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How to Get People to Change Their Minds

Researchers turn to social media to discover the science of persuasion. ID 35392989 © Katarzyna Bialasiewicz | Royalty Free
Source: ID 35392989 © Katarzyna Bialasiewicz | Royalty Free

As the saying goes, "All the world is mad except for me and thee, and I'm not too sure of thee."

This is the reaction many of us have when people express opinions that differ markedly from our own. And then, of course, we try to change their minds.

If we were all entirely rational, then our beliefs would be grounded in logic and evidence, and changing our beliefs would simply be a matter of presenting a logical argument backed up by objective evidence. In fact, this is how we educate students to "think critically". It is also how our politicians and lawmakers debate issues.

Yet this is rarely effective.

Consider this study by Lord, Ross and Leppner (1979) which used a very realistic procedure to examine whether logic and evidence lead people to change their minds: People supporting and opposing capital punishment were asked to read two studies, one that confirmed and one that disconfirmed their existing beliefs about the death penalty. The studies were fictional, but were described as actual published research. They were then asked of each study, "Has this study changed the way you feel toward capital punishment?", and "Has this study changed your beliefs about the deterrent efficacy of the death penalty?" Then they were given summaries of several prominent criticisms of the study, and the authors’ rebuttals to the criticisms.

The results? The two groups became more certain of their original position, and, as a result, the groups became more polarized in their beliefs!

Why? Because people are likely to examine relevant evidence in a biased manner, accepting evidence that is consistent with their views without further scrutiny while subjecting evidence that contradicts their views to intense scrutiny.

Researchers at Cornell University recently took a different approach to the question of how to get people to change their minds: They analyzed social media.

ChangeMyView is an active Reddit community of over 200,000 members on Reddit that allows users to present their opinions and to invite others to contest them. If the ensuing discussion causes them to change their minds, they acknowledge that they've changed their minds and explain what in particular it was that they found persuasive. Some of the opinions posted included “People don’t define who they are, their genetics and environment do," “Zoos are immoral," and "I think that the vast majority of Bernie supporters are selfish and ill-informed." That last one received over a thousand comments in one day.

The researchers analyzed a number of factors, including the number of people who responded, the order in which their responses occurred in the discussion, and how the responses were worded.

Some of the results jibed with common sense.

  • Persuasive arguments tended to use calm words rather than emotional words (such as terrorist) or "dominant" words that imply control (such as completion).
  • They tended to be longer, including greater numbers of sentences and paragraphs. In other words, one-liners and rants rarely persuade people.
  • It was also heartening to find that posts containing citation links to external sites were more persuasive. So evidence does seem to play a role in changing minds.
  • Original posters who use the word "I" rather than "we" when describing their opinion tend to be more open to persuasion, as are those who avoid using dominant, emotional, or "superlative" words (such as "worst" and "dumbest").

Other results were more surprising:

  • Words that are emotionally neutral or slightly "downbeat" are more persuasive than upbeat, happy words.
  • Using words that are different from the ones used by the original poster is more effective than using the same words. The researchers interpreted this to mean that different words signal a different point of view.
  • "Hedging" language (such as "it could be the case") is usually labeled "weak" because it signals uncertainty. Yet arguments containing such language were, surprisingly, more persuasive than those without. The researchers suggest that is because "they may make an argument easier to accept by softening its tone." In other words, people are not open to persuasion when they feel they are being bulldozed, conquered, proved wrong, or dominated by their opponent.
  • Arguments presented early in the thread are more likely to persuade than those presented later, and that was true regardless of the expertise of the responder. In fact, the first two challengers were three times more likely to succeed at persuading than the tenth challenger.
  • In back-and-forth dialogues between the original poster and a responder, the results were crystal clear: If you haven't persuaded the person by the fourth round, you never will.
  • Initial analyses indicated that the greater the number of challengers, the higher the likelihood of success in changing the original poster's mind. But subsequent analyses indicated single-challenger threads consistently outperformed multiple-challenger threads in terms of conversion rate. According to the authors, "This observation suggests that the sheer number of challengers is not necessarily associated with higher chances of conversion."

Perhaps the most interesting outcome (and least surprising from an educator's viewpoint) is that using specific examples is a powerful persuasion technique. One picture is worth a thousand words, and one example is worth an hour of lecture.

I was disappointed to find, however, that the researchers did not investigate one type of specific example that is perhaps the most persuasive of all, and that is analogy and metaphor. As I said in a previous post:

When Federal Reserve Chief Ben Bernanke appeared on the TV news show 60 Minutes to persuade us to bail out the banking system, he didn’t bother with charts, figures, or lengthy argument. Instead, he used something far more powerful: Analogy and metaphor.

"Imagine, he explained, that you have an irresponsible neighbor who smokes in bed, and sets fire to his house. Should you call the fire department, or should you simply walk away and let him face the consequences of his actions? What if your house—indeed all the houses in the entire neighborhood—are also made of wood? We all agree, he argued, that under those circumstances, we should focus on putting out the fire first. Then we can turn to the issues of assigning blame or punishment, re-writing the fire code, and putting fail-safes in place."

This was a powerful analogy. It communicated the clear and present danger to the economy and the urgency of implementing his proposed solution…Lawyers use analogies frequently to draw parallels between an undecided case and a case that has already been decided (a precedent)…Some legal scholars, such as Lloyd Weinreb, go so far as to argue that without analogy, a court’s decision is incomplete. It is that important in explaining and justifying legal judgments.

Because arguments based on analogies and metaphors are so powerful that you need to know how to evaluate them so that you are not misled. Read more about that here.

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins February 25, 2016

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

More information about me can be found on my homepage.

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