How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion (Portfolio/Penguin, June 2022, 330pp)

Almost a decade ago I discovered two books by David McRaney, YOU ARE NOT SO SMART (2011) and YOU ARE NOW LESS DUMB (2013) that were popularizations of the discoveries of psychology over the previous decade or two. All about cognitive biases, how people commit logical fallacies, how they use heuristics. From his books, and others of the past two decades by Dan Ariely, Tom Gilovich, Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt, and others, I’ve learned a great about the difference between what people believe is true and what actually is true – a theme that dovetails with the notions of science fiction that suggest humans do not or cannot perceive more than our immediate experience, that a larger reality is out there for us to discover, if we can just think our way to it.

In fact, a key insight in all of this is an idea I’ve captured as a recent provisional conclusion, to wit, “You can’t change someone’s mind by showing them evidence and expecting them to draw rational conclusions.” This has become painfully evident in the era of social media, where conspiracy theories abound, and no amount of patient explanation seems to persuade the flat-earthers, the 9/11 truthers, or the anti-vaxxers that their premises are false. Moreover, challenging people with evidence more likely makes them double down, insisting your evidence is invalid for this or that reason – because, it’s not about evidence, it’s about identity, individually or as members of a community, and the unwillingness to admit one might have been wrong all this time…

So now, after nearly a decade of absence, David McRaney returns with a new book that seems to challenge that verity. Though of course the book is called HOW MINDS CHANGE and not, say, HOW TO CHANGE PEOPLES’ MINDS. The principle cited above is still true. And yet, as the book immediately points out, obviously people *do* change their minds, at least at a societal level. Thus cigarette smoking has become déclassé; thus gay marriage is now accepted in a way unthinkable 50 years ago. Yet how then do individuals change their minds about things…? Stating the situation this way suggests some obvious answers: it is, as is so much else, about group thinking, and individuals are swayed by their groups, tribes, communities, even marriage partners. To change minds sometimes all it needs is for one key friend or family member to suggest that a new idea might be OK, to give a person the permission to consider a new idea. And most people go along with their crowd. But I’m jumping ahead.

Rather than a chapter-by-chapter summary, let me just highlight the key points and features.

• Like many books of this genre (from Malcolm Gladwell to Adam Grant) it relies heavily on anecdotes. The framing story is how the author agreed to debate, on stage, with a flat-earther.
• A key anecdote is the author’s meeting with a former 9/11-truther who had listened to counter evidence, met grieving family members, and retracted his stance. For which, he got backlash from former truther associates, accusing him of being paid off or brainwashed, and attacked with fake child pornography, and accusations from Alex Jones (in the news today!!) of being a double agent. It’s not about evidence and reaching conclusions… something else is going on.
• A later anecdote is visiting a family member who escaped the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, infamous for demonizing gays and protesting even military funerals. This story is significant because the young man left his father’s “church” not because he changed his mind about its beliefs, but after a dispute with the father. It was only later, once he got out into the real world, that he discovered that so much of what his father believed and taught was nonsense.
The bulk of the book is about various methods of persuasive interaction. The first is LAB, Learn Act Build, used by LGBTQ people who canvassed neighborhoods in LA to challenge their votes about abortion, or gay marriage. Facts don’t work; people have to change their minds by thinking things through, telling their own stories about how they came to have certain views. A later example is “Street Epistemology,” as promoted by Peter Boghossian (review of his book here), in which one asks a person on the street to state a claim and explain why they hold that claim, but not to challenge them in any way. Simply make them reflect. A couple similar techniques, used by other groups, are described, and they all boil down to a similar strategy (Chapter 9): establish rapport; ask for a claim; confirm their claim and their definition; ask about their confidence for holding that claim; ask why they think others think differently; wrap up and move on. The idea—just get them thinking. Don’t challenge them with facts.
• Author spends some time in the middle of the book revisiting various cognitive biases, with examples of “the dress” and the duckrabbit; how people evaluate experiences based on their “priors”. The philosophical ideas of what we think by “knowing” something, how brain damage affects beliefs, how cognitive dissonance works.
And most interestingly, how arguing and debate are good things. Thus: the reason people cling to their beliefs, is because discussion of beliefs among different groups is more likely to result in truth. Which is to say, confirmation bias is useful, because – like a lawyer – it provides the best defense for some particular view. (Here he is cuing group selection.) And the best view, the one most aligned with truth, will win out. This is the most startling insight of this book, to me.
• And the end of the book reviews the history of social change. How in human evolution the ability to change minds became a strength, otherwise society would not have evolved. Examples of same sex marriage, gay rights in general. How (recalling Pinker) old ideas of honor, and dueling, have faded. Each person has their own threshold of conformity: sometimes all it takes is a single spark, to affect what we think, and what we do. History leaves behind dozens of discarded models of reality.
• The book concludes with the onstage interview with the flat-earther. It was all about his past as a chef, working in video games, a slow portion in his life, and how discovering the community of like believers and promoting them made him famous again. Author asks if he saw evidence that showed his model incorrect? He’d quit in a second, he says. End of conversation.


A couple final observations:

• It’s significant that these canvassers of LAB and “street epistemology” are always progressives challenging conservatives. It doesn’t seem to work the other way. Of course; one side has reality on their side.
The answer to “the dress”: people who saw it as black and blue were those who were more often exposed to artificial light, those who saw it as white and gold [as I did], natural light. So the colors we see are based on our prior experiences.
• Ultimately: Changing minds aren’t about winning arguments. It’s about discussing with another person *why* and how they came to believe what they do. Once you trigger that sort of self-reflection, they will be less defensive about their convictions, and more likely to be open to new ideas, and changing their minds.


Bottom line: a fine book, with new food for thought, an escalation of these ideas from simplex to complex. Still: does this mean there’s no way to change people’s minds about things they’re objectively wrong about? Perhaps not; then I fall back on my recent Provisional Conclusion #13: It doesn’t matter. But as McRaney pauses to reflect at one point: *Why* should anyone want to change someone’s mind? The answer for some is to spread the “truth,” as religious proselytizers think they can do; the answer for others is that what some people believe is dangerous and harmful to others, e.g. when they would impose their views on others. But for the vast majority, it simply doesn’t matter to others if they believe the world is round, or flat.

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