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How Do You Change Someone’s Mind? | Issue 151

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Question of the Month

Each answer below receives a book. Apologies to the entrants not included.

It’s imperative to analyse the question before providing an answer, for the question has several possible implications. For instance, changing a person’s mind could indicate that you present sufficient evidence to alter a person’s actions, either before they are enacted or during their execution; to alter a person’s ideas which they believe to be factual; or to alter a person’s characteristics by comparing what the person thinks of themself to what society reflects of them. However, notice that each implication is rooted in humanity’s distinguishing faculty: rationality.

Let me refer back to Plato (c.427-347 BCE) and his Allegory of the Cave, where prisoners are held captive since birth and subjected to shadow puppetry and disembodied voices while unable to move any portion of their bodies. What’s projected onto the walls of the Cave and the voices or sounds they hear are all the prisoners know. What happens when one of the prisoners escapes and exits the Cave? Well, according to the allegory, the prisoner comes into contact with the real world and experiences the true form of objects. At this point it can be said that the mindset of the prisoner has changed by being exposed to information that contradicts their ‘shadow knowledge’. She has undergone a paradigm shift.

What’s different in the freed prisoner compared to the prisoners perpetually subject to the illusions of the Cave? The freed prisoner has become aware of reality, and that their previous schema is inadequate to explain that reality. In order to preserve self-worth and mentally survive in that reality, the freed prisoner must accept their newly obtained information to construct a new schema, or rebuild from the previous schema.

To change a person’s mind is then to isolate a person from the comforts of their unreal supposed ‘reality’ and expose them to sufficient, contradictory evidence of the previously unknown truth. As rational beings, it is our duty to preserve ourselves, and this duty includes correcting misinformation. Yet this is easier said than done.

Dakota W. Bunnell, Adel, Iowa

There is an old saying that ‘a person who complies against their will, is of the same opinion still’. Clearly, forcing someone to do or say something they don’t believe is not the way to change his or her mind. You must lead the person, not drive them. You must persuade them to think differently, and that requires reasoning with them.

Reasoning with someone for the purpose of changing their mind means four things. The first is reviewing their reasoning in terms of clearly identifying any errors in it, including the many formal and informal fallacies such as the ad hominem (attacking the person not the argument), circular reasoning, straw-man, hasty generalization, equivocation, and more. Straight and narrow is the right reasoning path; crooked and broad is the way to error. If the person whose mind you seek to change presents complicated reasoning to support their beliefs, this might prove difficult; and you have to watch your own reasoning besides.

Second, you may believe that his or her ‘facts’ are not facts at all; or are not relevant; or that he or she is not mindful of other facts that are relevant. Whatever option, you must be correct yourself about these matters before you try to change anyone’s mind – or else it’s your mind which will gets changed, and quite right too.

Third, there is the matter of feelings. Not all views are strictly about facts. Some involve values. Whenever you encounter a view that concerns values, you surely encounter feelings – often very strong ones. Not just the other person’s, but yours also. We are social animals, and our natural feelings of empathy and sympathy govern much of our interactions with others. Parents everywhere teach their children morals by asking, ‘How would you feel if that child did to you what you did to her?’ So, to change someone’s mind where feelings are involved requires understanding their feelings and their reasons for them. And you should understand yours as well.

Lastly, the decision to try to change someone’s mind surely involves some arrogance on your part. If this shows, you will fail. You must approach the task with patience, courtesy, respect, and sensitivity. If the issue is simple, you may succeed. More often than not, it is difficult. Sometimes, it is impossible.

John Talley, Rutherfordton, North Carolina

The process of changing someone’s mind is full of twists and turns. You have to take into account their beliefs, values, education and life experience, then pick a suitable approach. Any transition happens in one of two ways: either they consciously acknowledge and accept the new idea and willingly abandon the previous, or it crystalizes in their subconscious until it later surfaces; but then they may be unaware of the cause for the change.

The conscious way entails either pointing out a discrepancy between someone’s currently held belief and their primal values, or by revealing a flaw in the logic through which they arrived at a certain conclusion. Since everything is dependent on the person’s willingness to accept a new idea, pushing viciously with more and more data to back up your claim might result in them resisting and discarding all evidence. Therefore, make them feel comfortable instead of intimidated to open them to suggestion.

We might try to change someone’s core values. However, because everyone needs to first settle on a set of axioms or some form of authority, such as God or Nature, from which they can construct their intellectual foundations, it is frequently impossible to prove someone’s belief system wrong because there is often no underlying argument that both will agree on. However, you can ‘nudge’ a person – make them ‘trip over the truth’ in a series of moments which force them to experience reality differently, which may lead them to change their core beliefs. When someone witnesses such a moment for themselves without any outside influence, the subject believes that they’re objectively questioning reality. This has a stronger effect on them than if they were being told to question some idea by somebody else.

