If you’ve ever tried to change someone’s mind but found they were completely unwilling to budge in their thinking, it can help to understand how the brain works. Changing your mind—or someone else’s—is a complex process done through assimilation or accommodation, says David McRaney, author of How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion and host of the science podcast You Are Not So Smart.
“When the brain is confronted with novel information that generates cognitive dissonance, we tend to assuage that conflict by either updating our interpretations information or updating the models of reality that we generated to make sense of it,” he says.
Assimilation is when the brain takes the new information and fits it into an existing model in the brain. Accommodation is when we acknowledge that our existing model is incomplete or incorrect. The brain updates the model so that the novel information is no longer an anomaly but a new layer of understanding.
The easiest way to understand how it happens is to think of a child who is learning how the world works and building complex neural structures. For example, if they see a dog for the first time and are told the word for it, the brain creates a category that defines “nonhumans walking on four legs” as dogs. If later they see a horse, they may say, “dog.” Their brain is going through assimilation. Once corrected, the brain shifts into accommodation.
“To expand your mind, you literally have to create a new category in which horse and dog exists,” says McRaney. “You have to change your mind, keeping what you already know but updating your interpretations.”
Why You Think What You Think
Everyone’s mind is filled with beliefs, attitudes, and values, says McRaney. He defines beliefs as an estimation of your confidence in the truth or falsity of a piece of information. Attitudes are positive or negatives evaluations of something. And values are an estimation of what is most important and most worth our time. All these things combined impact how someone thinks.
To better understand how someone can have beliefs and attitudes that are opposite of yours, McRaney likes to give the example of “the dress” debate of 2015. Some people saw the dress as being black and blue and others saw it as white and gold. If you saw the dress one way, you couldn’t see it the other.
“People were getting into arguments,” says McRaney. “They were saying, ‘There must be something wrong with you if you don’t see it how I do.'”
Turns out, the photo was overexposed, and how you saw the dress was related to the amount of time you’ve spent in sunlight versus artificial light. After two years of research with more than 10,000 participants, Pascal Wallisch, a neuroscientist who studies perception, discovered that the more time a person had spent exposed to artificial light, which is predominantly yellow, the more likely they saw the dress as being black and blue. Their brains were unconsciously processing the overexposure as being artificially lit, removing the yellow light, and leaving the bluer shades. For a person who had spent more time exposed to natural light, the opposite was true, and their brains subtracted the blue light and saw the dress as white and gold.
“We are not aware that our brains do this; we are just on the receiving end of the process,” says McRaney. “What is amazing is that your life choices lead to what sort of assumptions you see.”
Changing Someone Else’s Mind
When you meet people who disagree with you on certain topics, it’s important to realize that you’re unaware of all the forces that took place to create their conclusions. Someone else’s beliefs, attitudes, and values are made up of a culmination of years of experiences and behaviors. People can and do change their minds for a variety of reasons, and one of those is due to persuasion, such as a one-on-one conversation, a learning experience, or media messaging.
McRaney says successful persuasion involves leading a person along in stages, helping them to better understand their own thinking. “You can’t persuade another person to change their mind if that person doesn’t want to do so,” he says. “Persuasion is mostly encouraging people to realize change is possible. All persuasion is self-persuasion. People change or refuse based on their own desires, motivations, and internal counterarguing; and by focusing on these factors, an argument becomes more likely to change minds.”
If you get into an argument with someone and your only goal is to prove that you are right and they are wrong, you guarantee that neither side of that argument would understand the higher truth, which is why you see it differently. Instead, McRaney says it’s important to share your intentions up front. For example, you may be worried that someone is being misled or you believe there are other choices that could produce better results.
“Not only does that keep you on solid ethical ground, but it also increases your chances of success,” he says. “If you don’t, people will assume your intentions. If they believe that your position is that they are gullible or stupid or deluded or in the wrong group or a bad person, then of course they will resist, and the facts will now be irrelevant.”
Letting Someone Else Change Your Mind
When you try to change someone else’s mind, you should be open to having your own mind changed, as well. McRaney suggests asking yourself, “Am I right about everything?”
“Most people would say, No,” he says. “But then ask yourself, ‘What am I wrong about?’ Suddenly that becomes a very difficult question to answer. If you know that you must be wrong about something, and you’re not aware what those things are, the next question is, ‘How can I go about discovering?’ If you don’t have a clear answer for that, that means that maybe you are operating in a way that doesn’t allow you to discover your areas of ignorance or conflict.”
Some people are very eager to discover what they’re wrong about, and they seek it out. It feels good to update and accommodate. Some people are very resistant to it.
“It can be hard to change your mind because it’s much more difficult and cognitively more expensive and dangerous to accommodate,” says McRaney. “If you were to say to yourself that maybe I’m on the wrong side of this issue, completely factually incorrect, that requires a lot of updating all throughout the neural systems. So, we tend to resist and avoid that, especially when it’s connected to your identity.”
But being willing to change your mind can lead greater changes in culture and epiphanies that create a paradigm shift. “When creatures have the capacity to change but there’s little encouragement to do so, they remain mostly the same from one generation to the next,” he says. “But when the pressure to adapt increases, the pace of evolution increases in response.”