We live in a world that does its best to force us into ‘Us vs. Them’ thinking. When we hold strong beliefs, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that those who hold opposing beliefs are our enemy, and need to be fought. But the more aggressively you challenge someone on a belief that is part of their identity, the more likely you are to trigger the Backfire Effect and actually strengthen their pre-existing ideas.
I like to use the analogy of a powerful suction cup. Traditional argument tends to be akin to trying to pull it off with brute strength, which a) won’t work, b) risks hurting yourself, and c) risks hurting whatever it’s attached to. On the other hand, if you can get a fingernail under the edge of it, you can usually pop it off without much effort and without damage to anything involved.
I once managed to change someone’s mind about abortion, a notoriously difficult subject on which to get anyone to budge. I did it by not having a discussion about abortion. We spent hours talking about moral philosophy, about the definition of harm vs suffering, and about whether an act could be said to do harm if it caused no suffering. I took his viewpoint seriously, even though he was a farm kid from a small town who’d never made it past high school. He’d never had anyone ask him what he thought about anything like that, but I helped him reason his way through and sketch out a personal moral framework. Finally, when it had long since gotten dark and nearly everyone else at the barbecue had gone home, I brought the discussion back around to reproductive rights, and showed him the issue afresh through the moral lens that we had spent those hours building. He gave a slightly sheepish grin, and admitted that he had a lot more thinking to do, but that I had probably changed his mind.
There are two morals to this story:
- If you want to change someone’s mind, you need to start by respecting them, and taking the time to understand their perspective.
- I am a terrible guest to invite to a Fourth of July barbecue.