge many of us confront. Maybe your customers have preconceived ideas about your brand or products that you'd like to influence, or perhaps upper management is leaning toward a decision that you disagree with. In order to get someone to reconsider their views, it's important to understand the role of "coherence" in supporting beliefs.

Going back to the 1950s, psychologists have recognized the interplay among different aspects of knowledge that influence our overall set of beliefs. Building off that research, the cognitive scientist Paul Thagard has more recently put forth the concept of "explanatory coherence."

The idea is that our strongly held beliefs form a network of consistent concepts. For example, I might believe that multitasking is a good thing. I support that belief with aspects of my own experience: Maybe I remember having especially productive days while multitasking. I also know of other colleagues who multitask, which strengthens my belief that it works.

Now, suppose I read about a study that shows that multitasking actually makes you less efficient. This new piece of knowledge is inconsistent with the rest of my beliefs, and that makes me a little uncomfortable. To resolve that discomfort, I have a few options: I could decrease the strength of my belief that multitasking is good. Alternatively, I could dismiss the value of the study; after all, if multitasking were truly bad, wouldn’t I have more knowledge that it is?

Sowing Incoherence

When we're confronted with information that contradicts the rest of our web of beliefs, our first inclination is to discount it. To change people’s minds, it's important to undermine the coherence among the things that they do believe. Make them feel worse about their current beliefs. Develop counterarguments to their most significant sources of support. Then expose them to more pieces of information that are consistent with the new belief.

It's also important to provide all of this information from multiple sources. After all, the easiest way for people to maintain their current beliefs is to decide that any contrary information is unreliable.

What's more, the sense of coherence many of us maintain over our beliefs reflects both knowledge and emotion. Being settled in what you believe feels good. Ambivalence doesn't. So to change someone's mind, you also need to address their emotional attachment to what they believe. Feeling even slight reservations about your current beliefs can set the stage for shifting more of your support toward an alternative point of view.

Sudden Switches Rarely Are

For a while, it will probably feel like your arguments are falling of deaf ears. Because beliefs are driven by coherence, people will maintain the strength of their initial beliefs for quite a while. The more information that people get that supports an alternative, though, the more likely it is that the initial web of beliefs will collapse and be replaced by a new, no less coherent network.

From the outside, it may look like someone's changed their mind suddenly, but that's seldom the case. Usually the steady accretion of facts supporting an alternative position has taken time to build up. Some people may go through a period when they're explicitly ambivalent about what they believe, but many simply go from strong support for one position to strong support for another.

What's key, at any rate, is to recognize that people's active resistance to efforts to change their minds doesn't mean that those efforts aren't working. Belief change is a war of attrition, not a search for the knock-down argument that gets someone to see things differently in one fell swoop.

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