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How to change minds

[I wrote this on Facebook three years ago, thought I should conserve it here too.]

So if facts don’t change minds – if explaining the dangers of President Trump, Brexit, climate change, etc, doesn’t help – what else works? What can anyone do to pull communities back from the brink?

Sadly, the answer is “not much”. But here’s my top three starting points.

SOCIAL NORMS: We are a social species, and we are constantly checking that our sense of the world is calibrated right by looking to our neighbours and our family and our friends. People adopt attitudes because they believe everyone around them has the same attitude.

If we can find ways to show how people are already connected to others who think differently, that can have an impact. This only works if the “other” is seen as a peer – if they’re higher- or -lower- class, different race, different education, whatever, then the effect won’t be as powerful or will even work in the opposite direction. Celebrities in particular don’t convince anyone of anything, although they are great at reinforcing the views of those who already agree with them.

(And yes, some people do live in social networks where they don’t have peers who think differently. You can’t start with them – you have to start on the edges of those networks and propagate your effect inwards.)

STORIES: Our brains are wired to understand stories; stories, in their simplest form, tell of people who want something, who take some kind of risk to get it, and who experience the consequences of their efforts. Stories encourage us to judge the characters, particularly in terms of their morality. Stories are always personal, about individuals in a particular moment – and we are endlessly interested in people and in their choices and fates. If we can find ways to express things through story, people will engage more readily.

SELF-PROTECTION: People don’t like being wrong. To change a community, we need to provide a pathway for that community where every step towards change allows the community to say, “see? We are good people with good judgement, and *we have been all along*.” It’s a bitter truth for activists – part of winning is biting your tongue while your long-hated opponent is given credit for your efforts.

All these things take time. It took time to get us here, and it will take time to get us out again. That’s the project, I guess. That’s what we have to do.

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