Skip to content

How Minds Change: A book review

Ok so I’m not going to lie: I haven’t finished this book yet. But this book is so good that I don’t want to wait to tell you to go out and get it.

David McRaney is the creator of the You Are Not So Smart podcast (and book), a humorous show all about cognitive biases. In this new book he takes the next logical step after poking fun at bad thinking : what to actually do about it.

I’m not going to explain everything that can be learned in this new book because it gets a little complicated, but there are three main takeaways.

First, the way that most of us try to change minds is the opposite of what we should do. What we do is make arguments. We give reasons. Explain the facts. Cite the stats and even share research if we have it. This makes sense because it is what we were taught to do in school. But the research shows that this approach simply doesn’t work outside of school. In fact, it usually backfires. A lot. So much so that researchers call it the “backfire effect.” It’s a real head scratcher. If facts don’t change minds then what does?

And that is the second takeaway of the book: the thing that really changes minds is empathy. Empathy “for” and empathy “from.” It starts with empathy for the person whose mind needs changing. How did they come to believe what they believe? Why is it important to them? What would it cost them to change their mind? Asking these kinds of questions and showing this kind of empathy encourages the person to get curious about their own position and why they hold it. If you get someone to stop and reflect on why they became a flat-earther in the first place, or why it is important to them to believe that the election was stolen, then that sends them in the direction of changing their mind. Once they are reflecting on these kinds of questions then the next step is to encourage empathy from that person. Have they ever known someone hurt by the beliefs they have? If they are against gay marriage, for example, have they ever known a gay person? If they are against abortion, have they ever known someone who needed one? The bottom line is this: change happens when someone makes an emotional connection with the issue and questions themselves about it. This technique is beautifully demonstrated in Street Epistemology, which is also covered in the book.

The third take away is this: you never change someone else’s mind, they change it themselves. All you can do is encourage that process. This is a true-ism we have known in psychology for a long time. In fact, most therapy “techniques” are simply ways to encourage self-reflection and change. Getting someone to change their mind is all about encouraging them to take their own position and think it through. How does it affect others? Are there good reasons to believe it? How did I come to think this way in the first place? These are the questions that change minds, and they work best when they come from the mind that is changing.

These three takeaways, that the way we try to change minds is wrong, that empathy is what actually changes minds, and that minds change themselves, only scratch the surface of the book. I highly recommend grabbing a copy and reading it for yourself. McRaney is a very good writer and he understands this topic inside and out. And who knows? It might change your mind about something.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: