What could I say to change your mind? If that sounds like a trick question it’s because it is. All the evidence suggests that it is extremely difficult to get people to flip that mental switch and reject a firmly held belief. Most of us are set in our ways.
Psychologists are trying to understand the phenomenon, and their work has given us several useful concepts, such as “confirmation bias”, in which we look for and accept evidence that supports our existing views and reject any that contradicts them. (As the joke goes: since learning about confirmation bias, I keep seeing it everywhere.) Human beings also use “motivated reasoning”, interpreting new information in ways that are most sympathetic to their world-view. For instance: did you think that the mass resignation from the shadow cabinet was an unforgivable act of disloyalty at a time of national emergency, or the desperate gamble of a hard-pressed group of people who felt that it was the only way to save the Labour Party?
Finally – and most worrying for those in politics, whose business it is to change minds – there is the backfire effect. When confronted by an opinion, backed up by facts, which contradicts their own, human beings have a tendency to double down and retreat even more strongly into an entrenched belief.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, the social scientists who popularised the phrase “backfire effect”, begin one of their papers with a line that is widely attributed to Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” They believe that the biggest obstacle to positive political change is not an uninformed citizenry, but a misinformed one.
Nyhan and Reifler designed experiments in which subjects were shown a news report about the Iraq War. It included a correction stating that UN inspectors had not found weapons of mass destruction, which were a crucial part of George W Bush’s rationale for invasion. “For very liberal subjects, the correction worked as expected, making them more likely to disagree with the statement that Iraq had WMDs compared with controls.” But for right-of-centre participants, “The correction backfired . . . [They] were more likely to believe that Iraq had WMDs than those in the control condition.”
So, what changes people’s minds? Oddly, a weaker argument might help. Asking opponents to flip from a strongly held belief to its opposite is a huge psychological demand. It involves acknowledging that they have been grievously wrong, which might call their entire belief system into doubt. Making a smaller mental leap is less challenging.
For the same reason, it is also easier to convince us to change our minds when the change doesn’t threaten our sense of identity. Take people who are devoutly religious: they are likely to have friends who share their faith, to belong to circles in which faith is important, and perhaps even to have a spouse, parents or children who would be hurt and alienated by a change of heart. In such circumstances, jettisoning a conviction is freighted with emotional trauma.
In political terms, that is also why it is not useful to crow over concessions from the other side. If you argue that ditching welfare cuts would demonstrate the failure of the entire Tory austerity project, the Conservatives will be more reluctant to ditch them. It must be possible to save face while changing your mind.
The scientific method developed to insure us against the unseen bias of our intuition and “common sense”. We should always be alert to the forces that silently shape our opinions. The following five writers have all rethought a fiercely held belief, either as a result of encountering new evidence or as their sense of self evolved. Which of your beliefs don’t stand up to scrutiny?
Based from 1987 to 1999 in Belfast, I was one of those resident American buttinskies whom unionists so resented that they rarely noticed I was on their side. Because I am cynical about human nature, for years my instincts were sound. No, in a world of talks about talks about talks, there would be no political settlement; yes, the IRA would break its latest ceasefire (duh).
The risk of being a smarty-pants is overconfidence. Although I wasn’t presuming that the Troubles would continue till Doomsday, I didn’t see the 1998 Belfast Agreement coming.
Marriage, monogamy – a prison where you build your own walls. Familiarity breeds contempt, but this is the aftermath of romance. If you want to fetishise proximity, domesticity, and storage solutions from Ikea, why not go all the way and be a lesbian? If you want to service someone, have a baby. And if you want to rescue someone, get a dog.
Fame and fortune phoned and off I went to London. I was pretending to be a punk, a lesbian and a Jew, but at least I could be true to myself in this way. “I don’t kiss, I’m a Stalinist,” I’d often say. “But you’ve just had sex with me!” “Yes, it would have been bourgeois not to.”
“We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.
I was beginning to write fiction and the experimentalism of the new French novelists seemed to me arid and uninteresting. All I knew of Perec was that he had written a whole novel without using the letter E, an exercise that seemed to me, before I read it, to be deeply pointless: indeed, offensively frivolous. I’m afraid I sometimes made this point in public, when talking about the state of fiction. One should never speak of books one has not read.