Persuading People to Rethink

By Jimmy Warden

As humans, we’re always going to have a lot of differences between each other. Despite being very similar from a biological stand point, our differences come in many forms. There are huge differences in our thoughts, perspectives, and beliefs. However, we can also share other people’s thoughts, perspectives, and beliefs when we agree on certain topics. When this happens, we are creating tribes or communities, whether we are aware of it or not. There is strength in numbers, so when a lot of people agree in their thinking, it can make it hard for individuals within that group to rethink their thoughts, perspectives, and beliefs. In the face of this challenge, there are still a few ways we can try to make others (and ourselves) rethink, and at times, change their way of living.

Our thoughts, perspectives, and beliefs are things that we hold near and dear to us, as if they were prized possessions. We take so much pride in them because we truly believe they belong to us, but the paradox is, our thoughts, perspectives, and beliefs very often come from other sources.

When we’re young, we’re taught right and wrong from our caretakers. Parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, mentors, friend groups, etcetera. As we get older, and have developed the ability to think consciously to make decisions, we begin to make more meaning of language. As our language develops, we begin to have a concept of self. As this happens, we begin to think and form opinions and beliefs about who we are, what we agree with, and what we disagree with. A lot of these first opinions and beliefs we start to form is based on the feedback we are receiving from our environment. This includes the people that we spend most of our time with, as well as the various places that we go throughout our lives.

For example, a child might start to develop low levels of self-esteem and confidence if the feedback they’re receiving points in the direction of inadequacy. Maybe, their parents make claims that they can’t do anything right. Perhaps, their teachers are always redirecting their behavior. Maybe, their peers are always telling them they don’t want to play. These various forms of feedback are coming from various, influential perspectives, and this can make it hard for a child to not accept it as truth. This feedback that we get from other people has a tendency to stick with us, because people are always striving for a sense of belonging.

Ever since the first human beings roamed Africa, thousands of years ago, we’ve always yearned to be a part of the group or tribe because back then, it was absolutely essential for survival. The same can even be said for people today. When people are isolated, they have a tendency to start feeling more depressed, and less connected to those around them, which then affects them physiologically. They have a harder time navigating their day, they have a harder time generating positive emotion, and have a harder time spontaneously moving their body.

We seek out groups to belong to, in order to reassure that we have value, and are contributing to something greater than ourselves. We feel valued as a group member because we feel we can be relied on for our contributions to the group. With that said, groups often share the same philosophies and ideologies. Due to this nature, people will hold onto these philosophies and ideologies in order to stay in their group, and feel like they belong. Essentially, we are making groupthink a part of our identity by holding onto these philosophies and ideologies because if we were to speak out or against these ideas, we put our well-being in jeopardy, due to the possibility of being removed from the group. This opens the door to loneliness, which is a tragic form of suffering that a lot of us try so hard to avoid. This identity attachment to group philosophy and ideology is a big reason why it is so hard to rethink. It makes us rethink who we are and what we truly stand for.

Rethinking who we are is a scary thought. Our heart rate often increases at the mere thought of the question, “Who am I?”. It leads us down a well of questions such as, “What do I stand for?”, “What is true in life?”, “Have I been wrong all along?”, “What am I missing?”, “What have I been missing out on?”. It’s as if someone has pulled a rug out from underneath us and replaced it with barbed wire. Once the validity of our previously held thoughts and beliefs are put in jeopardy, our existence is also put in jeopardy because everything that we felt was once true, is now being put into question. However, we can still try to help others (and ourselves) work through this identity crisis by using a few strategies to pry open perspective to rethink previously held beliefs.

A good first step in rethinking would be to try to detach our identity from our thinking. We often make “I statements” when sharing thoughts, perspectives, and beliefs. We say things like, “I believe this is the best way to solve this problem” or “I think my opinion is correct”. When we make these statements we immediately attach our identity with the thoughts we have. With identity comes our ego, and with ego, comes the need for validation. Needing validation about our ideas makes us seek out confirmation bias to prove ourselves right. However, if we can detach our identity form our thinking, we open the door to explore ideas that challenge the ones we currently hold. This is the first step in rethinking, which leads to the second step. Thinking like a scientist.

Scientists everywhere are paid to run experiments to learn more about a world that we know so little about. They come up with a hypothesis about a phenomenon and run experiments to explore it. If they indeed prove their hypothesis to be correct, they run subsequent experiments to try to disprove what they found, to make sure their findings are legitimate. If they cannot disprove their findings, the chances are they have discovered something significant, so then they try to share it with the world.

As non-scientists, we can also engage in this type of thinking. Once we’ve detached out identity, we can start to disprove our previously held theories by searching for evidence that could convince us to change our mind. Once enough evidence is gathered, we can analyze a broad range of outcomes and perspectives within the domains we are exploring. This will help us see the intricacies of the other side of the argument, and realize the argument isn’t so black and white, but rather many shades of gray, because of its complexity. Seeing and trying to understand the complexity of the concepts that we explore in our learning helps us find common ground, and share some ideas with those we would have disagreed with before our exploration. Finding common ground is a third step we can take in trying to rethink, or persuading others to rethink.

Adam Grant mentions several studies he did in his recently released book, Think Again, that showed how finding common ground can help even the most polarized groups rethink their own beliefs about “the other group”. One study that really stood out was one done with Red Sox and Yankees fans. As sports fans can attest, these are potentially the two most polarized fan bases in all of sports, but definitely the most polarized in baseball.

Before the experiment began, each fan base was asked to share some descriptions about fans from the opposing fan base. Red Sox fans described Yankees fans, and Yankees fans described Red Sox fans. Some of the descriptions included loud, obnoxious, rude, arrogant, and stubborn. Later in the experiment, Grant had the participants reflect on the arbitrariness of their fanhood, and as a result they were able to develop some empathy. Upon answering questions posed by Grant and his team, fans came to realize that they hated people who they never met, for the reasons that they loved their team. Perhaps, they grew up in a family that cherished one of the ball clubs, and therefore became a fan. Perhaps, they grew up in Boston or New York City, and developed their passion for their team to join the tribe around them. Grant attributes the shift in perspective to the fact the participants had to reflect on the fact that if they grew up in the other environment, they likely would be a fan of the other team. Finding this common ground can truly be groundbreaking when it comes to rethinking our own beliefs or trying to have others rethink theirs.

These few techniques are not end all, solve all problems methods, but they’re a great starting point. We need to recognize when we’ve attached our identity, and sense of self, to the ideas that are in our head. Once we recognize that, we can begin the process of detaching our identity from our ideas and beliefs, by diving into the ideas and beliefs of those that oppose our current way of thinking. This can prove to be a huge hurdle because of how we’ve attached our need for belonging, and need for validation, with these ideas, so that we can be part of a group. However, this step cannot be skipped if we truly want to start thinking like a scientist. Thinking like a scientist can allow us to authentically examine other findings, in order to help us understand the complexity of the concept. Once we begin to see more sides than our own, we may start to see some common ground with those we previously disagreed with, and develop some empathy for their views. This allows us the opportunity to minimize our confirmation and desirability bias. It might even lead us to opportunities we never dreamed possible. After all, my girlfriend of almost two years grew up in New York and is a Yankees fan, and I grew up in Massachusetts and am a Red Sox fan. If we can rethink, so can you!

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