Filippos Georgios Sarakis, Athens

Margaret Donaldson’s classic, Children’s Minds (1987), provides insights into how minds change naturally in relation to developmental stages; a process enhanced through upbringing by those with nurturing capabilities, roles and responsibilities. Where these draw upon liberal democratic values, both infants and students are more likely to have enriching, creative involvement. Individuality and freedom are typically cherished, with increasing responsibility for agency, that is, for students changing their own minds through the critical consideration of issues that affect them. However, where nature and nurture proceed in authoritarian contexts, freedom to reject cultural norms is neither valued nor encouraged, but rather curtailed. Passive acceptance of a state propaganda, censoring versions of ‘truth’, tend overwhelmingly to prevail. Rejection of such ‘mind control’ would be regarded as unpatriotic or irreligious, and discouraged.

These liberal and authoritarian polar positions are examined in Stephen Law’s 2007 book The War for Children’s Minds. While the liberal might promote reassuring optimism in our capacity to ‘make up our own minds’, in contrast to having ideas imposed, such optimism requires caution. For instance, in 1957, Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders revealed how the marketing industry used depth psychology and motivational research to manipulate minds – a disturbing practice, especially the ‘psycho-seduction of children’. In the same year, the semiotics of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies revealed ways in which contemporary myths can be created using increasingly sophisticated art, affecting minds through promoting specious lifestyle promises – apparently attainable through purchasing advertised commodities.

This process has continued inexorably, through digital media. In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), Shoshana Zuboff evaluates the practice of data harvesting by major tech companies and its use via social media to manipulate our susceptibilities. This typically results in choices being algorithmically reinforced and increasingly confined. Such duplicitous influence changes minds, undermining capacities to make up one’s own mind, and, critically, to distinguish truths from falsehoods.

Colin Brookes, Loughborough, Leicestershire

A popular answer to this question might be ‘education’, or (depending on whether we like the change that happens or not) we might also utilise education’s sister concepts ‘propaganda’ and ‘indoctrination’ as means of changing minds. It should not be taken for granted that these are effective methods.

Asking how to change a mind assumes that there is a mind that can be changed. In formal education, the assumption of a changeable mind leads to mind-changing becoming an aim of education. In turn, this creates a desire to measure these changes, by means of somewhat arbitrary assessments. This reflects B.F. Skinner’s Behaviourist doctrine that learning is the increase or decrease of probability of action; and these actions tell us nothing about the mind except that somehow it’s the root of our behaviour.

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that there is such a thing as a mind that can be changed. Surely the proceeding question to be asked – but which rarely is asked – is ‘ Should we change minds?’ Statutory education systems answer this question in the affirmative, making the minds of younger generations public property by mandate. Students then become subject to epistemic injustice – perhaps epistemic violence – as other people decide for them what they must know and the right way to think. The expectation is that after twelve years or more of education, minds will have been moulded enough to fit into a particular society and culture. In short, the education system agrees that we should change minds, so long as they are changed to fit its specifications.

No one knows what would happen if we left minds well alone to develop. In his philosophical novel Hayy Ibn Yaqzan (c.1180 CE), Ibn Tufayl speculated that minds could undergo spontaneous enlightenment. Meanwhile, psychologists and sociologists sometimes refer to the exemplar of the feral child as a warning against no socialisation or education at all.

My own response to the question of how can we change someone’s mind? Even if we can justify that it should be done at all, then education’s not the answer!

Nicola Robertson, School of Education, Strathclyde

I don’t like school. It does not create minds, it tests memory. The disease starts in primary school, and by my age – sixteen – is terminal. There is little dialogue and creativity. The teachers sometimes like to pretend they’re ‘opening minds’; but loud classrooms, constant disruption, everyone not on task, teachers turning a blind eye – not forgetting the obsessive focus on the curriculum and bullying of all kinds – tell a different story. Serious issues are rarely addressed, let alone mentioned. If by the odd chance we’re taught something vaguely relevant in the fifteen minutes dedicated to ‘Personal Health Education’, it will almost certainly be a five-year-old PowerPoint lecture that is humorously unhelpful. How can you expect a mind to flourish and develop – change – to be altruistic and ethical, when parents and teachers – our role models – have also not had the opportunity themselves to develop these qualities in the face of environmental, economic, and social pressures that leave them exhausted and empty? How do you expect me to be happy and open-minded when I am stressed and unrealistic expectations are put on me every day? How do you expect me to change and open my mind about the future when the six hours of lecturing we go through each day ultimately drains all the fun and relevance out of learning?

