About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, December 02, 2005

How to change a mind

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner's Changing Minds deals with that fundamental aspect of the human condition: our willingness (or, more often, unwillingness) to change mind about an issue. As somebody who is a professional educator and spends an inordinate amount of time keeping a blog, I'm keenly interested in Gardner's book. While not earth shattering, Changing Minds provides a series of interesting insights, presented in very readable prose.

Gardner's idea is to examine mind changing at different "scales," from the level of political leaders having to convince a whole nation, to university presidents intent on selling radical reforms to colleagues and students, to the more intimate settings of conversations with friends and loved ones, and finally to changing our own mind. As Gardner points out, these situations require different approaches and display distinct dynamics, chiefly because of the nature of the interaction between the parties.

The basic premise of Gardner's book, however, applies to all levels of analysis: there are specific, recognizable elements that play a role in any successful change of mind. Irritatingly (though Gardner seems to think this is actually a plus), all keywords used in this context begin with "r," which makes it very difficult to r-emember them. Anyhow, here they are:

* Reason: if one wishes to change someone else's mind one has to provide good reasons, obviously. But if that were enough, we wouldn't have creationism around, so read on.

* Research: the best arguments are those complemented by evidence, so presenting data to back one's position up is crucial. (Again, insufficient against pseudoscience and in politics, but still...)

* Resonance: the new view has to resonate psychologically at some level with the intended recipient. This is were things become tricky, because we are moving outside of pure rationalism or empiricism, and into the psychology of human motivations.

* Redescription: a new viewpoint is more likely to be accepted if it is presented in a variety of forms, possibly by a variety of sources. That is why, for example, public education needs to be done on many fronts and by a number of individuals -- the more people trying to communicate the message in different ways, the more likely that it will sink in.

* Rewards: this is the classical behaviorist call for positive reinforcement. A new point of view is more likely to be accepted if one sees some advantages (not necessarily material) to adopting it.

* Real world events: these are external events, usually of large emotional impact, that can reinforce the new point of view. Typically these aren't under the control of either the recipient or the educator (e.g., the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center), but can be powerful in forcing the recipient to reach a "tipping point" and changing her mind.

* Resistances: an effective change of mind happens when most or all of the above are in place, and when there are few sources of resistance to the change, where this resistance can be rooted in material rewards, deep psychological grounds, or just simple inertia.

Of course, Gardner knows -- as Machiavelli masterfully articulated before him -- that all of this is value-neutral. That is, one can use the 7-R framework for good or for bad (indeed, Gardner's book includes clear examples of both), which opens up the Pandora box of the ethical use of education. But that's another story for another time.


  1. I believe Jonathan Swift said "No one was ever argued out of anything he wasn't argued into." (or words to that effect)

    The most pernicious beliefs are due (IMHO) to prejudices and preferences for how we want the world to be. Evidence that contradicts preferences we have will be disregarded or reimterpreted. Materialists prefer to live in a world we can understand, so we exclude supernatural explanations as even possible. Others prefer for their lives to have some kind of transcendent meaning, so they accept suprenatural rationalizations.

    I doubt we can defeat supernaturalism through education. It's an integral part of one way of being human.

  2. "I doubt we can defeat supernaturalism through education. It's an integral part of one way of being human."

    I agree that magical thinking may indeed be a part of human nature, the result of evolutionary advantages that it provided to our ancestors. Understanding this should guide us in our attempts to influence such thinking. Although education seems very ineffective in adults who have been raised in an environment of supernaturalism, I have known several exceptions. And as the religious leaders the word over know, children are much easier to indoctrinate toward a particular way of thinking. Perhaps we should work more diligently to encourage critical thinking skills in our children.

  3. First off... I am not someone to make spontaneous uneducated decisions, and if something sounds rediculous to me i'll look for every reason not to believe in it. I am an extremely skeptical person and i'm not going to come in here saying all you who don't believe in an "intelligent designer" are wrong because i flat out don't know for a fact, but I am curious as to why you think you're living. From what i understand a majority of the people who post on here are atheists and I'm not looking to argue or get anyone ticked off, but i would like someone to tell me what you think will happen after you die, and why you're living if you don't think there's anything after you die, because if you won't exist anymore then what is the purpose of existing in the first place if nothing is going to exist after it dies? If you're going to talk about critical thinking maybe you should engage in some yourself. there's so many things i don't understand but i'm not going to rule out the option that i was created by something with some intelligence instead of just being a random accident.


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