780: How Minds Change and How to Change Minds with David McRaney

By June 30, 2022Podcasts



David McRaney breaks down why it’s so difficult to change people’s minds—and shares powerful strategies to get others to open their minds.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why facts alone can’t persuade others
  2. One simple question to make you more persuasive
  3. A step-by-step guide to changing even the most stubborn minds 

About David

Science journalist, podcaster, and internationally bestselling author David McRaney is an expert in the psychology of reasoning, decision making, and self-delusion. His wildly popular blog became the international bestselling book You Are Not So Smart, revealing and celebrating our irrational and thoroughly human behavior. His second bestseller, You Are Now Less Dumb, gives readers a fighting chance at outsmarting their brains. His most recent book, How Minds Change, is a brain-bending and big-hearted investigation into the science of belief, opinion, and persuasion. 

David is an in-demand speaker whose work has been featured in The Atlantic and many others.

He also created and hosted Exploring Genius: In-Depth Study of Brilliant Minds, an audio documentary for Himalaya, and is working on a TV series about how to better predict the psychological impact of technological disruption. 

Resources Mentioned

David McRaney Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
David, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

David McRaney
Thank you so much for having me. This is so cool to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m excited to talk about your book How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion. But, first things first, David, we got to know about your stint as a strong man in the circus.

David McRaney
How in the world did you even know this? I feel like I’m on Hot Ones. That’s one of those deep cuts. I was at a Renaissance Fair a couple of years, it was right before COVID, and I’m a giant dude. I’m 6’2” and they were like, “Hey, do you want to…? We need a strong man,” they pointed right at me, and I was like, “Sure, I’m into it.”

So, I got up on stage, and it was one of those acts where they…you have an acrobat climb up your body and then stand on your shoulders, and you have to hold them up, and they juggle flaming objects back and forth with their assistant who was inside a shopping cart that’s slowly rolling away. And I had to do all sorts of acts. It really was hard because I was like, “If I messed this up, one of us is going to be horribly injured. I’ll be covered in fire.”

It’s a Renaissance Fair in Louisiana, so it’s just going to be a YouTube video. It’s not like there’s going to be medical attention that’s going to rush over to our aid. It’s going to be one of those things that people share online and say, “Don’t do that.” So, that’s what I did. It was fun. I’m into it.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. So, that’s pretty high stakes and it sounds like there wasn’t a lot of prep. You just launched right into it.

David McRaney
Yeah, it was fun. I was wearing a full kilt and I just was in the mood to do weird stuff at a Renaissance Fair, so that speaks to my character, in general. Yeah, I’m down to do crazy stuff if it seems like there’s going to be a good story involved. So, I finally get to tell it. I think this is the first time I’ve told anybody this outside of my immediate friends and family.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’re honored. Beautiful. Well, thank you for sharing, and I think that really does set a great foundation somehow for the topic to come. Let’s talk about how minds change. And could you kick us off with a particularly surprising or counterintuitive or fascinating discovery you’ve made about us humans and our brains and persuadability while putting together this book?

David McRaney
One is the idea that humans are flawed and irrational, which I used to talk about all the time.

And the other is that some people are completely unreachable and unpersuadable, which I also used to say. I talk about it in the beginning of the book. I was at a lecture once, and someone asked for my advice on reaching out to their father who had gotten into a pretty deep conspiracy theory, and I, at the time, this was years ago, said, “I don’t think you have any hope here. This person isn’t willing to change their mind,” and I never felt good about that. I never liked that answer.

And then I witnessed the incredible shift in public opinion and attitudes towards same-sex marriage and LGBTQ issues, in general, in the United States, leading to the Supreme Court decision. And, interested in that, I started investigating it and found my way to the work of both Tom Stafford and Hugo Mercier, who are in the book, and who had been on my podcast, and who I, at this point, know them well enough to be able to chitchat.

Hugo Mercier has a great book called The Enigma of Reason which I highly recommend, and is an explanation of the interactionist theory of human cognition, which is his work with Dan Sperber. The simplest explanation of that is humans, we evolve over time to reach consensus towards common goals, common courses of action to share worldviews, to be more effective in groups.

