There we were, clinging to the pointed allegations of a sexual assault survivor and vociferous denials of the Supreme Court nominee. The testimony was emotional, raw and compelling. But was it likely to sway opinions? Nope. Predictably, people’s arguments and positions on the nomination aligned quite closely with political affiliation.
So where does that leave us now? With midterm elections just days away, is there any hope for rational discourse and persuading others to change their minds?
Business professor Michael Norton and behavioral economist Dan Ariely have given us some hope to hang onto. Their research has showed that when stripped of partisan information, Americans’ description of an ideal society is remarkably similar regardless of political affiliation. They found that when we boil the issues down to core values, we tend to agree.
But we’re up against a massive force. Our modern political parties are powerful tribes through which we express our social identities and take cues on how to vote. Often, it’s more important to humans that they be accepted by their tribe than to be right. And it’s not even that irrational: evolutionarily, not being part of a tribe was a death sentence.
Given the fight we’re up against this November, we’ll need all the tools in our tool kit to change hearts and minds. We reviewed the literature on moral persuasion to help uncover clever strategies to use in debate. The hope is these tactics will help people have productive conversations with people we disgree with.
Here are five strategies to change someone’s mind (and your own). To illustrate each tactic we have used the example of how to argue for and against gun control.
PROVIDE AN ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATION
Imagine you are initially told that a warehouse fire was thought to have been caused by the negligent storage of gas cylinders and oil paints in a closet. You are later told that the closet was actually empty. Do you change your mind about the cause?
It turns out, no. Despite the correction, when they were asked about the cause of the fire, participants in a study continued to cite “gas and paint.” Participants recall that the information was updated, but without an alternative explanation for why the fire actually happened, they reverted to old information that provided a better fit to the fire’s cause.
Practical advice: Fill in the blanks. In the case of gun control, it might look like this:
If you’re against gun control: You can give your debate partner an alternative reason for the mass gun shootings. Advocates for gun control tend to cite mental illness as the default cause of killings.
If you’re in favor of gun control: In response to this mental illness claim, you may suggest that most young killers would not have been flagged as mentally ill. But you’d need to go a step farther and provide the alternative explanation. For example, you may share one thing killers do have in common: parents with guns that are easy to access.
ASK PEOPLE TO BE SKEPTICS
When debating with someone, it’s tempting simply to repeat your own point of view, leading to a conversation that resembles a game of ping-pong. You question your opponent’s viewpoint but not your own. There is some evidence to suggest you should instead kick off your debate by asking everyone involved to engage in universal skepticism. Political scientist Jennifer Jerit ran an experiment priming people to focus on the accuracy of information rather than other factors. This intervention, as described in The Atlantic, successfully led to reduced motivated reasoning in the lab.
Practical advice: Welcome questions.
Both sides: Whether you’re for or against a proposition, set the scene before you start debating. Give everyone the social permission to question each other about the accuracy of any statement made
CREATE AN IN-GROUP WITH YOUR OPPONENT
You may have very different views from the person across the table, but it won’t help to think if it as a competition.
A study by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif at a boys’ camp successfully manipulated groups first into rivalries and later into alliances. After turning the groups against each other, they created allies by staging a scenario where competition would hurt each group. In one scenario the camp truck was on its way to retrieve essential supplies and became stuck. The boys had to cooperate to return the vehicle to its important mission. In another instance, researchers interrupted the camp's water supply, and the boys had to organize themselves to implement a fix.
Practical advice: Create a shared objective.
Both sides: Try to solve a problem together. State up front that you must agree on one thing. Regarding gun control, you might ask how we could work together to reduce accidental gun deaths in the home. This is an issue where people on both sides of the debate would agree that less is better. State up front that you must agree on one thing.
ASK FOR DETAILS ON HOW SOMETHING WORKS
In 2002, cognitive scientists Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil devised a test to demonstrate how much people know, relative to how much they think they know. They started with zippers. People were asked to rate their knowledge of zippers. Then they were asked to explain, in as much detail as possible, how a zipper works. After explaining a zipper, they were asked again to rate their knowledge of zippers.
People ended up lowering their self-ratings when they realized they didn’t actually know that much about zippers. The researchers coined the term “illusion of explanatory depth” to describe people's tendency to think they understand the world better than they actually do. In a follow up study, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach found that soliciting explanations about the operations and effects of political policy reduced not only the subjects’ sense of their understanding, but also reduced the extremity of their position.
Practical advice: Probe the question of and why something works.
If you’re for gun control: Ask your opponent to explain background checks. What is the process and whom do they target?
If you’re against gun control: Ask your opponent to explain the Second Amendment and historically how it has been applied in America.
SHOW YOUR MESSAGE IS CONSISTENT WITH PRIOR BELIEFS
In his book Influence, Robert Cialdini describes tactics employed by the Chinese military to alter the hearts and minds of American POWs. The Chinese military would solicit very mild anti-American or pro-Communist statements from the American prisoners (e.g., “The United States is not perfect”). Soldiers might later be asked to list a few imperfections, and eventually they might write an essay on the topic. Through each successive step, the soldiers slightly reframed their commitment and self-perception. Researchers suggest that the fact that some of these commitments were in their own words and even in their own handwriting made them that much more powerful.
This study implies that to change someone’s mind, we need to create consistent (but slightly different) beliefs. It is unlikely someone will end the conversation with “I was so wrong about that” but they may say “I never thought about that before.”
Practical advice: Give your opponent a reason to slightly modify their beliefs.
If you’re for gun control: People who know someone who was killed in a mass shooting tend to support gun control measures. Think about how your beliefs might change if it happened in your town.
If you’re against gun control: How do other factors in society (besides guns) contribute to the mass killings and homicides? What could we do about those factors?
At times, changing people’s minds may seem impossible. But there is hope. We’ve done it before. In part, slavery was eventually abolished by changing the societal narrative. Religious movements such as the Quakers contributed to this change by interpreting religious texts in a way that made slavery appear very un-Christian, stirring up cognitive dissonance in the population. To maintain their social identities as Christians, many people had to revise their attitudes toward slavery. Through a concerted effort to educate their citizenry, the abolitionists were able to first have the slave trade banned and later have the practice eliminated altogether. To make this sort of progress in society, we must continue to seek ways to reframe the narrative at the macro level—but also within each conversation. The tactics above are just a slice of the various ways we can move beyond the status quo of our beliefs and towards a greater shared objective. To get more strategies you can use to bridge the partisan gap, check out our literature review essay “Breaking the Spell.”