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If evidence doesn't work to change minds, what does?

This is a 2-part series on what changes our views. Part 1 looks at why evidence is not effective in changing our views, and why is this is the case. Part 2 examines what we can do to change the minds of others (and ourselves) if evidence is ineffective.

In part 1 (read more here), we examined 4 reasons why evidence is not useful to change someone's mind:

  1. confirmation bias - the tendency to look out for and believe what supports your view

  2. cognitive dissonance - admitting to something that is contrary to your view is painful

  3. dunning-kruger effect - those with a little knowledge in an area overestimate what they know

  4. amygdala trigger -our brains are particularly sensitive to picking up perceived threats (including disagreements), causing us to instinctively react defensively. 

To convince someone (even yourself) to consider a different view, facts and figures tend not to be very effective, as they do not address the 4 point reasons above. As we saw in part 1, it might make people cling onto their original beliefs even more steadfastly. Here in part 2, we will look at some ways which are more effective to change the minds of others 

Find something you can agree on first

This is better explained with some examples. First, let us look at how psychologists from the University of Illinois managed to convince a large number of anti-vaxxers by shifting their strategy

(Horne, PowellHummelHolyoakb - Countering antivaccination attitudes, 2015)


When anti-vaxxer parents reject vaccines on the basis that it could cause autism, the natural inclination for doctors is to point out that this is simply not true. The original paper that vaccines could lead to autism published Dr Andrew Wakefield has been discredited, and a mountain of scientific research subsequently have all come to the same conclusion - there is no effect. There's also the empirical data of cases of autism vis-a-vis the introduction of vaccines, and it doesn't add up. But presenting such evidence starts the discussion off from the basis of disagreement. The anti-vaxxer has a higher tendency to feel defensive hearing all this. They will then concentrate their efforts on trying to find flaws in your argument. Or accusing the data of being fake (let's face it, anything can be accused of being fake - even a photo of the Earth from space). 


The psychologist found that a more effective way is to establish common ground. Even anti-vaxxers have no quibble that the vaccines protect their kids against diseases such as measles and smallpox. But in the heat of the debate on "side-effects" of vaccines - this point was forgotten. And that's precisely where the psychologists moved the conversation. You can already see how this reduces the risk of parents feeling like they are being attacked, and needing to defend themselves. More importantly, it showed the parents that the doctors understood and shard their concern for the safety of the child. 


The graph above shows the effects of the common ground approach to convincing anti-vaxxer parents to change their minds. The blue column, where doctors correct the wrong belief that vaccines cause autism, produces no significant difference from if doctors simply said nothing at all. 

In contrast, the common ground approach(the green column) focussing on how vaccines practically eliminate the risk of diseases like measles and smallpox is 3 times as effective as trying to correct the wrong belief. 

We can think of how the common ground approach can be applied in other areas. Say you and your spouse are deciding on where to go on holiday. Perhaps you only want to go to Tokyo while your spouse is insistent on going to Moscow. Neither of you is willing to change your mind. To convince your spouse that Tokyo is better, you might send her a lot of photos or reviews of how beautiful Tokyo is. And in response, your spouse would simply do the same. You are no closer to a resolution, but you and your spouse might start getting really irritated with each other. 

What if instead, you can get your spouse to agree that Tokyo is a great location. You can do so by sending articles which have both Tokyo and Moscow as top travel destinations. Or have friends who have visited both places to share how much they enjoyed each location. 

Build Safety

Image by Christina @

We have touched on how the amygdala - the part of our brain that deals with anger, fear, aggression, and anxiety - triggers very easily to warn us of perceived threats. The keyword here is "perceived" - your amygdala triggers to warn you to investigate if there is really a threat. However, most of us skip the investigating part, and we go straight into defensive mode, seeing the other party as an enemy that we need to guard against.


If we're hoping to change someone's mind, most of the time we want the other party to feel safe. It is when they feel safe that they start to relax and be able to listen to what you have to say.


It's also important to realise that there is more to a discussion or negotiation than simply being right. Most people want to be sure that the other party can see their point of view. If they are sure that we know where they are coming from, that we have acknowledged what they have said, then it becomes less important that they win the argument.


This is especially when we discussing or negotiating with someone close to us, a friend or a relative. there is an expectation that because we share a relationship, all the more the other party should want to listen to us. Mostly, we also want this relationship not to be affected by the discussion, that we can remain close

So how can we prevent people from turning defensive, and feeling like they are under attack?


