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Just Change Your Mind

Who controls what people believe? Depends on whom you ask.

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Questions like “How can you believe that?” imply that other people actively decide what beliefs they hold. New research, however, suggests that we don’t ascribe to ourselves the same control over our own beliefs—a difference that could potentially worsen arguments when beliefs clash.

In seven studies reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , participants tended to judge hypothetical others to be more able to voluntarily change their own beliefs than the participants judged themselves to be. This occurred whether the person agreed or disagreed with the participant’s own beliefs—on climate change, GMOs, or other socially charged topics.

When evaluating our own beliefs, we automatically consider the evidence in their favor, explains lead author Corey Cusimano, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton. But when thinking of others’ beliefs, we’re less likely to weigh the supporting evidence, he proposes. That lack of consideration may help explain why “people believe that if someone else wanted to change their mind, they could.”

It is possible for beliefs to change, Cusimano stresses, as people take in new evidence for or against them. So when debating with someone, it likely won’t be productive to assume that they are willfully deciding not to change their mind, he says. Instead, aim for the evidence: “Try to get them to question the evidence that constrains their beliefs.”