Oliver Norgrove never used to have doubts.
“The night we won, I remember it being a really happy evening,” says the 23-year-old, who worked as a media analyst for the pro-Brexit campaign Vote Leave, ruefully. “Life then was much simpler. There weren’t any pesky details and facts in the way.”
But as the referendum victory he had helped to bring about unfolded, Norgrove started to have second thoughts about Brexit. He worried that he hadn’t properly appreciated the problems it posed in Northern Ireland, along Britain’s only land border with the EU, concluding that the UK probably needed to stay in both the single market and the customs union even if it left the political union. And he started to lose faith in the people around him. “The more I learned, particularly about trade and how the EU operates, the more I realised that a lot of politicians were saying things that just weren’t true. I thought: ‘These people aren’t on my side because they do nothing but lie to me.’”
Still, it isn’t easy to change your mind in public.
“You don’t really want to lose friends that you’ve made – you don’t want them to think less of you, so that preys on your mind,” says Norgrove.
“And in general people don’t like admitting that they’re wrong, because it makes them look kind of vulnerable. There’s almost this feeling where everything else you have thought might be wrong; you don’t want to open the door because of what might fall out of it.”
In an ever more angry and divided world, voices like this are relatively rare. We have grown used on both sides of the Atlantic to a politics of stalemate and shutdown; of warring camps digging in, refusing to give an inch on everything from trans rights to abortion, climate change to immigration. Sometimes it feels as if the impasse will never be broken.
Yet against the odds, people do in fact change their minds all the time. Social attitudes on race, sex, or gay rights have palpably shifted in a generation. Votes change, faith is lost or found, childhood beliefs questioned. Some become more liberal; others find themselves moving in a more socially conservative direction.
Ken Stern is a former CEO of National Public Radio and a lifelong Democrat, living in a Washington neighbourhood so liberal that he had no friends who voted for Trump. Troubled by the increasing polarisation of his country, he embarked on a year-long journey through the rightwing America he felt he didn’t know, chronicled in his book Republican Like Me. “I organised the book around issues I was sure I was right on, but didn’t know a lot about,” he recalls. “I wanted to challenge myself on things like guns and climate change.”
He didn’t return as a card-carrying Republican but he did emerge “much more jaundiced about my side and much more sceptical about the received wisdom” of it. Once firmly pro-gun control, he is no longer sure it’s a panacea. “I’m not a gun rights guy,” he says. “But I came away [thinking] the belief that gun control is actually going to make huge changes is just not provable by the evidence. I think the issues are far more complex. In a country of 300 million guns flying around, just changing the rules around registration isn’t going to change things so easily.” The biggest problem, he thinks, involves handguns in inner cities “and that’s not easily solved by any form of gun control. It might be solved by economic advancement.”
He was also struck on his travels by what he calls “the breakdown of the American family and the direct correlation of that with economic and social failure. I come from a non-religious background and this didn’t change it, but I began to appreciate the value of social rules and social mores, even if I didn’t necessarily relate to their origins.” Once the year was up, Stern admits that he partly “returned to my cocoon”. But he now makes a conscious effort to challenge himself, keeping up with the writing of thinkers he disagrees with or listening to news stations unsympathetic to his worldview.
Like Norgrove, what Stern describes is a very personal, natural evolution in thinking. But the intriguing question is whether that process could be artificially replicated. If someone sets out deliberately to change their minds, how might they best succeed?
If you have ever secretly thought you might be wrong about something, then Reddit’s ChangeMyView forum is the place to find out. It’s a community where posters can anonymously share potentially flawed or controversial arguments – anything from “it is not unreasonable to oppose a homeless shelter being started in your neighbourhood” to “Apple has lost the plot” – and challenge all comers to argue against them. The surprise, for anyone used to an online culture of aggressively “calling out” and piling onto opponents, is how gentle most of it is. And that may be precisely what makes it effective.
A 2016 study of ChangeMyView threads by researchers at Cornell University concluded that calm, qualified arguments peppered with “mights” and “coulds” were more likely to persuade posters to accept defeat than trenchant, emotional ones. Softening your approach, the researchers suggested, might help the other person to meet you halfway.
But the friendly personal connections Ken Stern made during his trip – going hunting with a family in Texas, for example, or spending time with evangelical church congregations – may also be significant. The most successful strategy for persuading people is finding common ground beyond whatever you’re arguing about and building on that, according to Alison Goldsworthy. She runs the California-based Depolarization Project set up in the wake of the 2016 presidential elections to encourage people with opposing views to listen and learn from each other.
“The first thing is for people to have a common bond that’s not about what the discussion is about. That could be anything, even what football team you support,” says Goldsworthy, a former deputy chair of the Liberal Democrat party’s ruling executive in Britain.
“The second thing is how you ask them to explain their position. In effect, rather than saying: ‘What’s your reason for saying that?’ you say: ‘Did you have an experience that made you feel that way?’ If people feel they’re explaining rather than justifying, you can have a better conversation.” This gentle, unconfrontational and often very gradual process chimes with that described by many people who change their minds in real life.
Criminal barrister Max Hardy was firmly pro-death penalty as a teenager, but by the time he finished training for the bar had reversed his view sufficiently to intern with an American lawyer seeking reprieves for Death Row prisoners.
He remembers being “heavily affected” by the film Dead Man Walking, based on the true story of a condemned prisoner. But what followed was, he says, less a damascene conversion than a “growing awareness” that things were more complicated than he’d thought. “Sometimes as a teenager you can feel very strongly that you know all the answers, and I think I thought about such things in a simplistic, black-and-white way.”
Hardy is arguably unusual, however, in executing a complete U-turn.
