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What Would Make You Change Your Mind?

— January 2, 2019

What would make you change your mind? Often, it requires the buildup of evidence and experience, or making a personal connection, to do the trick.

In recent years, evangelical author Joshua Harris changed his mind. When he was 21, Harris wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a book about giving up casual dating (and, obviously, premarital sex) in order to concentrate solely on serious courtship aimed at marriage. He was a hero in the purity movement, and his bestselling book became the relationship bible for a generation. Now 42, Harris is rethinking the relationship advice he penned before ever having had a relationship himself. He’s heard from people who were harmed by the weaponization of his words, and had his worldview shaken by a sex abuse scandal in the church he helped lead. Harris credits the gradual accumulation of life experience for changing his mind on a subject where he’s considered an authority. What would make you change your mind on an issue fundamental to your worldview?

Our hyper-polarized political environment doesn’t foster the kind of contemplative thought that makes changing your mind particularly likely. Additionally, people are less likely to have a change of heart if doing so makes them less acceptable to family, friends, or even their workplace, all of which are important sources of social and material support. It takes an act of courage to change your mind when your survival depends upon fitting in. Adopting new attitudes can attract new friends, though, which is helpful when you want to surround yourself with positive influences.

Having a diverse crew of friends can help change your mind. A study that compared several years’ worth of public opinion data found that having a gay or lesbian acquaintance often increases a straight person’s support for LGBTQ rights. Encountering “the Other” superficially, such as passing them in a public place, can reinforce stereotypes; it’s the direct personal connection of becoming acquainted with an individual that fosters the transformation. Perhaps that’s what convinced Barbara Bollier, a state Senator from Kansas, to switch parties from Republican to Democrat this year, in part over the issue of gay and transgender rights.

A man's hand spreads mortar with a trowel as he builds a wall from common red bricks.
Many credit the slow accumulation of evidence and life experience, like bricks in a wall, as key factors that helped them change their mind. Photo courtesy of CC BY 4.0

Many credit the slow accumulation of evidence and experience as key factors that helped them change their mind. Other times, it’s one big event that rocks your world. That’s how it happened for Luciano Guerra, who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Now, Trump’s plan to build a border wall means bulldozing Guerra’s beloved butterfly sanctuary in Mission, Texas. Guerra, who took Trump seriously but not literally when it came to building a border wall, now regrets his choice. “If Donald Trump runs for a second term, he will not get my vote,” said Guerra.

Deeyah Khan is a Muslim woman of color who has gone to amazing lengths to change hearts and minds. When she spoke out against racism she received hate mail and threats, but instead of being silenced, she became determined. Like African-American musician Daryl Davis, who became friends with Klansmen and got some of them to turn in their robes, Khan went forth and confronted neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Showing them the real-life effects of their hateful actions on people like her made racists uncomfortable. It turns out, however, that by treating them with basic respect, Khan was able to change some minds, more than if she had shunned and insulted them. Engaging with deplorable and dangerous groups, as Khan did, isn’t for everyone, but that may be what it takes to change your mind – or theirs.

That said, it isn’t always as possible to change people as we would like it to be. Feminist efforts to convert conservative women who voted for Trump, for example, often backfire. On the surface, it appears that female Trump voters are acting against their own best interests, but people don’t always think of their interests the same way others do. Perhaps they identify less with gender affiliation and more with their perceived economic interests or religious groups, or they feel they have more in common with conservative or evangelical men than they do with liberal feminists. You can’t force people to change through impassioned reasoning (or even insult-ridden internet debates, surprisingly enough) if personal experience or engagement are necessary. Sometimes, it even requires challenging our own beliefs, or at least leading by example, before people trust enough to listen at all.

Finally, don’t give up all hope. If it’s impossible to flip die-hard MAGA believers, even with mountains of evidence, it may be possible to create change by convincing those less tightly bound to their political views (or by simply getting your like-minded peers to actually vote). Also, there’s some evidence that you can change your mind unintentionally, by rationalizing to make a suboptimal situation more acceptable. For example, after Ontario, Canada’s 2015 ban on smoking in parks and on restaurant patios, people (mis-)remembered having smoked less in those locations before the ban. Change the world, and you may change your mind.

“A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.” –Muhammad Ali

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