Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Changing Your Own Mind

What is the best way to convince yourself?

The old joke says that you only need one psychologist to change a light bulb, but the light bulb has to want to change.  Part of wanting to change is changing your attitude toward some behavior.  A smoker needs to start thinking about why the dangers of smoking outweigh the benefits before she will have success quitting. 

What can you do to change your mind about something?

One possibility is that you should try to convince yourself.  That is, you could generate a set of arguments about a topic that you think are most convincing for yourself.  Another possibility, though, is that you should act as though you are trying to convince someone else.  In that case, you would generate arguments that you think would be most convincing for some other person.

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Which is better?

This question was addressed in a paper in the May, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Pablo Briñol, Michael McCaslin, and Richard Petty.  The answer is a little complicated.

Sometimes, you try to change your mind by making yourself even more convinced of something you already believe at least a little.  For example, most college students would be in favor of a proposal to decrease tuition at their school.  In this case, people are more convinced if they generate arguments to convince someone else than if they generate arguments to convince themselves. 

In one study, for example, the participants were college students, and they were asked to generate arguments in favor of lowering tuition.  They were asked to imagine either that they were trying to convince themselves or that they were trying to convince another person.  Later, they were asked about their attitude toward a proposal to lower tuition.  The people who generated arguments for someone else were more strongly in favor of the proposal than those who generated arguments for themselves. 

A different pattern was obtained when people had to convince themselves of something that they do not believe.  In this same study, some students were asked to argue that tuition should be raised.  Again, some people made this argument to convince themselves, while others made this argument to convince someone else.  In this case, students ended up feeling more favorably toward a proposal to raise tuition when they tried to convince themselves than when they tried to convince someone else.

Why does this happen?

It all comes down to effort.

When you are arguing about something you already believe, you don’t have to work that hard to convince yourself.  If you think tuition should be lowered, you aren’t going to try that hard to convince yourself of it, because you already believe it.  If you are trying to convince someone else, though, you will work harder and generate better arguments.  As a result, you end up convincing yourself even more strongly.

When you are arguing about something you don’t currently believe, though, you have to work harder to convince yourself.  In this case, you end up being more effective when you try to convince yourself than when you try to convince someone else. 

In the end, then, if you are truly trying to change your mind, you need to argue with yourself rather than with someone else.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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