(The Process For) How We Change Our Minds

Changing minds is hard. Apart from general marketing jiu-jitsu and persuasion techniques (by all means, just keep re-reading Cialdini), we can learn a lot from having a map to understand how we, and others, actually process information. Whenever there’s a process, direction matters – whether you are a salmon swimming upstream or just aware of which side of the road to drive on in the US vs. the UK. In fact, the direction of the process is the key to understanding how minds actually change.

David McRaney calls it our opinion digestive system. He acknowledges that we’d all love to think that we’re rational actors, processing the facts objectively and using them to derive our personal values, but we know better than that – don’t we? Even though “drunk uncle” is clearly irrational, we can’t think that we’re somehow immune from our own cognitive fairy tales. Talk about an inconvenient truth.

We would like to think that the process goes from facts, to beliefs, to attitudes, to values, to shared cultural norms. That’s the right system, but it’s running in the wrong direction. If we’re trying to change, or even slightly alter someone’s mind, as McRaney says, “don’t try to shove facts up the wrong end of the opinion digestive system.”

Instead, consider that we operate from shared cultural norms, to values, to attitudes, to beliefs, and then cherry-pick the facts that confirm our view. Brutally honest, but critically important.

Now, with a map of the opinion digestive system in mind, we can (at least) remember to start with these questions:

What cultural norms are likely influencing this person (think what unspoken rules are they following)?

What are their broader values (think: what matters to them – what explains/drives behavior)?

What are their attitudes (think: attitude towards objects, like people, behaviors, or events)?

What are their beliefs (think: what is the basis of the prior attitude)?

What are the facts (think: what are they currently using that confirms their current situation)?

Some examples may help, so we’ll try to work through one or two next time. Don’t forget, this isn’t just for big opinion changes, it also works for subtle nudges too.  

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