And we have these two cognitive mechanisms underlaid by biological mechanisms: one is reproducing propositions and one is for evaluating propositions, and they work differently. And, oftentimes, we’ll find ourselves in environments where we’re only producing arguments, often we’re doing it in isolation, and it’s different from evaluating arguments.

And then that combines with what Tom Stafford has, put forward in a new model. Called The Truth Wins theory. Everyone who wrote books about this sort of thing, there was sort of a new hotness in the world of pop science, which were humans are irrational and flawed.

And so, the idea that the same reason we lock our keys in our cars and send emails to the wrong person, scales up to climate change and things like that, most of that research, even though it was done with lots of people, those people were researched in isolation. And that means we were looking at what an individual does and how an individual comes up with solutions to problems or reasons for thinking something or justifications and so on. And, yeah, individuals do that in a very biased and lazy way but if you give people the opportunity to approach those same things as a group, you’ll get a much better outcome.

And so, those two things together were the first sort of torches in the distance that I’d walked toward as I moved through all sorts of on-the-ground reporting with activists and cults and pseudo-cults and conspiracy theory communities and experts who study all these things, leading up to the arc of really shifting my view on not only how minds change, whether or not it’s through persuasion, but also how persuasion actually could work in a way that actually brings results.

So, that all sums up into one big epiphany for David McRaney, which is I don’t think anyone is unreachable anymore. I don’t think anyone is unpersuadable. I think that the frustration we often feel when we are approaching someone who doesn’t seem to want to change their mind or resist deeply, that frustration is better directed at ourselves for not approaching them in a way that would help them arrive at a different conclusion or see things differently.

In the book, I use the metaphor it’s like trying to reach the moon with a ladder, and when that doesn’t work, assuming the moon is unreachable. I think you try to reach out to people who disagree with you or see things much differently than you using improper approaches and techniques. You might assume they’re unreachable, but you just need to change the way you go about doing things. So, that’s my long-winded, super giant answer to your great opening question. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Fundamentally, why do we humans tend to believe some things and not others? I was intrigued when you mentioned, you got cults and conspiracy theorists. I watched the documentary Behind the Curve about the Flat Earth stuff.

David McRaney
Oh, yeah, I got to help with that a little bit, yup.

Pete Mockaitis
And that was intriguing. And I’m just so fascinated as to why is it that some of us will accept some things and reject other things and like what’s that about?

David McRaney
Behind the Curve, that’s great. I didn’t know that I contributed to that documentary until someone told me that I was in the credits.
it also led to, of all things, there was a festival in Sweden that was similar to South by Southwest, and they invited me and Mark Sargent on stage to talk about his Flat Eartherness, and I used one of the techniques in the book on stage, although I wasn’t really that good at it. Like, I’m much better at it now.

But that’s a side story that came out of that documentary. I loved that documentary. One of the reasons why this is something that’s difficult to get your mind around is that some of the same assumptions that lay people, like ourselves, would make in this, even though we have all this experience with people we’ve tried to argue with over the years, are the same assumptions that scientists made when they first started studying this in earnest in the 1940s.

In the 1940s, they were trying to understand propaganda. They’re trying to understand, they were worried about what the Nazis were up to with propaganda, and the United States was trying to figure out, “Should we fight propaganda? Should we make propaganda? What works? What doesn’t?” And there were already social scientists who were interested in marketing and advertising and messaging and all that kind of things, and they ended up making this thing called Why We Fight.

You can watch it on YouTube. It’s this very long American propaganda piece that opens up with the Nazi propaganda, and says, “Look at this. This is bad. And why are we fighting this war?” And it says, “Is it because of this?” And they show all these places getting bombed and tanks rolling through, and they say, “No, no, no.” And then, eventually, they show the Statue of Liberty and the Magna Carta and stuff like that, and say, “This is why we fight. Torches of freedom that are being snuffed out around the world.”

And they had this whole idea, “We’re going to show this.” They showed it to the President. The President was like, “This is so good, I want this in every theater in the United States.”

And they went to bootcamps and things like that and showed them the film, and they measured the impact of it. And what they discovered there is something that we all often discover when we try to get people to see things our way. We throw a bunch of facts at them, a bunch of links, we tell them to go watch these videos, read these books. And what they found, there were these misconceptions that they were worried about.