Most people find the experience of cognitive dissonance – when a deeply held belief collides either with the facts, or with a contradictory set of personal values – highly uncomfortable. So our first instinct is often to deny inconvenient facts, or try to rationalise our way out. In some cases, confronting people with incontrovertible proof they were wrong can even backfire, encouraging them to double down to avoid the humiliation of admitting it.
In their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), the social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson describe a textbook example recorded by the psychologist Leon Festinger. He studied a small, apocalyptic cult convinced that the world would end on 21 December 1954, to see what would happen when doomsday didn’t materialise.
A few hours after the deadline was missed, the group’s leader conveniently had a new vision; the world had been spared, but only thanks to the sheer power of her followers’ belief. Rather than turn on their prophet, the group promptly doubled down, welcoming this miracle. As Festinger had expected, it was those who had invested most heavily in the prophecy – in some cases giving up their jobs and homes in anticipation of the end – who clung onto it hardest. The implications for anyone assuming that leavers will simply turn against Brexit if it triggers heavy job losses, or that Trump’s base will automatically desert him if his wall doesn’t get built, are obvious.
But, crucially, that doesn’t mean facts or evidence are obsolete. It simply means they’re best introduced in a context of trust.
She persuaded the Bank of England to commemorate Jane Austen on a banknote, got a statue to the suffragette Millicent Fawcett erected opposite parliament, and has just published one of the mostly hotly debated feminist books of the year. So it’s surprising, to say the least, to learn that Caroline Criado Perez didn’t actually believe in feminism until her mid-20s.
“I thought it made women look bad; that it was just embarrassing,” confesses the author of Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. If women weren’t as successful as men then, her younger self felt, that must be their fault for being “trivial, shallow and consumerist, over-emotional and jealous, and all those things I’d heard from films and magazines and men in my life.
“I didn’t know any women like that, but the cultural message was so powerful that I believed it. The only thing I knew about feminism was stuff I read in the newspapers about how stupid it was.”
It was a book called Feminism and Linguistic Theory that changed her mind. Criado Perez had heard arguments against the word “he” being used to denote both sexes before, and dismissed them as trivial. But this time something clicked. “The book said that when people hear these words – like “man” used to mean “humankind” – they picture a man, and that just stopped me in my tracks. I thought, I’m 25, how have I never noticed this? Picture a doctor, a lawyer, a journalist, a scientist – I was always picturing men. It was just so shocking to me that this had been going on in my head for years and I’d never seen it.”
Why did an argument she had heard before, and dismissed, suddenly resonate this time round? With hindsight, Criado Perez thinks it’s to do with being in the right place to hear it; she came across the book as a mature student at university. “I was there to have my mind expanded, and learn new things.” Create a culture where rethinking fixed ideas is normalised or even admired, and it becomes contagious.
And that’s one reason Alison Goldsworthy founded the Changed My Mind podcast, showcasing discussions with people who have done exactly that. The idea came from a course she set up at the University of Stanford School of Business, responding to the the new polarised political mood and exploring “how we have conversations with people we disagree with without getting angry”. At one seminar involving entrenched Trump supporters, conversation turned to whether those present had ever changed their minds about anything. To her surprise, once one person spoke up, answers came thick and fast; from legislation of cannabis to gay marriage. “The mood of the room changed and I thought ‘we’ve got something here’,” she says.
What’s immediately striking is how different this confessional atmosphere is from a social media culture of “people shouting at each other on Twitter”, as Goldsworthy puts it, or from the kind of combative TV studio encounter that tends to go viral.
Since they’re likely to agree with much of what the other side says, people in the process of changing their minds don’t tend to start the sort of furiously emotive arguments likely to drive up TV ratings or generate clicks. Yet they may be an integral part of a healthy public debate nonetheless, if only because seeing high profile figures stop and question their own assumptions can encourage others to do the same.
Goldsworthy points to the Channel Four News presenter Cathy Newman’s now infamous interview last year with the controversial academic Jordan Peterson, which led to weeks of arguments about who exactly had destroyed whose case, as an example of what might be missing. “There was a point in that when she stopped and said: ‘You’ve made me really think’, and everyone was like, ‘oooh that’s a gotcha moment’. But I thought, why are you having a go at her for that? It struck me as completely crazy that we all rewarded the wrong thing. We need to try and make it OK for people to change their minds.” If not, we may be living with stalemate for some time to come.
Leon Festinger is the godfather of understanding cognitive dissonance, or the psychological concept of what happens when a belief system runs into conflict. His book When Prophecy Fails, documenting his experience with the doomsday cult, dates back to the 1950s but remains a seminal text.
One key obstacle to changing minds is confirmation bias, or the human tendency to believe evidence supporting whatever we thought in the first place and reject evidence contradicting it. This study from Stanford University involved students who were either for or against the death penalty were asked to analyse fictitious studies offering evidence confirming or challenging their beliefs. Surprise surprise; the data supporting whatever they already thought was rated more convincing.
Hugo Mercier’s TED talk How Can You Change Someone’s Mind? Fact-based arguments aren’t pointless, though. Mercier, a cognitive scientist, gave a fascinating TED talk on how to argue so that others listen.
The LBC presenter’s book, documenting how he challenges illiberal callers to his phone-in show, is also a fascinating examination of what happens when arguments are put under stress – although O’Brien isn’t necessarily aiming to change callers’ minds so much as the wider audience’s. How To Be Right, by James O’Brien
The Remainer Now project documents the stories of regretful Leave voters who have switched sides. (See also episode 104 of the Remainiacs podcast, with Roland Smith – an influential thinker on the Eurosceptic right since Margaret Thatcher’s day and fellow at the Adam Smith Institute – tracing the evolution of his own thinking).
Cover illustration by Chris Newell for Tortoise. Images by Getty, Chicago Tribune, and Channel 4