The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion

David McRaney is a science journalist, author and host of You are not that smart podcast. Below, he shares 5 key insights from his new book, How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion. Listen to the audio version – read by David himself – on the Next Big Idea app.

1. Obedience is not obligation.

Obedience is not obligation. It is also not an attempt to defeat your intellectual opponent with facts or moral superiority, nor is it an argument with a winner or a loser. Persuasion is taking a person through the stages, helping them to better understand their own thinking and how it can fit into the message at hand. You can’t convince another person to change their mind if that person doesn’t want to, and the techniques that work best focus on a person’s motivations rather than their conclusions. In many ways, persuasion is encouraging people to realize that change is possible. After all, all obedience is themselves– obedience. People change (or refuse to do so) based on their own desires, motivations, and internal objections. By focusing on these factors, an argument is more likely to change minds.

2. Safety is an emotion.

Beliefs are not ideas stored in your brain, wealth on a shelf, or files in a biological computer. Faith is a process. Believing or doubting is the result of neurons in associative networks providing an emergent sense of security, or lack thereof. The speed of change is inversely proportional to the strength of our certainty, and certainty is a feeling: somewhere between an emotion and a state of mind, more akin to hunger than logic. Conviction, regardless of the source, is a force that affects that feeling.

“After all, all obedience is themselves– obedience.”

3. Social death is greater than physical death.

The brain resists change to some extent because updating when it shouldn’t is dangerous (you can make a mistake). But since not updating when it should is also dangerous (you can be wrong), the brain walks a tightrope, carefully changing its mind with a variety of motivations and goals in mind.

The strongest motivation to resist change is fear of shame and isolation. As social primates, humans value being good members of their groups far more than they value rightness—factually, morally, or otherwise—so much so that as long as we have a group that meets our needs, we will choose to be wrong. if it keeps us in good standing with our peers. As sociologist Brooke Harrington says, if there were an E = mc2 of the social sciences, it would be SD > DP, “social death is scarier than physical death.” This is why we feel deeply threatened when a new idea challenges what has become part of our identity.

For ideas that identify us as members of a group, we want to appear trustworthy, and managing our reputation as a trustworthy individual often supersedes most other concerns, including our own mortality.

“The brain walks a tightrope, changing its mind carefully given a variety of motivations and goals.”

4. Doubt leads to naïve realism.

Doubt is what the brain does when faced with novelty and uncertainty. We use what we THINK we know how to deconstruct the ambiguous. I like this term, especially because it comes from the meaning of reading: the act of deriving meaning through context when a word, phrase, or entire essay can be interpreted in many ways.

There is a term in psychology that goes well with ambiguity: “naïve realism.” This is the safety that is felt when it is blind to the fact that you are clarifying, which means that your interpretation does not look like an interpretation. Since subjectivity often feels like objectivity, naïve realism makes it seem like the best way to change people’s minds is to show them the facts that support your point of view, because anyone else who has read the things you’ve read or seen the things that you have seen they will naturally see things your way, since they have thought the matter through as much as you have. Therefore, you assume that anyone who disagrees with your conclusions probably simply does not have all the facts. If they did, they would already see the world as you do.

This is why you keep ineffectively copying and pasting links from all your most trusted sources when arguing with those who seem misguided, crazy, uninformed or misguided. The problem is that this is exactly the same approach that the other side thinks will work for you.

“Since subjectivity often feels like objectivity, naïve realism makes it seem like the best way to change people’s minds is to show them the facts that support your point of view.”

5. No one is unreachable.

Imagine trying to reach the moon with a ladder and, after failing, giving up in frustration because you now believe the moon is unreachable. When we use the wrong tools and approaches, the people on the other side of the issues we care about can seem impossible to reach. That’s why I used to avoid debating politics, superstitions, or conspiracy theories, but I changed my mind about how minds change (and how to change them) after meeting experts and activists who not only showed me a better way, but more explained the science behind why it works.

Even among people who seem the furthest from what you consider ground truth, change is a moonshot away once you understand the nature of resistance and the proper techniques to avoid it. The ability to change minds, update our assumptions and entertain other perspectives is one of our greatest strengths. It’s an evolved ability that comes free with every copy of the human brain. To harness this power, we need to avoid arguing and start having conversations.

Debates have winners and losers and no one wants to be a loser. But if both sides feel safe to explore their reasoning, to think about their thinking, to explore their motivations, then each of us can avoid the dead-end goal of winning an argument. Instead, we can pursue the common goal of learning the truth.

To hear the audio version read by author David McRaney, download the Next Big Idea app today:

Hear key insights on the next big ideas app

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