How minds change: the new science of belief, opinion and persuasion

David McRaney’s book on how people can be persuaded to change their minds came out to impressive reviews and good sales.

Although for understandable reasons the subtitle emphasises “new” science, the story it tells about why we stick to certain beliefs and why a list of facts is at best intermittently a good way of changing minds is one that has been familiar for quite a few years now.

But McRaney tells the story well. Sections such as those digging into the members of the Westboro Baptist Church provide plenty of relevant human interest stories to bring to life the theories.

There are two main themes that run through it. One is that persuasion is best done when you respect people and listen to them (echoing the views I like quoting from Abraham Lincoln). The other is that people’s views are often rooted in their identity as a member of a group (a point made too in 2018’s The Elephant in the Brain).* The risk of losing status in, or membership of, that group if you change your views holds people back from doing so. It means that, for example, providing people with a new alternative group to belong to can be important in persuasion.

The implication of these is that, as Tom Stafford has put it, “the answer to ‘how do minds change?’ is ‘by themselves” (with side-helpings of ‘usually slowly’ and ‘by small increments’). The groups that have had some success with changing opinions … focus more on creating rapport and connecting issues to personal experience than on delivering facts or reasons … Each of us should have the humility to recognise that the best we can do is create fertile circumstances for other people to explore an issue.”

The book touches on the technique of ‘deep canvassing’ – that is, having longer conversations with people face-to-face. Deep canvassing’s reputation took an early knock with the withdrawal of a high-profile piece of research. But further research since restored its apparent efficacy.

However, when I’ve put my election campaign hat on and crunched the numbers, I’m much less persuaded. The key election case study shows that it took 33 completed ‘long ‘deep canvassing’ conversations to reduce the opponent’s vote tally by 1 vote. For winning elections, that’s a very inefficient tool even if the ability to use such conversations to change people’s views on deeply held topics related to their personal values tells us useful things about how people’s minds can change.

A story in the book (inadvertently?) backs up the inefficiency of deep canvassing. David McRaney tells how he spent an hour talking with a Flat Earther. He only gets into the very early stages of persuading them to change their mind. As a persuasion tool in low volume, high impact contexts – such as dealing with people susceptible to recruitment by terrorists – that could be a valuable process. Much less so for election campaigning.

No book can be complete, of course. Two areas that get little attention are how people hang on to particular views even in defiance of their group or tribal norms and what happens when someone uses the same persuasion techniques to try to undo a change in someone’s mind. The book is about attempts to persuade individuals rather than about how individuals react when caught between camps on either side using similar techniques to try to pull them in opposite directions. (The Westboro Church section is a partial exception to that, but the efforts of those trying to stop people leaving the church get little of this sort of analysis.)

For those most interested in political campaigning in particular, that’s a notable omission. But it doesn’t stop the book being a useful guide.

Here’s the author giving a short introduction to what his book is about:

You can buy How Minds Change from Amazon, Bookshop.org or Waterstones.*

* These links includes affiliate links which generate a commission for each sale made.

2 responses to “How minds change: the new science of belief, opinion and persuasion”

  1. If I am out with first-time canvassers I always make the point that the purpose is to identify people who may vote for us. Arguing with someone on the doorstep is a complete waste of time. In my experience this often comes as a surprise to new canvassers who think that we are there to ‘convert’ people to our way of thinking.

    • The main point of canvassing is indeed to identify supporters so you can make sure you can knock up on polling day. I did my first canvassing over 50 years ago and that was the first thing I learned about it. But also it gives insight into possible swing votes and also the relative strength of other candidates.

      But also, voters really appreciate seeing the candidate or representatives. This does not have to happen just at election time. As a community politics veteran, we as Liberals, now Lib Dems, pride ourselves on staying in contact all the year round.


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