How can we change delusional beliefs?
That’s a fairly imposing title, isn’t it? I obviously don’t believe in making it easy for myself.
This all stems from my previous thoughts about how tenaciously we cling onto our existing beliefs, and a recent discussion about what that means for how we should go about convincing people to let go of beliefs that are clearly wrong and potentially damaging. This is meant to be about the process, not the beliefs, so to avoid discussion of the rights and wrongs of particular beliefs, let’s say you have a friend who belongs to a group called the Bargles, who believe that black is white, and (because sometimes we decide to let these things go for the sake of friendship) that for some reason it would be dangerous to just leave him to his beliefs.
The question, which is one that I’m sure we’ve all faced at some time or another, is how to make your friend aware that he’s being led astray, and that black isn’t actually white. If people tend to cling to their existing beliefs in spite of the evidence against them, possibly clinging to them even closer, how do you get anyone to realise that their beliefs are irrational?
Obviously, there are ways of changing people’s minds, because no one has completely unchanging beliefs throughout their entire life. There must be something you can do, but when a challenge to someone’s beliefs can make their belief even stronger, what can you do if someone holds a belief that’s obviously wrong? Here’s my five-point plan.
1: Forget about a frontal assault. Don’t be aggressive, don’t point out the stupidity of this belief, don’t even criticise it in anything but the mildest terms. If he feels that his beliefs are under attack, he’ll stop listening to you, and in all probability become more entrenched in his position.
2: Be honest. Although it’s a bad idea to lay into him about his beliefs, you’re not going to fool anyone by pretending that you agree. Put your cards on the table, and tell him what you think, because this needs to be a discussion between friends, and friends are straight with each other.
3: Talk about his beliefs. This has to be a genuine dialogue, which means there needs to be discussion. You’re honest but respectful with him, which should mean that he responds in the same vein. This is more than just a PR exercise, it’s also about finding out where he’s coming from.
4: Explore why he believes that. If everything’s gone well to this point, you should be learning lots about what he really believes, and you’ll almost certainly have lots of questions. Why this? Why not that? What evidence have you got? As long as you’re still in a respectful exchange of views, this stage should come fairly naturally.
5: Ask what might change his mind. This, I think, is the important bit, and where you might be able to achieve something concrete. Robert Cialdini has argued that we want to appear consistent, and this is a weapon that can be used to our advantage. You can ask an open question (“What might convince you?”) or a closed one (“Would you change your mind if…?”), depending on what you prefer, or what you think will work better. The main thing is to discuss it, as specifically as possible.
And that’s pretty much it. Lather, rinse and repeat. Keep talking, keep discussing it, but above all, wait.
Of course, this might not work. I don’t think there’s a guaranteed way of changing someone’s mind, and if there was, I’d be unlikely to have it. But it’s based on the idea that people will find reasons to stick with their existing beliefs. If your friend discovers that the Bargles have been wrong in their view that the moon’s made of green cheese, he’ll most likely find a way of ignoring or rationalising that fact, to protect his faith in their other teachings.
But if you get there first and ask him whether such an error would make him change his mind about black being white, he’ll be quite likely to agree, because it’s only a hypothetical. If the Bargles then turn out to be wrong about the moon, he’s already set out his position, and his desire to appear consistent will make him much less likely to simply brush it off. That will make him more open to rejecting his previous belief that black is white, and especially if you’re still in contact.
There you are – I think this is a potentially useful way of getting round our natural tendency to stick by existing beliefs, but it’s untested and speculative. Please let me know what you think.