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Rationally Speaking: How to change a mind

From Rationally Speaking
First published, Dec. 02, 2005

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner's Changing Minds deals with that fundamental aspect of the human condition: our willingness (or, more often, unwillingness) to change mind about an issue.

As somebody who is a professional educator and spends an inordinate amount of time keeping a blog, I'm keenly interested in Gardner's book. While not earth shattering, Changing Minds provides a series of interesting insights, presented in very readable prose.

Massimo Pigliucci, Ph.D.Gardner's idea is to examine mind changing at different "scales," from the level of political leaders having to convince a whole nation, to university presidents intent on selling radical reforms to colleagues and students, to the more intimate settings of conversations with friends and loved ones, and finally to changing our own minds. As Gardner points out, these situations require different approaches and display distinct dynamics, chiefly because of the nature of the interaction between the parties.

The basic premise of Gardner's book, however, applies to all levels of analysis: there are specific, recognizable elements that play a role in any successful change of mind. Irritatingly (though Gardner seems to think this is actually a plus), all keywords used in this context begin with "r," which makes it very difficult to r-emember them. Anyhow, here they are:
  • Reason: if one wishes to change someone else's mind one has to provide good reasons, obviously. But if that were enough, we wouldn't have creationism around, so read on.
  • Research: the best arguments are those complemented by evidence, so presenting data to back one's position up is crucial. (Again, insufficient against pseudoscience and in politics, but still...)
  • Resonance: the new view has to resonate psychologically at some level with the intended recipient. This is where things become tricky, because we are moving outside of pure rationalism or empiricism, and into the psychology of human motivations.
  • Redescription: a new viewpoint is more likely to be accepted if it is presented in a variety of forms, possibly by a variety of sources. That is why, for example, public education needs to be done on many fronts and by a number of individuals -- the more people trying to communicate the message in different ways, the more likely that it will sink in.
  • Rewards: this is the classical behaviorist call for positive reinforcement. A new point of view is more likely to be accepted if one sees some advantages (not necessarily material) to adopting it.
  • Real world events: these are external events, usually of large emotional impact, that can reinforce the new point of view. Typically these aren't under the control of either the recipient or the educator (e.g., the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center), but can be powerful in forcing the recipient to reach a "tipping point" and changing her mind.
  • Resistances: an effective change of mind happens when most or all of the above are in place, and when there are few sources of resistance to the change, where this resistance can be rooted in material rewards, deep psychological grounds, or just simple inertia.

Of course, Gardner knows -- as Machiavelli masterfully articulated before him -- that all of this is value-neutral. That is, one can use the 7-R framework for good or for bad (indeed, Gardner's book includes clear examples of both), which opens up the Pandora's box of the ethical use of education. But that's another story for another time.

Science and Humanism course by Massimo PigliucciMassimo Pigliucci, Ph.D., is a professor of evolutionary biology at SUNY-Stony Brook. He is the author of the IHS Continuum for Humanist Education course, Evolution, Creationism, and the Nature of Science. He is also the author of two books, Denying Evolution: Creation, Scientism, and the Nature of Science and Tales of the Rational : Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science. "Rationally Speaking" began as an online column in August 2000, and was syndicated by HNN since 2003. In August 2005, "Rationally Speaking" evolved into an Internet Web log, or blog. Archives of "Rationally Speaking" can be found at and on the Institute's Darwin World Site. This entry from the "Rationally Speaking" blog was first published on Sept. 29, 2005. This item is republished by permission of the author. To find out how you can republish "Rationaly Speaking," visit

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