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 Bargles don’t believe there’s a tree in this picture

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.

Mmm, cheesy!

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.

Photos by familymwr and barto, used under Attribution License

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

15 responses to “How can we change delusional beliefs?”

  1. ck says :

    Point 2 is important. It is important to be honest even if you disagree because without it you are showing disrespect.

    “What might convince you?” this is a good idea! Thanks.

  2. theaspirationalagnostic says :

    Hmm. Of course, if the person that you are addressing feels the same way about your beliefs, then it could be a rather long and unproductive dialogue. A creationist, for example, has a whole different reality to that which we hold, but it is their reality (as utterly delusional as it is, of course).

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      True, but despite very different starting points, I wonder if we might have more common ground with creationists than it appears at first.

      A creationist will start from a certain view of the Bible, but they’ll still believe that their views are rational, and they’ll want that to be apparent. They’ve got plenty of arguments which are predictably deployed at certain points, but if you get to that stage, as always seems to happen, you’ve already missed point 1. They’ve become entrenched.

      It’s possible that some will deny that anything might change their minds – that helpfully tells you not to bother engaging with them. But I think there will be plenty of creationists who would rethink their view in certain circumstances. Even if it would require a personal visitation from God Himself, at least it’s a starting point for dialogue, and over time, it might lead to more feasible suggestions.

      I’m very bad at this – my natural instinct is always to mock ridiculous beliefs. I freely admit that this is speculative and untried, and no method will ever have universal success. But I think it’s worth a try.

  3. M. Rodriguez says :

    Great article, however, for the believer the answer to number #5, is always ‘Nothing’.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I’m not sure if that’s the case. It probably is for some, but even then, it tells you something, if only that it’s not worth wasting your time.

      I think hypotheticals can be hard to engage with, but it can be revealing to find out whether they’d reject/amend their existing beliefs if (for example) Jesus’s body was found, or Jesus appeared to them and told them they were wrong.

      Some people will refuse to even contemplate being wrong – they have a whole load of defences set up to make sure no one gets near enough to their beliefs to threaten them. I’ve got a name for them (which isn’t even rude), but that’ll have to wait for a post I’m expecting to publish later this week.

      • M. Rodriguez says :

        Well I would say when I did my questionaire on the Christian-Theist Challenge. One of the questions, that was posed to the believer was, what would convince you it was wrong. And almost all of them said nothing.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Interesting. I’d forgotten about that. I’ll have to take another look at it, but my initial reaction is that either you had an unrepresentative sample or they were answering a slightly different question.

        When I was asked that question long ago, I tended to hear it as asking what I could imagine changing my mind. I’d struggle to imagine anything, because I believed it was true. But if pushed, with specific questions like the ones I suggested, I think most would admit to certain hypothetical things. You could start with St Paul’s “If Christ did not rise…” for extra Bible-bashing goodness.

        A refusal to accept even the hypothetical possibility of being wrong may well be the first stage of defence against unwanted challenges to our beliefs. For some people, just getting them to entertain the idea is a step forward.

      • M. Rodriguez says :

        i’ve asked several christians I know personally this question, and they have all said NOTHING…Even the christian philospher William Lane Criag has personally answered this question by saying nothing.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Interesting, especially Craig. I suspect they view it as a form of weakness to contemplate such a thing. I’ll have to do some proper research of my own at some point.

  4. R.M. says :

    But who decides what consists of a ‘delusional belief’? All you can do is argue your case. I don’t think there’s any objectivity in these matters, and I’m a Christian.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Yes, I think I might have left the hard part out. As I said, I really just wanted to focus on the process.

      This was written because a friend was having difficulty in working out how to convince someone that he was mistaken in one of his beliefs. I’m sure we’ve all been in similar positions, even if we wouldn’t agree on the delusional nature of any given belief.

      That’s what I’m trying to achieve, but as you say, it’s only half the story.

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