Is it Possible to Change a Person's Mind?

One of the recurring questions raised around the Democratic political campaign is whether it is possible to change another person’s mind? Arnold Kling was so outraged by a quote from Eli Pariser “Changing people’s minds is overrated, most of the people in this country are with us, and it’s a matter of getting them active and getting them informed.” (taken from Politics of the Web: Meet, Greet, Segregate, Meet Again; by Amy Harmon, New York Times) that he decided to pen an entire column at TechCentralStation: The Downfall of the Anointed. His basic argument, following Thomas Sowell, is that the Left in the United States thinks it is annointed to know the truth and be morally superior to everyone who might disagree with them. Says Sowell:

Those who accept this vision are deemed to be not merely factually correct but morally on a higher plane. Put differently, those who disagree with the prevailing vision are seen as being not merely in error, but in sin. For those who have this vision of the world, the anointed and the benighted do not argue on the same moral plane or play by the same cold rules of logic and evidence. The benighted are to be made “aware,” to have their “consciousness raised”…Should the benighted prove recalcitrant, then their “mean-spiritedness” must be fought and the “real reasons” behind their arguments and actions exposed.

But let’s try to unpack the quote in more detail and see what it might really suggest. Hidden inside the commas is a big assumption, that most of the country agrees with Mr. Pariser. If Mr. Pariser were to come to doubt this assumption would that change how he feels about the effort or need to change people’s minds? I think it would. Mr. Pariser isn’t rejecting changing people’s minds, he’s mistakenly assuming that most people already agree with him. Admittedly this is an arrogant assumption, and Mr. Kling would have some justification in saying that the Left is arrogant because the assume everyone agrees with them. But this is different than claiming that the Left refuses to accept the value of changing people’s minds. By attacking the statement about changing people’s minds being overrated Mr. Kling is attacking a strawman, making the Mr. Pariser’s position seem more absurd than it might be.

Of course this is all speculation. Mr. Pariser may be just as arrogant as Mr. Kling thinks he is. There are people on the Left and the Right who are arrogant enough to believe that the rest of the world either supports them or that the support of the rest of the world makes no difference because they know the divine truth. Criticize one extreme and you should criticize the other as well.

But let’s ask philosophically what it takes for someone to change their minds. I think it is possible for people to change their minds. I can think of one personal experience from when I was in college. I took a philosophy course on relativism and one of our assignments was to read Donald Davidson’s seminal paper “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” I won’t describe the argument of the paper, but I know it changed my mind on cognitive relativism profoundly. Before I had believed in cognitive relativism, afterwards I no longer believed in it.

The problem with trying to describe or understand the alteration of beliefs is the problem of unconcious thought processes and ideas. Most of our beliefs are unconscious and unexamined. Few people, unless they take a philosophy course, will think about whether cognitive relativism is true or not. Yet they will, if you describe the issue in appropriate terms, probably have an opinion on whether relativism is true or false. This holds true for most of our beliefs. Adding to the confusion, our beliefs are connected very closely to our emotions and our self-image.

Persuasion and rhetoric are based on a mostly rational attempt to discover methods by which we can manipulate another person’s beliefs, and hopefully change them to a position we desire. Advertising clearly shows that this kind of action can have an effect. Education, words, and reading also have an effect but it may not be as strong as an emotional appeal. Pariser is engaged in an emotional argument when he says most people believe as he does. If you asked most people they would probably say that most other people believe most of the things they do. This is an emotional assumption made by many of us. If we didn’t believe that others shared our goals it’d be hard to ever trust them. Kling wants to argue rationally in order to change minds and this is a worthy goal, but it’s not the only way to argue and it’s not the sole province of one political faction to argue one way or the other.

Changing minds is possible but it is expensive, emotionally and intellectually. Because our belief changes are mostly hidden from even our own consciousness there is little reward or feedback for the person who tries to argue with their opponents. It’s easy to become lazy and dismiss your opponents, to become stuck in an echo-chamber. Humility, intelligence, personality, and education, all go a long way to preventing someone from becoming stuck inside their own beliefs.