Five lessons on changing someone’s mind (or “evidence ain’t everything”)

January 14, 2007

As scientists, we profess to the sanctity of evidence: repeatable, unambiguous observation underlies any conclusions we make about how the world works. But anybody who has tried to change someone’s mind, to convince them that a belief held doesn’t match the facts, knows from bitter experience that facts do not act symmetrically. Instead, a “fact” that further cements a current belief into place has much more weight than a fact that contradicts long-held belief. The difficulty of the task of changing someone’s mind, and hints on how we might do it, are the subject of a recent book by Howard Gardner. Gardner is a cognitive scientist with a long track record of exploring how we think and learn. He’s a real resource for the young academic who wants to be a better teacher (and I use the word teacher in the broad sense here).

In his latest book, Gardner discusses the mind-changing paradox:

People underestimate how difficult it is to change minds. The mind-changing paradox is my attempt to capture that. When you’re little, your mind changes pretty readily, even if nobody pushes it. We are natural mind-changing entities until we are 10 or so. But as we get older and have acquired more formal and informal knowledge, then it’s very, very hard to change our minds. Which doesn’t mean you should give up. It means you need to be intelligent and strategic about it and persevering.

I’m not stating that on small matters it’s difficult to change people’s minds. A coffee break at 3:00 rather than 1:00—that’s trivial. But on fundamental ideas on how the world works, about what your enterprise is about, about what your life goals are, about what it takes to survive—it’s on these topics that it’s very difficult to change people’s minds. Most people, by the time they’re adults, not only have become used to a certain way of thinking, but in a sense it’s work for them [to change] because their neural pathways become set.

This points to a number of important lessons. Read the rest of this entry »