Sunday, 26 September 2010

People don't change their mind the way they are supposed to

The theory

Ocassionally I get unsubscribe requests to the mailing list that tells people of updates to this site. Most of them happened when the site was launched, but a couple have arrived later. Every single one of them has been short and to the point, with the exception of one that I got recently, that contained some nasty swearing. This was a contact in my list that has always hated me, for no clear reason I can see, because we have never had much contact in the first place. As far as I can tell, he has some serious prejudices about me based on rumours, that he's never changed in the face of clear evidence that he might be wrong and that in any case, he doesn't know that much about me. And this takes me to an issue that most people don't think about, but it's sadly true: people don't change their minds about things the way they are supposed to. That's one of the reasons that influencing other people can be so difficult.

The way people are supposed to change their mind is something like this: They have some kind of rational belief based on their experience. You give them evidence that proves that they are wrong. They consider the evidence and, finding it convincing, they change their mind. Sadly, it isn't at all like that.

There have been experiments done on real people who had a wrong belief related to something that was in the news, after providing them with overwhelmingly clear evidence that their belief was wrong. To make the different answers clear, let's imagine the following wrong belief: "Bobby ripped Alice's dress and that's why Alice slapped him." People were given conclusive evidence that Bobby didn't rip Alice's dress, including Alice herself saying that the dress wasn't ripped at all. The results were as follows:
  • About 1 in 3 (33%) just continued defending their position, finding an alternative justification to actions justified previously with this fact and downplaying the importance of this particular fact. "Bobby is a creep anyway, he deserves being slapped. It doesn't really matter what he did on this particular case."
  • About 1 in 6 (16%) continued to believe what they believed before, and were unable to explain why they continued believing it. "I'm sure Bobby ripped the dress, I know he did."
  • About another 1 in 6 (16%) defended that there must have been a good reason for the action justified with this fact, because otherwise it wouldn't have been done. "Alice wouldn't have slapped Bobby without good reason."
  • About 1 in 7 (14%) said that they had never believed the fact anyway. "Oh, I never really believed that Bobby ripped her dress, it was clearly gossip."
  • About 1 in 8 (12%) found some argument to continue believing what they believed. "I still think Bobby ripped the dress, I think Alice is lying to defend him."
  • About 1 in 15 (7%) simply refused to discuss the matter. "I don't know, who knows what happened anyway?"
  • Only 2% (about 1 in 50) did as they were supposed to: They said they considered the evidence, and changed their mind. "OK, I'm convinced, the dress wasn't ripped."
The statistics are depressing. Half the people will ignore the fact and continue defending an action justified with that fact, either finding alternative reasons for it or just assuming that there must have been good reason. More than a quarter will continue believing what they believed before anyway. Only 1 in 6 people will change their mind on the face of overwhelming evidence, and the vast majority of those will deny that it was the evidence, but will pretend or convince themselves that they have always believed what they believe now. And the rest will just refuse to talk about it.

All of these reactions are familiar to people that campaign about climate change. People's beliefs are incredibly "sticky", especially when they are beliefs used to justify certain actions. What can be done? A few approaches that might help:
  • For those that continue defending their right to not change their actions, you can ask them, point black: "What would need to happen to convince you that you should/shouldn't do this?" Most people will give you an answer, they don't want to appear completely unreasonable and inflexible. Then see if you can provide them with the evidence or motivation that they require.
  • For those that continue denying the facts, the best strategy is often an appeal to authority. Find out whose opinions they hold in high regard, and try to locate examples of those people defending the facts that you are presenting.
  • Don't press people who actually change their mind to admit that you changed their mind. Most people resist admitting that their mind can be changed, they like to believe they are consistent. Let them be, or they may rather go back to their old beliefs.
  • Don't press people who refuse to talk about it. For some people, this is a stage they need to go through before changing their mind. Pressing them can produce the opposite results of what you want.
The practice

This is your chance to shine! Use the techniques outlined in the post about influence to prepare a talk to convince people about something you consider important. Then, on the questions & answers session, use the pointers above to finish convincing the unconvinced.

1 comment:

  1. If people have to be manipulated into believing the truth, they aren't really believing the truth. They are just the victims of manipulation which could have led them anywhere (see Climategate).

    IMHO, the objective should be to try to alert people of their own cognitive biases in order to get them to counter-them so they can think more rationally.