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Are You Persuasive Enough to Change Someone’s Mind?

A new study explains how confirmation bias keeps beliefs steadfast.

Engin Akyurt/Pixabay
Source: Engin Akyurt/Pixabay

Think about your own beliefs concerning just about anything—your political preference in the next election, childhood vaccinations, religion, cars, diet or exercise programs, or how to celebrate the holidays. Some of your opinions are long-standing and steadfast.

Where do your beliefs come from? How can you change someone’s view? Is change even possible? Or, is it simply not worth expending the energy that it takes to try and convince others that your choices are justified, that they are right for you?

For instance, when it comes to starting a family, and especially making decisions on family size, you may have discovered that there are strong opinions out there. If you, like many families across the developed world today, have chosen to have one child, it’s likely you’ve met some resistance. The idea that you have or plan to have one child may be new, perhaps surprising or upsetting to people in your life. Many may be quick to bring up negative aspects to having only one child, such as that they will be at a disadvantage or that siblings are essential. Your parents, in-laws, closest friends, and people you don’t know have opinions. Why do some feel so confident, at times adamant, that your decision is wrong?

Unsubstantiated attitudes

In writing about her personal journey, journalist Joanna Pocock noted, “At a playground in London, one mother told me she thought having an only child was tantamount to child abuse as she watched my daughter toddle alone in the sandbox ... When I told my mother that I probably wouldn’t have any more children, she exclaimed disparagingly that one child was ‘simply not a family.’”

Sentiments like these swarm the Internet, especially from people voicing their opinions and trying to impose them on others. As a parent of an only child and someone who has researched and written about singletons for decades, I know there is still plenty of dismay and pushback about the decision to have just one child.

Disparaging only children is not new. Over the last 100+ years, only-child stereotypes have grown and stuck. They are the result of deeply ingrained collective thinking: Generations have believed that only children are lonely, bossy, spoiled and more. A 2018 article in the journal Cognition suggests that opinions can be changed by speaking out and getting others to listen to the facts. The authors feel that “those on the fence can be swayed.” I’m not convinced. I’m not so sure offering evidence of the falsehoods and myths surrounding singletons or your political preference in the next election will change many people’s perceptions or their minds…or anyone’s for that matter. The researchers acknowledge that beliefs can be hard to change “regardless of whether the belief is scientifically accurate or inaccurate.”

Deeply ingrained thinking

People’s views about whether or not to vaccinate their children, climate change, their preferred politician, or only children are deep-rooted. In trying to set them straight, you face something called “confirmation bias.” In other words, typically when confronted with new information, people using confirmation bias evaluate that information in ways that corroborate or are partial to what they already believe. They will hear and understand what you say, for example, only children are not necessarily selfish or the latest findings on childhood vaccinations, but their acceptance is based on their pre-existing attitudes or opinions.

An unusual study in Current Biology, “People show confirmation bias even about which way dots are moving,” demonstrated that "people will do the same thing even when the decision they’ve made pertains to a choice that is rather less consequential: which direction a series of dots is moving and whether the average of a series of numbers is greater or less than 50.” Imagine how they react when you try to explain the positives about having an only child or scientific evidence of climate change. When an opinion is long-ingrained or rooted in years of incorrect belief, it can be especially difficult to convince someone to see your point of view.

To ask someone who firmly believes the myths and stereotypes assigned to only children to take a different stance may be an exercise in futility. When you are demeaned or questioned about your one-child choice, inoculating your children or why you will be getting a certain dog breed, it may be best to ignore what’s said. Confirmation bias keeps people resolute, making it unlikely you will be able to change their thinking no matter how high you pile the facts.

How do you deal with critics of your family size or those who try to change your mind about other things you believe in or decisions you make? Do you ignore them—or do you make the effort to sway them to your way of thinking?

Also of Interest:


Talluri, Bharath Chandra; Urai, Anne E.; Konstantinos, Tsetsos; Usher, Marius; Donner, Tobias H. (2018) “Confirmation Bias through Selective Overweighting of Choice-Consistent Evidence.” Current Biology, September 13, 2018. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.07.052

Vlasceanu, Madalina; Coman, Alin. (2018) “Mnemonic accessibility affects statement believability: The effect of listening to others selectively practicing beliefs.” Cognition, November, 2018; 180: 238-245. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2018.07.015

Pocock, Joanna. (2015) “Only children are actually totally normal, according to science.” Quartz, November 27.

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