How to change someone’s mind—and when you shouldn’t

Milo Vetter, Staff Writer

By now, most people at Case Western Reserve University are aware of the street preachers who took to Euclid Avenue last week. Everyone has their own reactions to the situation, but what really struck me the few times I walked past was how ineffective and useless the street preaching model is for converting people. What college student would be convinced by a monotone lecture about how only repentance for your sins can save you from burning in hell? More to the point, can you think of a pitch less attractive than “this god that you don’t believe in thinks that all of the things that make you happy are actually terrible”? 

Broadly, the case of the ineffective street preachers poses a question: When you believe that someone’s lifestyle or beliefs are wrong and you want to change them, how would you do it? The stakes are high: with Trump supporters, anti-vaxxers, QAnon believers and more, people have gotten much more extreme over the past few years. The need for deradicalization is as clear as ever, so what can you do for the people you care about?

There are two main ways you can go about it. The first is the preachers’ approach—take advantage of someone’s instability and unhappiness. The only way the aforementioned pitch is convincing is if someone is near rock bottom and ready for a fundamental change. This is how most cults and hate groups recruit: A life shock—whether it’s a breakup, a job loss or a move to a new town—makes for minds very fertile for change.

However, this strategy has some problems. As we’ve seen from the preachers’ chilly reception from students, aggressive lecturing doesn’t work on people who are already doing fine. But, more importantly for principled people, it’s not a very honest strategy. Waiting for someone to lose their job to convince them out of a belief seems a little underhanded, to say the least. So, what if you want a better strategy than what cults use for changing minds? Well, I’ve got bad news for you. The honest approach is much, much harder. It’s not just a matter of having strong and unassailable arguments—although you’ll need those, too. There are two fundamental things that you need in order to bring someone over to your position honestly.

The first thing you need to do is communicate a sense of benefit. If you’re trying to make someone come to an event with you, tell them it’ll be fun and engaging. If you want to convert someone to your faith, tell them about how welcoming the community is and how fulfilling it is to practice. And if you want someone to agree with a political belief (or a factual statement if they’re denying reality), you have to sell them a better narrative. Say, “I know it’s comforting to think that we live on a flat earth made just for us, but isn’t astronomy much cooler than theorizing about how many people are in on the conspiracy?” Or, “Sure, you just want the government to leave you alone, but wouldn’t it be nicer if the government helped people instead?” For this you have to know about the type of person you are talking to. The appeal in that second example isn’t going to fly if the person you’re talking to doesn’t care about helping other people, is it?

The second and much more important requirement to change someone’s mind is to become respectable in their eyes. You may be thinking of practices like dressing well, appearing knowledgeable and being a good speaker. However, these things are good for giving a convincing speech, but on an interpersonal level, they’re not what’s most important. The key is that whoever you’re convincing must deeply respect you and value what you have to say. Think of someone you profoundly respect, whether it’s a parent, a sibling or a friend. If you had an intense, fundamental disagreement with them, you’d be motivated to resolve it, wouldn’t you? At the very least, you’d hear their argument—and if it’s passionate and reasonable, you might even consider moving over. Conversely, if a distant friend had a similar disagreement with you, it’d be easy to push that dispute to the back of your mind or even spend less time with them. The key difference between these two situations is respect and closeness.

Now, let’s take a step back and see how we can apply this. Let’s say you’re gay or transgender, and you want to convince a bigoted parent to support your lifestyle. First, you need to build trust and respect. Show them that you’re not just a confused teenager, but instead a functioning and mature adult. When you make your claims, show them how much happier you’d both be if they supported you. But remember, even with these two principles, you’ll never change someone’s mind all at once. All you can do is plant a seed, which may one day make them a supportive parent if they choose to water those seeds by considering your words.

However, having these tools also means knowing when not to use them. For example, handling the classic racist uncle during Thanksgiving won’t be done by simply gaining their respect. You’d have to spend quality time with him and have a series of deep, unrelated conversations for him to stop seeing you as a liberal idiot who’d see the truth if they stopped wasting their brain power inventing new genders. And the more extreme his views, the harder it would be to tolerate his presence to try to build that respect. Finally, there will be a tipping point at which your racist uncle is so racist, his views so vile and his sociability so dysfunctional that building trust is near impossible. You could still try to plant that seed, but the only person that can help him at that point is a therapist.

Even further, changing minds of political opponents or strangers? Forget about it. You’ll never convince someone of any view if they don’t respect you on a personal level. Without knowing what they truly value, you will have no idea what kind of appeal would be most effective. While you can try to change the minds of the people you know and care about if you’re determined, the strangers at the forefront of those beliefs cannot be convinced of anything else—they can only be outnumbered.