What Would Make Someone Change Their Mind

Fascinating essay in The New Yorker by Maria Konnikova, I Don’t Want to Be Right, which addresses the various results that show you just can’t change people’s minds with evidence.

Could various pro-vaccination campaigns change parental attitudes toward vaccines?

They tried four different campaigns, and none of them worked.

The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. … “It’s depressing,” Nyhan said. “We were definitely depressed,” he repeated, after a pause.

Similar results have been covered before, but this essay goes a bit into the circumstances of when and how people might actually change their minds.

It’s the realization that persistently false beliefs stem from issues closely tied to our conception of self that prompted Nyhan and his colleagues to look at less traditional methods of rectifying misinformation. Rather than correcting or augmenting facts, they decided to target people’s beliefs about themselves. In a series of studies that they’ve just submitted for publication, the Dartmouth team approached false-belief correction from a self-affirmation angle, an approach that had previously been used for fighting prejudice and low self-esteem. The theory, pioneered by Claude Steele, suggests that, when people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior.

In the lab, when people were asked to write essays about a time they felt good about themselves, “attitudes became more accurate”…

Still, as Nyhan is the first to admit, it’s hardly a solution that can be applied easily outside the lab. “People don’t just go around writing essays about a time they felt good about themselves,” he said. And who knows how long the effect lasts—it’s not as though we often think good thoughts and then go on to debate climate change.

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