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Is There Any Good Way To Change Someone’s Mind?

Besides ‘at gunpoint’

Word on the street is that Trump’s lawyer-fixer guy, Michael Cohen, has changed his mind about taking the fall for a man who would push him down a set of stairs if he had the chance. Considering the relationship, it’s not hard to imagine why Cohen changed his mind, not to mention the fact that there’s no argument quite like one in which a federal prosecutor is holding a proverbial knife at your throat. But since this is far from a normal case, what’s an effective alternative if you’re looking to sway another person’s thinking?

First, it’s important to understand why it’s so difficult to change a person’s mind in the first place. Last year, Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, told Vox that, just as the immune system fends off attacks from viruses, the brain, too, is built to protect itself. “The brain’s primary responsibility is to take care of the body, to protect the body,” Kaplan told the news site. “The psychological self is the brain’s extension of that. When our self feels attacked, our [brain is] going to bring to bear the same defenses that it has for protecting the body.”

To test his theory, Kaplan and his collaborators placed 40 liberals with self-proclaimed “deep convictions” in a functional MRI scanner and challenged their beliefs. They found that when participants were challenged on their strongly held beliefs, the parts of the brain that corresponded with self-identity and negative emotions lit up. “The study is limited,” writes Brian Resnick in the same Vox article. “But it is intriguing new evidence that we mistake ideological challenges as personal insults. This suggests that to change minds, we need to separate opinions from identities — a task that proves particularly hard with politics.”

Despite the difficulty level of changing another person’s mind, most of us can’t help but attempt it on occasion. “We often hear people say, ‘You can’t change people.’ I’ll buy that, but only if it’s paired with, ‘You can’t help but [try to] change people,’” says Jeremy Sherman, a decision theorist who believes that wanting to change people’s minds is unavoidable for the average human.

Intriguingly, there are a few practical ways to go about doing so, according to researchers who analyzed nearly two years of postings on ChangeMyView, a subreddit where people present an argument and invite other people to reason against them. “The researchers find that the factor most linked with successfully persuading someone is using different words than the original posts do — a sign that commentators are bringing in new points of view,” reported The Washington Post. “They find that longer replies tend to be more convincing, as do arguments that use calmer language.”

Surprisingly, the researchers also found that using language like, “it could be the case” was associated with arguments that were more successful in persuading people. In other words, if you want to convince someone that they’re wrong and you’re right, try hedging your argument. “While hedging can signal a weaker point-of-view, the researchers say that it can also make an argument easier to accept by softening its tone,” writes Ana Swanson in the same WaPo article.

Other suggestions are more obvious: For example, the researchers discovered that including links to supporting materials helped to strengthen an argument. Still, Sherman tells me that even amidst a barrage of facts and examples that support an argument, at the end of the day, when it comes to changing a person’s mind, logic is an add-on. “What do you get when you cross feelings with language? You get language that rationalizes feelings, mostly,” says Sherman. “We pray, ‘grant me one good reason for what I just did,’ and the universe always delivers.” He suggests that even for intelligent people who are faced with a coherent fact-based argument, doubling down — further investing in their own untruths — is simply the safer option.

This doubling down, in fact, happens for multiple reasons, as my colleague Tracy Moore explained last year: “In some instances, higher intelligence can lead to faulty thinking,” she writes. “A recent study found that people with higher cognitive abilities are more likely to stereotype because they’re good at pattern recognition.”

So what are we supposed to do if even the “smart people” aren’t going to acknowledge the facts? My suggestion: Stick to anonymously yelling vitriol at other anonymous people with no intention of actually changing anyone’s mind. It’s what we’re best at.