One was that the war would be over in a couple of weeks, that the German military was very small, that the UK wasn’t doing a very good job of defending itself, we were just coming in to save them. They wanted to get rid of these misconceptions. And they found that the film did a great job of doing that. It did correct people’s incorrect beliefs. The facts in their mind were updated but their attitudes were not changed in any which way whatsoever.

All their opinions going in about the war, things like it’ll be over in this amount of time, or their negative or positive evaluation of things, no change. And that led to a new wing of research into persuasion in which we started to actually think of categories of mental constructs that were separate from one another. Attitudes aren’t the same as beliefs. Beliefs aren’t the same as attitudes. Then you have values and norms and opinions, and these things are interchangeable terms and we’re just kind of talking in our lay language, but they are not interchangeable when we start trying to divide them into mental constructs.

So, what often happens when you’re trying to change someone’s mind, and it’s not working out for you, is that you hear them present a claim or a proposition or an idea, and you try to change one aspect of it instead of the other aspect, which is actually driving their eagerness to present this to you.

What often happens is someone will say something, “I think the President is a great president,” or, “I think the President is a bad president,” whoever that may be, and you try to change their mind about that. It feels like you’re trying to change a belief. But what you’re really trying to change there is an attitude because they’re telling you their positive or negative evaluation of the person. And though there may be beliefs involved, there’s a sort of assumption that, or it could be anything.

It could be climate change, it could be fracking, it could be gun control, it could be whether the Earth is flat. We often believe it’s the facts that led to our feelings on the matter. Like, we’re Gandalf or something, we go to the bottom of our castle and we go to the scroll room and read all the scrolls, and then finally you hold up a finger, and you go, “Hmm, this is what I believe about blah, blah, blah.” It feels like we did that sort of contemplation.

But what usually is taking place is the person has a very strong emotional reaction to this that is a combination of motivations and drives and attitudes that come from experience, they come from their social group that they feel aligned with, they come from maybe motivations like “My job or my reputation.” And then that leads them on a search for evidence that will support the feeling that they have, and that’s motivated reasoning in a nutshell. They’re looking for reasons that will justify the foundational state that they’re in, that we don’t usually recognize is that foundational state.

So, when you approach someone at the level of their conclusions and your level of your conclusions, you’re really asking them to interpret evidence based off of your feelings and your attitudes and your emotions. And if the end goal in that is, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” and then their goal is to prove that, “No, no, I’m right and you’re wrong,” there’s very low chances of that actually getting anywhere, versus a conversation in which, “Hey, I notice that we disagree on this. I wonder why we disagree,” and then you investigate almost as a team to try to solve the mystery of where your disagreement starts.

And in that, you may find that there’s sort of Venn diagram of overlapping attitudes and values, and you can find something in there that will shift both of your opinions at the end of the conversation. So, that’s my very long answer to your question. And why do we resist? Because, evolutionary speaking, it’s dangerous to change your mind if you don’t need to but it’s also dangerous to not change your mind if you should.

So, either one of those outcomes could lead to you getting eaten or not having enough food to survive the winter, so we’re very careful about going through assimilation and accommodation, sort of the two mechanisms of changing our mind. We do this so carefully, considering all these possible motivations that turn it into a risk-versus-reward scenario, and we sort of evaluate the risk of it, and the risk just simply outweigh the rewards in a lot of situations for a lot of people.

Pete Mockaitis
Whew, yeah, so much there. So, when you talked about Mark Sargent and risks, I remember there’s a piece toward the end of that documentary Behind the Curve in which he said, “Oh, I couldn’t leave Flat Earth now if I wanted to.” Like, all of his entire social network and reputation is sort of built around this. And so, yeah, we have a whole boatload of reasoning there that you’re motivated to, to kind of find and dispute, it’s like, “Well, this experiment, it didn’t work out this way because of this.” And so, it’s like even a spot where it’s very difficult to accept evidence to the contrary of his beliefs because of what that will cost him. So, that’s the spot. That’s intriguing.

David McRaney
And the person may not know why they believe this or feel so strongly. If you want to put it in terms that actually fit what’s going on, like, “Why do you feel that pseudo-emotional thing of certainty? Why, when you see this news story, do you accept it unquestionably versus when you see this news story you feel skepticism and then another person has a completely inverted response to that?”

