How to Change Minds (Including Your Own) With the Psychology of Opinions
If someone asks you for your opinion on something, you can probably give an answer without much thought. But if you thought about it, would your opinion change? For most of us, the answer is yes. At the very least, we’d end up with a better idea of why we have that opinion. Understanding the psychology of opinions and how to change minds can not only help you improve your own opinions, but also help you have more productive conversations with people who have opposing opinions.
See How Minds Change with David McRaney for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
David McRaney is an independent journalist, author, and lecturer who focuses on motivated reasoning, decision making, how to change minds, ad the psychology of how people delude themselves. He hosts a podcast, You Are Not So Smart, where he interviews people on these subjects. He’s also written three books – You Are Not So Smart, You Are Now Less Dumb, and the recent release How Minds Change, which is about how people do and don’t change their minds.
The Fascinating Ways Brains Work
David grew up somewhat isolated as an only child in the deep south. Most of his interaction with the world was observation through TV, magazines, and the early internet. He was always interested in how people work – he even got two-thirds of the way through a degree in psychology before switching to journalism.
What really sparked a passion, though, was an early YouTube video of Darren Brown. Darren Brown is a mentalist – a magician who uses psychology for performance art. In the particular video David watched, Darren was on a college campus. He asked someone for directions, and that person started giving them. But as they were talking, two of Darren’s colleagues walked between them carrying a huge painting. Using the painting as cover, Darren switched places with someone else. The person giving directions was now giving them to someone entirely different. But they didn’t notice the change!
David watched that video and thought there was no way it would work. But he still had access to his alma mater’s library, so he went there to do some research. He found the original study, which looked at a concept called change blindness. In the real research, people filled out a questionnaire and gave it back to a researcher. Then they used a distraction to switch which researcher was sitting behind the desk, and the new researcher asked them a few questions. Later, the researchers did the same thing as Darren Brown and switched places while asking for directions. Thirty-five percent of participants didn’t notice the change.
The Psychology of Not Noticing
David was fascinated by this study. Even if you don’t do anything to trick or manipulate them, over a third of people just won’t notice you! And by affecting the context, you can increase the likelihood that people won’t notice things. He got excited. When he studied psychology, he remembered hearing about an area of research around how what we perceive doesn’t always match with reality. Now, he wanted to explore how what we observe isn’t necessarily what’s there.
Basically, we’re the unreliable narrators in our own stories.David McRaney
If nobody told the study participants that the researchers switched places, they would go their whole lives not knowing. There are things like that all around that happen to us that we may never know about. Excited about exploring this idea, David started a blog. He called it You Are Not So Smart and used it to talk about change blindness. But eventually his interest and blog topics expanded. He started talking about persuasion, critical thinking, intellectual humility, self-delusion, how to change minds, and the different ways what we experience and think don’t match reality. And when he got a book deal in 2009, writing about the psychology of self-delusion became his career.
Why We Delude Ourselves
There’s a principle of psychology called the Introspection Illusion. It refers to a point beyond which we don’t have access to what causes are thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. And there’s always some kind of motivation, drive, trigger, or cause behind everything. Why we do or don’t believe something, whether we feel positively or negatively about something, how confident or certain we are about something, what we value, how we behave, how we want to behave … whatever it is, there’s a reason.
There’s always a reason why you have felt or done something.David McRaney
But most of the time, the reason is hidden from our conscious mind. We have to engage in a process of guided metacognition to draw it out. Without doing that, you’ll probably be able to come up with a reason. David calls those the little-r reasons, because they may not be the real, big-R Reasons. They may just be a justification or a story you’ve come up with for why you do the things you do. Little-r reasons are often to be fictional. We’re not consciously lying, we just don’t have the answers so we make up a story that makes us feel smart, rational, good, or justified.
We’ve all experienced this. If you really want chocolate cake, for example, you’ll have some. But if David asks you why you’re eating the cake, you may say something like, “I’m going to work out later,” “I haven’t eaten anything today,” or “It’s a special occasion.” You can always find a reason.
Since we don’t know our real, big-R Reasons for doing things, we have to come up with something to say if we want to tell our reasons to others. So we use motivated reasoning to come up with a story that justifies our actions. Then, without any conscious input on your part, your brain convinces you that it’s the real story. There are a lot of reasons why we do this. We may be trying to protect our identity, status, reputation, or relationships. Or we may decide the risk of being honest isn’t worth the reward.
Here’s an example. Say you have a friend who has just started dating someone new and they’re head-over-heels in love. You ask them why they like that person, and they come up with all sorts of reasons. They love the way they talk, the way they walk, the foods they like, and the music they’re introducing them to. Everything about them is fantastic. But a couple months later, they break up. You ask them why, and they give you more reasons. Their voice is annoying, they walk funny, the foods they want to eat are gross, and your friend can’t stand their taste in music. The facts haven’t changed – the now-ex partner is the same person. But the motivation has changed. They were using the same facts to justify opposite results.
