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How do People Change Their Minds?

Changing a closely held worldview is not about changing understandings of isolated concepts, but rather remaking that worldview. What goes into such a large change? Changing one’s mind about deeply held beliefs requires reaching a tipping point. Ultimately, to release an idea people have clutched tightly, they divorce themselves from it. The word “divorce” is not chosen lightly. For some individuals and communities, separating from such ideas may mean divorcing from other individuals and communities that are central to identity. That separation may be as painful as divorce from a marriage, or a conversion of faith, or as frightening as physical death.

While labeling social death as more frightening than physical death may seem hyperbole, the Covid-19 pandemic affirmed the idea repeatedly, with people on their deathbeds denying the reality of the severity of the disease. For an in-depth discussion listen to How to improve your chances of nudging the vaccine hesitant away from hesitancy and toward vaccination on David McRaney's podcast, You Are Not So Smart. McRaney's book, How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion, offers a deep dive into the complexities of how minds change.

Some ideas are hard to swallow because they imply that we or our sociocultural group have been contributing to something harmful. We may strongly identify as a “good” person who makes decisions based on what we think is best for our families, communities, and country, and other good people around us may think the same way. Thus if an idea is at conflict with those of our social groups, it is natural to assume there must be something wrong with the arguments of the other side. We select the evidence that maintains the most internal consistency within our worldview. There is an advantage to this in certain contexts – it helps us to maintain important social connections and to protect our identity. It may push us to believe things that are demonstrably false, but some new beliefs are accompanied by a cascade of other implications – beliefs we would need to let go of, and people in our social group with whom we’d be at odds. Thus, while maintaining belief in something that appears to be false based on preponderance of available evidence may, out of context, seem illogical, in the broader scope maintaining our belief may create the least tension, and in that
sense may be perceived as a logical choice.