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Proven Ways to Change Someone’s Mind

Research shows us the elements of persuasive dialogue.

 CC0 public domain
Source: CC0 public domain

Americans will head to the polls tomorrow. While this year is proving to be one of the most politically-divisive in U.S. history, here at Evidence-based Living, we still hold onto hope that Americans can engage in a civil political dialogue.

So, we thought this would be a great time to re-examine the evidence on changing someone’s mind.

It turns out, changing someone’s mind is a difficult thing to do. There are a variety of psychological theories that explain why. For starters, people are programmed to seek out viewpoints that are similar to their own, or that confirm what they already believe. A prime example is research showing that people are more likely to tune in to news channels that align with their political beliefs.

In addition, the human brain tends to interpret and recall information in a way that confirms people's existing beliefs, while it spends less time considering other points of view. (This is called confirmation bias.)

The bottom line is, changing someone’s mind is a difficult task. But it’s not impossible. In 2016, researchers at Cornell University published a study examining the best strategies for changing someone’s mind in an online forum.

To gather data, the researchers analyzed on-line conversations in a forum called “ChangeMyView” within the Internet community Reddit. In the forum, participants post their beliefs and invite 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 has been persuaded to a different point of view, they post a delta symbol – the Greek character used to denote change – and explain why they changed their mind.

By analyzing the forum, researchers found specific attributes that made it more likely original posters would change their minds. Participants who used different words compared to the original poster – a sign of introducing a new point of view – were most likely to change someone’s mind. Arguments using specific examples were also more likely to change someone’s mind.

Researchers found word choice to be an important factor. People who posted their original opinion using the word “I,” signaling a personal belief, were more likely to change their minds compared to people who used the word “we” in their posts, which signaled a broader viewpoint. People who responded by qualifying their arguments – using words such as “it may be the case” – were more persuasive than those who posted staunch opinions.

The number of replies within each thread also signaled the likelihood the original poster would change his viewpoint. Some back-and-forth – up to four times – yielded positive results, but after five replies, posters were significantly less likely to change their minds.

But what about the world beyond internet forums? What about trying to change Uncle George’s mind at the family dinner this weekend? It turns out there is a personal aspect in persuasion as well. The concept of self-affirmation – that people need to feel a personal sense of identity and worth – is an important factor in persuading someone.

Research shows that by challenging Uncle George’s political beliefs, you are questioning his personal judgment. But if you can say something nice first – either pay Uncle George a compliment or point out one part of his views that you agree with – he’ll be more likely to consider your perspective.

The bottom line: It’s a difficult– but not impossible – task to change someone’s mind.

Please visit Cornell University's Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.

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