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.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Rationally Speaking encore: How to change a mind

[Originally published on December 2, 2005]

by Massimo Pigliucci

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. Interesting, especially the Pandora box remark. :D

    //As somebody who is a professional educator and spends an inordinate amount of time keeping a blog.//

    You're doing a commendable job, sir! Not only for your students but also for non-students like me!

  2. R-eassurance that you can trust the motives of the mind changer.


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