Reasons for can become reasons against when the motivation to search for rationalizations and justifications change.David McRaney
This is how we operate in the world. We live in a narrative we create to rationalize and justify ourselves and explain ourselves to others. But it’s often not true. You can look at it as a delusion, but it’s also just how brains operate. We’re socail animals. Most of the time we do this because we want to have rationalizations that sound reasonable and plausible to others. It’s like we have a PR agent in our heads always spinning a good story. Often, this is neutral or even benevolent. But you can get in trouble. A lot of people discover in their early forties that they’ve spent years lying to themselves about the wrong things. That’s why we invented therapy.
How to Change Your Own Mind
It is possible to look at yourself and identify when your reasoning doesn’t match up with your reality. Not only is it possible. David thinks it’s healthy. Even if your made-up story about your real motivations isn’t hurting anyone, it’s still holding you back.
You may be hurting no one, but you certainly aren’t living your best like and you certainly aren’t rising to your potential when you live in these completely fictional narrative landscapes.David McRaney
David’s book How Minds Change has some exercises and rhetorical techniques you can use on yourself or others. But a great introduction is to start with a few simple questions. As yourself, “Am I right about everything?” Most people, if they’re honest with themselves, will admit that they’re not. Then move to the next question: “What am I wrong about?”
That question should feel a little weird. If you knew you were objectively wrong about something, you’d probably change your belief or opinion. So you’ve just admitted you’re wrong about something, but you don’t know what you’re wrong about. What are you doing about that? How important is it to you? What happens if the things you’re wrong about really matter? Do you have some method in place to approach information and your own beliefs, attitudes, and values so you can make them as accurate as possible?
A Metacognition Exercise
The first step of changing minds, including your own, is engaging in metacognition. Metacognition gets you aware of your thoughts and feelings. This is a really simple exercise you can do to try it.
- Think of the last movie you watched. Did you like it?
- Now, rate it on an extreme 1-10 scale, where 1 is “everyone involved in this movie should go to prison” and 10 is “the writer and director should get the Congressional Medal of Honor for this.”
- Think of a movie you’ve seen that ranks one step higher on the scale (e.g. if you rated it a 7, think of one that you would rate an 8). Why didn’t your movie rank as high as this one?
- Think of a movie you’ve seen that ranks one step lower on the scale. What kept your movie from getting a score as low as this one?
As you go through these questions, you’re engaging in guided metacognition. The first question was probably pretty easy. You knew right away whether or not you liked it, just like when you take a bite of food you know right away whether it tastes good or gross. But when you have to put it on a scale, that takes more thought. That’s when you switch into metacognitive mode. When asked to explain your reasoning, you go even further.
How Metacognition Changes Minds
You may live a life where you very rarely introspect. But your ability to articulate where you’re coming from, your motivations, your values, and how all of that affects other things in your life is in you. Anyone can introspect. But until you do that and bring these reasons to the surface, you’re on autopilot. Many of us hold opinions, even strong ones, for emotional or reactive reasons, not for any reason we can justify. David has rarely had a conversation on any topic where he did something like this exercise and the person thought exactly the same at the end of the talk than they did at the beginning. Even if you’re not changing minds, it at least becomes more nuanced.
You can even do the previous exercise with hot-button issues like gun control. Disputing beliefs isn’t a way to change minds or have a good conversation. Instead, invite the other person to do some metacognition. If you ask how they feel about it, they’ll immediately have an answer. But ask them to put it on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is “You can go to jail for saying the word ‘gun’” and 10 is “the government issues everyone an assault rifle.” They’ll have to think about it more. Once they name a number, you can start talking about it together. Why didn’t they choose a higher or lower number? Eventually they’ll be able to explain what justifies the number they chose and what reasoning they’re using.
You’re still talking about gun control. But instead of having an argument, you’re having a productive conversation. Your job isn’t to debate the facts are figure out how to change their mind. If you hold space, listen, and don’t judge, you can help them articulate something they may not have been able to articulate before. You’ll both find a more nuanced way of seeing the issue you might not have had before hand.
David recommends doing this type of exercise even by your self all the time. Anyone can learn to introspect. And you can do it about things important to you. You may not change your mind, but you will definitely figure out the big-R Reasons behind your beliefs and values.
The Psychology of Conspiracies
Over the last few years, David has become part of several organizations with the same goals: Improving critical thinking in the US and beyond and helping people deal with the avalanche of misinformation, both the naturally-occurring kind and the targeted kind. To navigate the modern world, be someone with an informed vote, and avoid causing harm, we all need to employ critical thinking, be intellectually humble, and have media literacy.
