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Forum: Changing People’s Minds

The Humanist Association of Toronto

Every Saturday we meet to discuss a topic decided upon the previous week. These are topics of humanist interest, from a humanist perspective.

The topic of the discussion will be decided in a prior meeting, usually two weeks in advance. This week’s topic is: Changing People’s Minds by HAT member Catherine Francis. Join us, won’t you?

We seem to be living in an increasingly polarized society, where intelligent, educated and rational people have entrenched and deeply divided positions on important issues, whether political, economic, religious, social, moral or otherwise. How can this be? How can we change people’s minds on such issues? How can we convince other people that we are right? The answer is, we can’t, most of the time, and certainly not without a lot of work.

Carol Tavris, co-author of Mistakes Were Made, (But Not by Me) identifies three cognitive biases forming part of Dissonance Theory, which help to explain how we get so entrenched in our positions:

1. The bias that we, personally, don’t have any biases.
2. The bias that we are better, kinder, smarter, more moral, and nicer than average.
3. The confirmation bias, the fact that we notice and remember information that confirms what we believe and ignore, forget, or minimize information that disconfirms it.

Of course, in reading these three biases, we immediately think, well, so that’s why other people are so hard to change. They think they are unbiased, and they think they are smarter than the rest of us and they live in their own bubbles where they are surrounded by people who think like them. No wonder there are so many Trump supporters, climate change deniers, pro-lifers, religious fanatics, anti-maskers, etc. The problem, of course, is that “they” are thinking the same thing about “us”.

In the face of this, how can we persuade others to change their minds, to see the world the way we do? Some discussion questions:

1. In trying to change someone else’s mind, are you prepared to have your own mind changed? Is it possible that you may be wrong?
2. Is it worth trying to change someone’s mind about something? We probably don’t need to waste energy on flat-Earthers or Moon Landing Conspiracy theorists.
3. How did this other person come to his or her beliefs? Were they inculcated from childhood? The product of a particular incident? The product of rational thought and/or research?
4. What is at stake? It will be a lot more difficult to change someone’s mind if the person’s livelihood or sense of self or standing in the community depends on these beliefs.
5. Is there a rational basis for the other person’s belief? Is the difference a result of faulty premises or faulty logic or deep philosophical differences?
6. Is the belief based on ignorance of objective facts? Are there verifiable objective facts? If so the presentation of of objective facts may help.

Some suggested reading below:
Why Facts Don’t Change our Minds:
Why We Believe —Long After We Shouldn’t:

Meet our diverse group, trade perspectives in a free and open forum and learn from others as they learn from you!

BTW: don’t be concerned if there are not many RSVP’s. Many HAT members attend regularly but don’t sign up on Meetup. Our online meetings have been very popular with 20-30 attendees.

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