Friday, September 17, 2010

Never argue against a belief

You cannot make someone stop believing something. You can only make him believe something else more.

This thought has been kicking around in my head for a while. It's a single thread that I've pulled out of a whole host of articles, books, movies, and (yes, I put this last) actual real-world experiences.

Have you noticed how 99% of debates (whether personal or political) don't ever result in someone changing their mind? This article from Slate talks about how once people become disposed to believe something, they hold onto that belief regardless of logical argument or hard evidence. This is very evident in the political sphere. asks, "when was the last time you heard about a liberal who was persuaded by Rush Limbaugh? Or a conservative who switched parties after watching a Michael Moore movie?" The truth is that almost all the effort that goes into debating and trying to change people's opinions is completely wasted.

But I want to be able to change people's minds, not just reinforce their existing beliefs. But how? I find that lots of our beliefs, whether it's that we should tax the rich, that housing is a good investment, that you should buy things on sale.... most of those beliefs can be attached to a famous saying or adage. I believe it comes out of our need to create structure around the way the world works. Gravity pulls down and patience is a virtue are both simplified representations of our world. Most interestingly, for any famous adage or proverb, it isn't too hard to find something that is its opposite:

You can't teach a dog new tricks: It's never to late to learn
Seize the moment: The best things come to those who wait
Sink or Swim: You have to walk before you can run

So it seems to me that while trying to argue AGAINST someone's belief is like running into a brick wall, it may be possible to just persuade them to latch onto another belief that may then supercede their previous belief.

You do see a variant of this in politics all the time. When party A attacks party B about kicking kittens, instead of refuting the point, party B realizes that facts are irrelevant and moves on from the kitten kicking issue to instead attack party A for killing babies knowing that many voters care more about baby killing than kitten kicking.

I feel that this may have some use in our daily interactions. Instead of arguing any point, you should analyze your "opponent," first to understand what proverb or story he is basing his belief on. For instance, not supporting government subsidies may be based on the classic story of corrupt politicians lining their pockets with corporate money. No matter what evidence you bring out, this person probably has a strong distrust of politicians and believe that something "under the table" is happening even if you can't see it. You can't prove to him that politicians aren't corrupt.

So, instead of arguing about corrupt politicians, you should search for another story that they respond to even better. Maybe they believe that all politicians are corrupt, but that also believe that all farmers are saints. So if subsidies are good for farmers...

Of course, fighting with stories is already quite common and successful. But if we realize that what we debate and what can change minds are often different, it may help us have more fruitful discussions. Much of what we debate boils down more to core beliefs than actual facts, and yet we often trade facts back and forth as if we expect them to change anyone's minds. Instead, framing things in terms of the adages that reflect our beliefs may bring us closer to understanding our true beliefs and the reasons we have for believing in them.