How to change minds and influence people, by Robin McKenna

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In this essay, Dr McKenna shares some insights from his current research.

It’s a familiar feeling. You just know your friend is wrong about this hot-button political issue. Naturally, you want to convince them that they are wrong. You want to persuade them. But, no matter what you try, you just can’t do it. You offer what you think are excellent arguments, but they calmly dismiss them. You give up in frustration.

What can a philosopher do to help? I’ve spent the past few months reading about the psychology and philosophy of persuasion and I think I can be of some use. I can’t promise you a neat trick for getting this person to finally see sense. But what I can offer you is some help in understanding your predicament.

We can start with what you are trying to do. You are (or were) trying to change someone’s mind. Specifically, you were trying to change their mind by offering them arguments. This is rational persuasion. There are other ways of trying to change someone’s mind. You might try telling a story or trying to stimulate certain emotions. You might try brute force.

Sometimes, rational persuasion isn’t particularly effective. Picture in your head a compelling and persuasive speaker. Do they offer arguments and reasons? Or do they offer compelling narratives, stories that make you feel something? Chances are it’s a bit of both. A persuasive speaker is good at choosing the right message for the right audience. They implicitly understand one of the core ideas in the psychology of persuasion and attitude change, which is that a good persuasive message is tailored to its intended audience. (This is why so much advertising is targeted; it works better).

It is also important to step back and ask why you are trying to persuade your friend that they are wrong. Presumably you don’t just want to convince them. You want them to adopt your view for the right reasons. As an epistemologist (someone interested in knowledge and how to get it), I would say that you want them to adopt a justified belief—a belief held on the basis of good reasons.

It is tempting to think that the way to do this is just to lay out lots of good reasons. After all, this is what you do in a philosophy essay. But merely offering someone a set of reasons, even if they are good ones, might not move them at all. You need to get them to engage with the reasons you have offered. It may be you need to this in a subtler way. You might consider inviting them to consider something they have experienced that illustrates your point or suggesting that they talk to the people affected by the issue directly to better understand their perspective.

Finally, you need to consider if you are within your rights to try and persuade them. Some modes of persuasion—like appeals to emotion—can seem manipulative. Others—like controlling the media someone consumes—are downright coercive. These are questions about the ethics of persuasion: how, and in which circumstances, is it ok to try and change someone’s mind?

If you found these ideas and questions interesting, watch this space! In the next few years I hope to write a book that tries to answer them.