  1. Many of us are used to rushing in to give an answer that we think is correct. Instead of doing so, we can start by asking questions. Through questions, we are signalling that we are interested in what the other party is thinking. We want to find out. An additional benefit of asking questions is that sometimes, people simply have not thought something through properly. They developed an impression of something and simply held onto the impression over time. Asking questions is a way to help others think through their 

  2. Getting to "that's right". This is when you are able to express exactly what the other party is feeling to the point where he/she says "that's right!" As we have just discussed, in any discussions, many of us are solely interested in coming to the best outcome. We want to be sure that the other party has listened to and understood where is it we are coming from, and what we are bothered by. If you are able to summarise what they feel, you've established the above, evidence of empathy. When there is clear evidence of empathy, parties no longer feel the need to defend themselves. 

Getting to "No"

In his book "Never Split the Difference", former chief negotiator for the FBI, Chris Voss, shares some interesting insights about "No". For much of his professional career, his success and failure at the negotiation table, often in very tensed conditions with terrorists he had never met, carried the heavy stake of human lives. And he often found that when "No" was not the end of the conversation, but the start of it.


  1. "No" is a form of protection, while "Yes" is a commitment. Saying yes is scary because you commit to something in the future. But the future is uncertain, and you don't know if you can truly fulfil your commitment for sure. 

  2. We often think that "Yes" and "No" are binary. But there tends to exist a far grater space between "Yes" and "No". When someone says "No", he/she is saying "No" to just the question that had been posed. But we often wrongly interpret this as definitive to everything we are proposing. When Voss heard a "No" response, he saw this as a form of information - the other party does not agree with this particular request, so what is it that I can adjust to which he would agree to? 

  3. The earlier the "No" comes in the negotiation, the better it tends to be. This relates to earlier points that "No" makes the other party feel safe that he/she is not committing to anything. Voss went out of his way to ensure that the other party could say "No" at any point in time. In fact, he even encouraged this. He would deliberately ask a broad question that relaxes the individual, (e.g. would it be a crazy idea if I were to suggest this?


While every negotiation is different, it is useful to keep what Voss had shared in mind. Getting a "No" does not mean that you have failed, especially if the "No" has the added effect of making the party more receptive to what you say next. 

Invert your thoughts

We've discussed how we can adopt certain approaches to better convince others to change their minds, especially as evidence has shown not be very effective most of the time.


But we should also bear in mind that sometimes, the person that needs to be convinced is ourselves. We could be the ones that reject the evidence that comes into our lives, clinging on to our past beliefs even when they are not correct. 


So how can we prevent ourselves from falling into the trap of deluding ourselves?


Your brain biologically rewards you for being right, with the release of dopamine that makes you feel good. In contrast, when you are wrong, your brain registers pain no different from an emotional or physical injury. This is your natural inclination, but you have the ability and choice to change this.

Instead of being right, what you should pursue is finding out the truth (this is also a core principle of Ray Dalio - read more here) There is some challenge to being able to do so. We do enjoy the good feeling from being right, and changing is difficult. So we have to find ways to help make this easier.

You can start by rewarding yourself, both emotionally (a small amount of self-praise or self-affirmation that you have bravely done the right thing) and tangibly (perhaps a small reward like a favourite snack or some time to do what you like) when you choose to pursue the truth, rather than to pursue being correct

Ok, but do we go about finding out what is really true rather than what we believe to be true? 


  1. Invert your thoughts. We discussed the confirmation bias, where we tend to seek out and overemphasise evidence that supports our view. A simple thought exercise can help to reduce such a bias. We can simply ask ourselves, what if the opposite is true? How would things look like if the opposite was true? If you are doing things in a particular way, what if you just tried the reverse for just 1 week? One week is not a long time, and you can always revert back to what you were originally doing.

  2. Find and talk to folks who share the same belief of meaningful discussion. These are folks who are able and willing to share what they are thinking, but also able to accept that they might not be right. In other words, people who are also looking for better answers rather than to prove they are right.

  3. Disconfirming Evidence. We've covered confirmation bias, which is not a new phenomenon. What's new is the massive amount of information readily available online. Anyone can find views that support their own, it's never been easier to confirm our biases. What we can do is to instead make the effort to seek disconfirming evidence, especially for important issues. Is there a reason our view is wrong? What are these reasons? Whom are the people offering these reasons? 


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