Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds
An economist once wrote, “Faced with a choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy with the proof.”
Leo Tolstoy was even bolder: “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”
What’s going on here? Why don’t facts change our minds? And why would someone continue to believe a false or inaccurate idea anyway? How do such behaviors serve us?
The Logic of False Beliefs
Humans need a reasonably accurate view of the world in order to survive. If your model of reality is wildly different from the actual world, then you struggle to take effective actions each day.
However, truth and accuracy are not the only things that matter to the human mind. Humans also seem to have a deep desire to belong.
Humans are herd animals. We want to fit in, to bond with others, and to earn the respect and approval of our peers. Such inclinations are essential to our survival. For most of our evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in tribes. Becoming separated from the tribe—or worse, being cast out—was a death sentence.
Understanding the truth of a situation is important, but so is remaining part of a tribe. While these two desires often work well together, they occasionally come into conflict.
In many circumstances, social connection is actually more helpful to your daily life than understanding the truth of a particular fact or idea. The
We don’t always believe things because they are correct. Sometimes we believe things because they make us look good to the people we care about.
False beliefs can be useful in a social sense even if they are not useful in a factual sense. For lack of a better phrase, we might call this approach “factually false, but socially accurate.” When we have to choose between the two, people often select friends and family over facts.
This insight not only explains why we might hold our tongue at a dinner party or look the other way when our parents say something offensive, but also reveals a better way to change the minds of others.
Facts Don’t Change Our Minds. Friendship Does.
Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing them to change their tribe. If they abandon their beliefs, they run the risk of losing social ties. You can’t expect someone to change their mind if you take away their community too. You have to give them somewhere to go. Nobody wants their worldview torn apart if loneliness is the outcome.
The way to change people’s minds is to become friends with them, to integrate them into your tribe, to bring them into your circle. Now, they can change their beliefs without the risk of being abandoned socially.
Facts don’t change our minds. Friendship does.
The Spectrum of Beliefs.
If someone you know, like, and trust believes a radical idea, you are more likely to give it merit, weight, or consideration. You already agree with them in most areas of life. Maybe you should change your mind on this one too. But if someone wildly different than you proposes the same radical idea, well, it’s easy to dismiss them as a crackpot.
One way to visualize this distinction is by mapping beliefs on a spectrum. If you divide this spectrum into 10 units and you find yourself at Position 7, then there is little sense in trying to convince someone at Position 1. The gap is too wide. When you’re at Position 7, your time is better spent connecting with people who are at Positions 6 and 8, gradually pulling them in your direction.
The most heated arguments often occur between people on opposite ends of the spectrum, but the most frequent learning occurs from people who are nearby. The closer you are to someone, the more likely it becomes that the one or two beliefs you don’t share will bleed over into your own mind and shape your thinking. The further away an idea is from your current position, the more likely you are to reject it outright.
When it comes to changing people’s minds, it is very difficult to jump from one side to another. You can’t jump down the spectrum. You have to slide down it.
Any idea that is sufficiently different from your current worldview will feel threatening. And the best place to ponder a threatening idea is in a non-threatening environment. As a result, books are often a better vehicle for transforming beliefs than conversations or debates.
In conversation, people have to carefully consider their status and appearance. They want to save face and avoid looking stupid. When confronted with an uncomfortable set of facts, the tendency is often to double down on their current position rather than publicly admit to being wrong.
Books resolve this tension. With a book, the conversation takes place inside someone’s head and without the risk of being judged by others. It’s easier to be open-minded when you aren’t feeling defensive.
Arguments are like a full frontal attack on a person’s identity. Reading a book is like slipping the seed of an idea into a person’s brain and letting it grow on their own terms. There’s enough wrestling going on in someone’s head when they are overcoming a pre-existing belief. They don’t need to wrestle with you too.
Be Kind First, Be Right Later
A brilliant writer once wrote, “Always remember that to argue, and win, is to break down the reality of the person you are arguing against. It is painful to lose your reality, so be kind, even if you are right.”
When we are in the moment, we can easily forget that the goal is to connect with the other side, collaborate with them, befriend them, and integrate them into our tribe. We are so caught up in winning that we forget about connecting. It’s easy to spend your energy labeling people rather than working with them.
The word “kind” originated from the word “kin.” When you are kind to someone it means you are treating them like family. This, I think, is a good method for actually changing someone’s mind. Develop a friendship. Share a meal. Gift a book.
Be kind first, be right later.