Yet, despite everything, I’m still optimistic. So I want to present to the readers of Philosophy Now a teenage solution to changing minds in the third decade of the twenty-first century: reading books! I still feel engaged and thrilled about learning because daily I am a witness to creativity, subversive and critical thinking, wild leaps of the imagination and the possibilities of alternative worlds and lives. This fills me with the enthusiasm my childhood promised. So come and join me!

Daisy Holloway, Wellington, Somerset

To answer the question, I sought the most effective mind-changer of the twentieth century: Joseph Goebbels. He said, “There was no point in seeking to convert the intellectuals. For intellectuals would never be converted and would anyway always yield to the stronger, and this will always be ‘the man in the street’. Arguments must therefore be crude, clear, and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.” Goebbels did not need truth or a good argument to change people’s minds. He used their basic needs and aspirations which provided a powerful motivation. It clearly worked for the masses and the mindset of the mob, where as more people succumbed the easier it became to convert the rest. Swept along in the mass hysteria, mob rule flourished, pushing the intellectuals to the side and creating an adoration of Hitler and the Nazis.

Goebbels was successful with the mob, but would this work on the individual? If the individual is an intellectual who may be convinced by a sound argument, then that argument must be capable of holding up against scrutiny. By ‘intellectuals’, Goebbels meant people who could think for themselves, analyse issues, consider opposing views, and reach a conclusion. For the rest, changing minds is simply an appeal to the basic needs for security and self-belief, perhaps with a sense of belonging to a small group of special people, with special knowledge or power those around them do not have. Some religious sects still use this technique today in their door-to-door recruitment of vulnerable people.

Richard Tod, Desborough, Northants

One of Robert Conquest’s ‘Three Laws of Politics’ states, “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.” In the spirit of Conquest, then, we hold on to beliefs, no matter where they fall, because we know they are right. So changing someone’s mind is usually impossible – since changing someone’s opinion depends on their willingness to let go of their belief.

Few feel obligated to see their opinions as questionable. We can try to present someone with facts, or an image to play at their heart strings, thinking that this might compel them to concede. Do we imagine that the complexities in another’s head, brought about by their life’s experience, will welcome our experience enough to change their mind? Yeah, sure.

The character we arrive at in life is shaped by how we are placed economically, socially, and personally. Locking in ways that keep us comfortable is the mind’s priority, and those ways are achieved through conserving ideas. We must appreciate the fact that changing someone’s mind might be changing the condition of their life. And that is not comfortable.

Think of how difficult it is to read a book that challenges our belief system. Assuming we bother to read it, we go into it with our intellectual axes and shields, prepared to defend our ideas. However, we’re always happy to open literature that reinforces our existing outlooks. What does this tell us? That we rarely seek out ways to change our own mind; we instead find comfort in conserving what’s already there. We do not see this as defensive or closed. Only the other conservative trying to change our mind sees it that way.

Because of the conditioning of life, and factors pertaining to self-sufficiency and safety, it is not in human nature to change our minds. It is only in luck, like rain or snow. No matter what authoritative source provides the incontrovertible data, ideas of consequence in the mind (which are the only ones worth changing) will not be risked. Like good conservatives, we will hold on to what we know, and not cave in to the pressure of other conservatives. What do they know, anyhow?

Bronson Herr, Morgantown, West Virginia

If education could change the mind
This world, broken, bleeding, would not be
And evil acts might not have shaped
These human rivulets of history
If knowledge alone could move the mind
Those in power would be not blind, or cruel,
And irrationality of thought and action
Would not be the common state of rule
If emotional sentiment could move the heart
Things less easily would fall apart
Perhaps, by now, we might have overcome
Injustice, ignorance, the pointed gun.
But the mind once set is not so easily turned
That which mental habit forms is not so easily unlearned
If philosophy had the strength to alter
Stubborn minds of vice and woe
We’d need no other call but reason
It would be enough to heed, to read, to think, ‘to know’.
But grown men hold tight to thoughts and feelings
Far beyond truth, right, and worthy reasons
Hence why the hopeful light of youth
Where ideas form, seed, twist, take root
Lasts for only one sad season.

Bianca Laleh, Totnes, Devon

Next Question of the Month

Our next question is: What Grounds or Justifies Morality? Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and answers must be received by 19th September 2022. To have a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address.

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