Evidence-Based Ways to Change Someone’s Mind

An interesting study demonstrates the best strategies.

Posted Sep 08, 2020

Drobot Dean/Adobe Stock
Source: Drobot Dean/Adobe Stock

The nation is gripped in a presidential election unlike any other in history, with deep divides down political lines, an economy in peril and an enduring global pandemic.

On top of that, political information and misinformation abounds online. Because anyone can post anything on the internet, many people in both political parties base their opinions and judgement on false information.

In this chaotic environment, people are clearly trying to persuade each other to vote for the candidate they believe is best for the country. Frequently, this persuasion occurs in online discussions.

There is not a large body of evidence about the best strategies for changing someone’s mind. But Chenhao Tan, an assistant professor of computer science at Colorado University, published a paper in 2016 that attempted to identify effective strategies for shifting someone else’s opinion.

To gather data for the study, the researchers analyzed online conversations in a forum called “ChangeMyView” within the internet community Reddit. In the forum, participants posted their beliefs and invited others to try to change their minds. (It’s important to note that people in the study are inviting others to try to change their points of view, which is easier than trying to persuade someone who is not open to new ideas.) When an original poster was persuaded to a different point of view, they post a delta symbol – the Greek character used to denote change – and explained why they changed their mind.

By analyzing the forum, researchers found specific attributes that improved the likelihood the original poster would change his or her mind.

Before we go any further, it is important to note that 70 percent of people in the study never did change their minds – and this is coming from an Internet forum where people are seeking a different viewpoint. In addition, there is no causal effect in the study. People who took the following actions were simply more likely to persuade someone.

With that said, here are the best techniques, according to the study:

  • Avoid directly quoting the person you are debating. This can be interpreted as being overly critical.
  • Respond to the original argument quickly. Waiting reduced the likelihood of persuasion, although this may simply be because the original poster signed offline.
  • Longer responses tend to be more persuasive than one-liners.
  • Keep your language calm.
  • As part of those longer responses, provide links to outside evidence that support your perspective.
  • Try to respond as part of a group of others who agree with your perspective. The more people making the same argument, the more persuasive it is.
  • While back-and-forth exchanges can be productive, more than three or four signals the person is not likely to be persuaded.
  • Try to bring new information and perspectives into the argument. Researchers’ arguments with different “content words” were more likely to be persuasive. For example, if someone is supporting a political candidate because of their effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, you could argue that candidate’s trade policy is ineffective.

The take-home message: It is difficult to change someone’s mind. But if the person is open to new points of view and you use evidence-based strategies, research shows it’s certainly possible.