If you listened to yesterday’s interview on the David Pakman show (I’m at the 30-minute mark on the audio – video is just an excerpt, although the whole show should be available on video over the weekend), you heard me make mention of the challenges involved with trying to get someone to change their mind, usually about an important belief.
Whenever I’m asked this question (one that has come up in nearly every book interview I’ve done so far), it’s usually in the context of people wondering how they can get other people to change their minds about an important topic (usually political, but sometimes religious or cultural). This is the reason why many people take to critical thinking and argumentation, in hope that if they can present well-reasoned arguments, that will cause others to give up on what are perceived to be incorrect beliefs.
I usually respond to such questions with a claim that no one ever changed their mind because they lost an argument. This is often true not just for the kind of pseudo-debates one sees on Twitter (where the “winner” usually just outlasts or outshouts the “loser”), but also with more civil arguments between interlocutors (with or without an audience).
This is because losing an argument is often perceived not as enlightening, but humiliating and strong emotions associated with humiliation frequently lead to people doubling down on the belief that’s just been successfully challenged. Partly this is out of spite, but it is also a matter of identity since strong beliefs usually serve as the foundation of who we are.
This doubling down might take the form of coming up with rationalizations, or “Monday morning” arguments you could have made that would have made you victorious. But in today’s splintered environment, it is much easier to retreat into a community that shares your just-challenged belief, saving you the need to shore up or defend those beliefs ever again.
This does not mean that it is never worth arguing with someone who disagrees with you about a meaningful topic. I mentioned an audience a few sentences ago, and in many cases the goal of a debate between opponents is not for one to convince the other, but to convince spectators which opinion is right. While audiences can also be partisan and polarized, watching beliefs successfully challenged is much easier to take when you are not on the direct receiving end of such a challenge. So winning a debate – even on Twitter – could have knock-on effects for others who might be ready to change their mind about a topic.
Also, while people are not likely to change their minds on the spot if they lost a debate, seeing their beliefs challenged might make them open to changing their minds over time, especially if they do not leave that debate feeling foolish or disgraced. Given how much matters of politics and faith define our identity, it is no surprise that changing or modifying those beliefs is so hard since it involves not just changing what we think, but changing who we are.
This is why, if you really want to be successful in changing someone’s mind, you need to be sensitive to what you are really asking them to do: modify the things that make them them. One way to get yourself ready to engage in these sorts of sensitive discussions is to ask yourself what kind of argument might lead you to change your mind about a matter dear to you. Once you can empathize with those you disagree with, you are much more likely to be perceived as someone they would turn to when they decide to explore further, rather than an enemy.
In my runup to that Ask Me Anything interview I did last week, I explored an interesting sub-Reddit called Change My View in which people present something they believe and ask others to convince them they are wrong. Those that do are awarded “deltas” from the original poster, and the tone of discussion in that forum is remarkably polite and constructive, rather than defensive or combative (even in situations where views are not changed).
It’s a pity that this kind of discourse is so rare on the Internet that there needs to exist a specific, sheltered community where charitable argumentation can be nurtured. But if we cannot reform the winner-take-all, victory-by-mobbing culture of the Internet easily or quickly, at the very least we might want to avoid dragging the web’s more toxic discourse culture into the real world.