Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”
So, what’s going on here? Why are facts so hard to accept about subjects that we already have an opinion of? And why would anyone continue to believe a false or inaccurate idea anyway? How do these behaviors serve us?
We as humans need a fairly accurate view of the world to survive. If your perception of reality differs too much from actuality, then you struggle to take effective actions each day.
Yet, facts, truth, and accuracy are not the only thing that matters to the human mind. We as humans also have a deeply embedded desire to belong. We are herd animals and historically being separated (or cast out) from the tribe was a death sentence.
These two human needs can come into conflict; the desire for truth and the desire to belong. Sometimes we ignore facts and choose to believe things that make us look good to people we care about.
Convincing someone to change their mind is, in-effect, convincing them to change their tribe. Nobody wants their worldview torn apart if loneliness is the outcome.
The way to change opinions is through friendship; where you effectively join their “tribe”. After that, they are more likely to change their beliefs because there is no risk of being socially abandoned.
Facts don’t change our minds. Friendship does. The individuals who are most likely to change our minds are the ones we agree with on 98 percent of topics. If someone you know, like, and trust believes a radical idea, you are more likely to give that idea legitimate consideration. But, if someone wildly different than you propose the same radical idea, well, it's easy to dismiss them altogether.
Any idea that is significantly different from your current worldview will feel threatening. The best place to ponder a threatening idea is in a non-threatening environment. For example, books are often a better vehicle for changing beliefs than conversations or debates. Reading books eliminates the risk of being socially judged and the need to be defensive since the conversation is solely in their head.
Given I’ve made a case that facts alone aren’t enough to change other minds, you might conclude that I’m in favor of being a passivist at all times. That’s not the case. I’m not saying it’s never useful to point out an error or criticize a bad idea. But, ask yourself, “What’s the goal?”.
If the goal is to change minds, then I don't believe criticizing the other side is the best approach. Most people argue to win, not to learn. As Julia Galef puts it, “People often act like soldiers rather than scouts. Soldiers are on the intellectual attack, looking to defeat the people who differ from them. Victory is the operative emotion. Scouts, meanwhile, are like intellectual explorers, slowly trying to map the terrain with others. Curiosity is the driving force.”
If you want people to adopt your beliefs, you need to act more like a scout and less like a soldier. At the center of this approach is a question posed by Tiago Forte,
The word “kind” originates is from the word “kin.” When you are kind it means you are treating someone like family. This, I think, is a good method for changing someone's mind. Develop a friendship. Gift a book. Share curiosity.
Be kind first, be right later.