Yes, You Can Change Someone’s Mind
But facts alone won’t do it, researchers say.
Here’s something fascinating about stories that recount a major change of heart. Like the one of C.P. Ellis, a White member of the KKK, and Ann Atwater, a Black community activist, who in 1971 were thrown together as co-chairs of a group focused on school desegregation in Durham, North Carolina. Initially mistrustful of one another, they soon saw how much they had in common. Eventually, Ellis renounced his Klan membership and the two became close friends.
Or the one about John Robbins, the animal rights activist, who tells of visiting a pig farmer who housed his livestock in cramped, inhumane conditions. Over dinner and conversation, the farmer—a stoic, rigid man—broke down, remembering his grief over having to kill a pet pig as a child. Eventually, Robbins reports, the man abandoned pig farming altogether.
What brings about these kind of deep changes?
We all have closely held beliefs that form the basis of much of our thinking and actions. What does it take to shift them—and how can others facilitate the process?
I’m asking this as we enter the 2020 campaign season and a presidential election that is probably the most significant in a generation. Sure, it’s important to respect others’ opinions; none of us has the corner on the truth, and we can have wildly different ideas about which policies are best for the country. But racism, sexism, xenophobia, meanness, hate? No. Those are never acceptable responses.
So whether you’re talking to your Trump-loving father-in-law, a neighbor who repeats Fox News talking points about “criminal” children detained at the border, or a friend from college who’s been grumbling about “welfare freeloaders,” it’s fair to try and change their minds.
The question is, how?
First, don’t look to facts to do the trick, researchers say. As compelling as they may be, facts aren’t how we fundamentally build our opinions. “People think they think like scientists, but they really think a lot like attorneys,” says Pete Ditto, a professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine. That is, rather than developing our beliefs based on the best available facts, most of us decide what we believe and then select the facts that support it. So when we hear arguments that don’t align with our beliefs, we tend to disregard them.
That’s because we develop our beliefs through our feelings, not our brains. And that’s how we’re changed as well: by connecting with others and having an emotional experience.
The most basic way to shift someone’s thinking, particularly about a specific population, is to put them in a mixed group—a concept that’s known in psychology circles as the contact hypothesis. Developed in 1954 by social psychologist Gordon Allport and widely accepted, the hypothesis states that under certain conditions, interpersonal contact is the best way to reduce prejudice between members of a group. In 2006, researchers Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp convincingly showed that Allport’s conditions weren’t actually necessary; mixing between groups could reduce prejudice even if all of Allport’s conditions weren’t met. And the positive effect of contact grows stronger with closer relationships.
“The more contact we have, the less anxious we feel about being with people who are different from us, and the more able we are to empathize with them in terms of what they’re going through,” explains Tropp, who is now a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and continues to focus on the topic.
It’s a particularly significant finding today, when many of us live in segregated societies with people who look and think and earn just like we do. If we don’t interact with people who are different from us, we increasingly rely on stereotypes to explain them.
We develop our beliefs through our feelings, not our brains. And that’s how we’re changed as well: by connecting with others and having an emotional experience.
“Because it’s not based on our personal experience, those other people are too easily regarded as irrelevant to us,” explains Tropp. “But what happens when we get to know other groups personally is they start to matter to us; they’re no longer abstract ideas to us. And once we see them as fully human, we begin to see that they deserve the same treatment that we get.”
One answer, then, is to befriend people who disagree with you and connect folks who might not otherwise meet. Or encourage others to join you in reaching out to different groups of people—through civic or religious organizations, social activities, or community efforts.
But it’s also possible to take a more active role in aiming to change someone’s mind, using conversation. The approach, though, is key: if they’re on the defensive, people generally won’t shift their positions. So, that means those vicious Twitter debates aren’t budging anyone.
Instead, says Justine Lee, “it’s about really developing trust between two people: hearing each other out, internalizing what’s being said before making judgments.” Lee’s organization, Make America Dinner Again (MADA), was established in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and brings together liberals and conservatives over a two-and-a-half to three-hour dinner. The group focuses on increasing understanding, not changing minds, but the process is similar.
Lee, like other leaders of similar groups, emphasizes that building a personal connection is a crucial step in cultivating a productive conversation. After all, people’s beliefs, no matter how abhorrent, usually come from an emotional place. We may forget that in the heat of the moment, but treating someone respectfully—asking questions, truly listening to the answers, and talking about our own feelings—will be vastly more productive.
“I think the best way to change minds is to see each other’s humanity,” says Joan Blades, co-founder of Living Room Conversations, an open-source group that, like MADA, gathers Democrats and Republicans for dialogue. “I often talk about attitudes softening”—on both sides—“when we understand why people feel the way they do.”
Lee tells a story of two men who forged an unlikely friendship over a series of dinners hosted by MADA. One was an older White Trump supporter; the other was a liberal trans man who’d been adopted from Korea. They bonded over fatherhood and similarities in their backgrounds. And because of that connection, they were able to discuss more loaded issues, like Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally that had occurred shortly before one of the dinners.
“It was clear they didn’t agree, but they were hugging each other,” says Lee. The older man said he’d never met someone who was transgender—and while he probably wasn’t going to change his fundamental stance, Lee says, knowing the younger man had obviously affected his outlook. “It’s a reminder that humans are nuanced and complex,” says Lee. “As soon as you meet someone, there are things that can soften your thinking about them.”
A narrative can be a powerful way to shift someone’s thinking. The Richmond, Virginia, chapter of Coming to the Table, a national organization aimed at dismantling racism, hosts film and book clubs and has found them to be particularly useful.
“People, in my experience, are changed more by stories than they are by arguments,” says Marsha Summers, one of the book club’s leaders. Her co-leader, Cheryl Goode, agrees: “I think real changing of minds happens because we learn the perspective of other people.”
One new method combines all of those elements—contact, trust, and storytelling—to explicitly, successfully change minds. Deep canvassing is a door-to-door technique developed in 2015 that’s been proven to shift opinions on particular issues, with effects that last for months. Rather than running from house to house with a 60-second script, canvassers engage respondents in longer conversations: asking about residents’ link to the issue at hand, talking honestly about their own experiences, and connecting on shared fundamental values.
“We’re trying to really understand what motivates [voters],” says Adam Barbanel-Fried. Barbanel-Fried is the director of Changing the Conversation Together (CTC), an organization that’s ramping up to train and lead a national corps of deep canvassers supporting Democratic candidates. For that, he says, “we find storytelling to be the most effective tool: to offer a little bit of vulnerability and show the voter that we’re not going to judge them. It’s through those kind of stories that you get people opening up.”
Barbanel-Fried says he’s stood in doorways and talked about his family’s experiences with anti-Semitism—and in response, residents have often responded with their own jarring stories of encountering hate or xenophobia. Many, at the end of a conversation, report that they’re now more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate who supports civil liberties.
But that specific outcome isn’t the only one that matters, says Carol Smolenski, a dedicated CTC volunteer. “Even if I wasn’t able to get someone to say that I’d moved them down the scale to be more likely to vote for a Democrat, I had a feeling that I certainly gave them something to think about that they haven’t thought about.”
That’s the thing about changing minds: it might not happen right away. But even if you don’t see an obvious, immediate change, hardcore beliefs may already have begun to crumble.
And that’s a start.