If you’re going to be a modern human being, you need media literacy, critical thinking skills, and intellectual humility to just be on TikTok.David McRaney
One of the projects these organizations have worked on is theconspiracytest.org. It’s a website with a free, fun game you can play about conspiracies. When you’re done, you’ll get a score about how susceptible you are to conspiratorial thinking, ow likely you would be to fall for a conspiracy if it were tied in with something you believe, are interested in, or are worried about.
Many people feel like conspiracy theories are out of control right now. But scientists who study this stuff find it’s no more rampant than it has been in the past. The difference is the “lapel camera effect.” Anyone is able to publicize anything on the internet, and we are just seeing it a lot more. It can make it feel like conspiracies much more prevalent than they were in the era where the only news we got was on TV and radio talk shows. It’s also much easier for people to find others with the same interests, which can make new conspiracies grow faster.
Why People Get Into Conspiracy Theories
Scientists who study conspiratorial thinking call how a person falls into it “motivational allures.” Humans are social primates. We are very concerned about what others think of us. If it comes down to it, we will do what it takes for the group to survive, even if it harms us personally. Sociologist Brooke Harrington once said that if there was a e=mc2 of social science, it would be SD>PD – the fear of social death is greater than the fear of physical death.
If you feel like your reputation or your status is on the line, you will engage in behavior that will protect that at the expense of your own body.David McRaney
A lot of what we consider our “identity” is actually what identifies us as part of a group. This leads to motivational allures. If you’re looking for a group to identify strongly with, or your current identity feels under threat, those are motivational allures. So is having a prejudice that you want others to validate. With motivational allures, you’re looking for others to assist you in not dissipating in a way that makes humans very frightened.
Before the internet, this wasn’t as easy, but people still did it. Now, with the ability to search for communities on Reddit, TikTok, and Facebook, it’s easy to find others with similar feelings or who are worried about the same things you’re worried about it.
Not Everyone Becomes a Conspiracy Theorist
In some ways, conspiracy theories are a lot like email scams. You probably get a hundred a day, and the spam filter catches most of them. If you look at them, they seem so obvious. You wonder, who would fall for that? But it’s intentional. Scammers often play a long game. They want to filter out people who aren’t going to fall for it so they don’t waste their time.
This happens when people go to conspiracy groups and start talking about their anxieties. A lot of people do it. But most eventually spot some red flags or decide that it seems weird and leave. Some people, though, have their guard down for a variety of reasons. It could be a particular anxiety, a recent event, or a trauma in their past. They’re less skeptical of the things they might have otherwise considered suspicious.
Eventually, after spending enough time with people in conspiracy spaces, discussing issues, and being introduced to new things, someone eventually crosses a threshold. No mater what allure originally brought them in, their prime motivator for staying is the social connection. Once they’re tuned into that, the conspiracy part is almost irrelevant. They’re willing to buy into the group’s beliefs and participate in the group’s behaviors to stay a part of their new in-group.
Conversation with Conspiracy Theorists
If someone you know has fallen into conspiratorial thinking, you need to have cognitive empathy. Take flat earthers, for example. A common part of the conspiracy is that either NASA going to space is a hoax or that NASA went to space, saw that the earth was flat, and decided to hide it from everyone. The reasoning behinds it includes mistrust of the government, fear of institutions, and skepticism of the military industrial complex. And these aren’t always completely unfounded. The government has done some really bad things, and people have had bad experiences. The conspiracy allows them to justify their emotional state.
If you want to engage with someone about an issue like that, start with empathy for how they got there. The important part to figure out, through methods like metacognition, is the foundation behind the belief. We often feel like that to change minds, we need to debate the facts. But debating the facts can make the other person feel dismissed or attacked. we’ll have a much better, more productive discussion if we talk about what motivated that person to be less skeptical than they might have been otherwise.
You trust things that they don’t trust, and that’s the actual meat of your disagreement.David McRaney
You’re not disagreeing over facts as much over who you should trust and why. The conversation has to start there. Before you can think about how to change their mind, before either of you can shift your perspectives or come to any sort of agreement, you have to get out of a debate frame of mind.
How to Have a Good Conversation
Your first step to having a good conversation with someone caught in conspiratorial thinking is to build rapport. Assure them you’re not out to shame them and you respect them even if you don’t agree. You both probably share anxieties and fears about the world, and that there are problems in the world that need to be solved.
Then you need to get out of the debate frame. We often think that the only way to change minds is to argue the facts. We may also unintentionally insult their sense of trustworthiness or make them feel shamed. At that point, they feel like they have to defend their identity and selfhood. Then the conversation ends up being about that, not the conspiracy.
For the conversation to be effective, it can’t be an us-vs-them issue. Instead, you need a shared opponent. An effective conversation will come from you and the other person working together to reach a goal or solve a mystery. The goal is to tell the other person, “I respect you, I want what’s best for you, and I care about you. But I’m curious why we disagree about this. Can we discuss it and work together to figure out why?” That’s a completely different, and much better, discussion.
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