And you take something like vaccines. Like, I spent a lot of time with anti-vaxxers, before COVID anti-vaxxers, and spent time with the people who studied the CDC response and why it wasn’t working with MMR vaccines, the people who were against it often would say they’re afraid that it causes autism. If you asked that person, “Why do you not want to get your child vaccinated?” they may produce as a reason for you, “I fear that it may cause autism, and I’ve read all the stuff and I really believe it, and so I’m not getting my child vaccinated.”

That’s likely not the actual reason. That’s their justification for not doing it, but the reason they’re not doing it is so deep they may not even recall the beginning of their quest to find evidence to justify it. There are so many things that go into that. Usually, all the research suggests that there’s sort of a moral slide or setting in that person where they’re thinking, “This takes away my agency. I’m fearful of institutions. I don’t trust governments and medical institutions.”

“I don’t have a lot of knowledge about these foreign liquids, and they seem kind of disgusting to me in some way, and they’re scary. And you can take all of that and put it into a syringe, and put a needle at the end of it, and stick it into my child without my ability to say no,” that’s really what’s motivating them. That’s the strong negative attitude toward all of that.

Then they’ve gone on a search for, “What supports this strong negative attitude? Ah, yes, this autism thing. I totally accept that. That is a good reason for me to feel this way. It really justifies it.” And then when you get into a discussion with them and you might be presenting your evidence and they’re presenting their evidence, they’re saying to you, “This is why I believe this.” But that’s not actually why they believe it. That was some sort of justification they found later. So, they’re actually going in the reverse direction of the processing that was there.

And this is what we do in every domain when things are uncertain, ambiguous, scary, anxiety-laden. You know what I mean?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I like that little listing that you gave in terms of these are the domains in which that occurs.

And then what’s tricky is when it’s so…yeah, you said it’s scary. Let’s hear those lists again. It’s scary, it’s ambiguous. What are some other ingredients that are right…?

David McRaney
Yeah, there’s uncertainty in there. There’s also we don’t know what we don’t know, so there is a large pocket of ignorance as to how any of this work but you don’t really know that you don’t know those things, but you do feel some sort of uncertainty because of it. There’s also uncertainty of outcome. It’s ambiguous as to what’s happening and there’s all these anxiety triggers in there. Anyone is anxious over having something put in their body that they did not themselves…like, we’re not involved in the creation of it.

And then there’s all these agency problems, like, “You’re taking my ability to determine…you’re taking something away from me when it comes to the care of my child. You’re also doing something to me. I’m not the one holding the syringe.” There are dozens of things in there. And there’s just the general fearfulness of institutions.

There’s nature nurture here. Some people come into the world already somewhat fearful in that way, and then life experiences compound that. Some of those are very reasonable. There may have been things that happened in their lives that they have a really good reason to not trust the government/medicine/so and so and so.

And I advocate in the book for cognitive empathy for those, like, “This person has no choice but to feel that way, no different than you have no choice but to feel, if you’re on the other side of it, you can imagine the question being directed at yourself, which is, ‘Why are you so trustful of all this?’ And it might be difficult for you to articulate why you so readily go, ‘But I trust this. I trust science. I trust doctors.’ And that’s what you should offer to them as well. They may not really be able to articulate why they feel that way.”

Pete Mockaitis
I think you’re nailing it here because I find myself really stuck in the middle with regard to that domain of sort of trust authorities, distrust authorities. Like, I’m thinking about times when I had to get my roof replaced. And so, I was having a hard time getting any roofer to show up, it’s like, “Darn it. I’m just going to call a dozen right now, and one of them is going to show up.” Well, four of them showed up. They gave me completely different perspectives, and I thought, “Wait a minute. You’re the roofing experts, I know nothing of roofs, and I’m supposed to make the call on which one is correct and which one is incorrect. That’s tricky.”

All right. Well, so we’ve laid the groundwork in terms of what’s up with minds changing and not changing. Can you lay it out for us then, ideally with some cool stories and examples, what are some workable strategies we can use to persuade folks? And I’m thinking particularly in professional context as we’re being awesome at our job here. So, lay it on us, how is it done?

David McRaney
So, in the beginning of the book, I go, I hang out with 9/11 truthers, conspiratorial communities. I go hang out with deep canvassers who are activist groups in Los Angeles that go door to door, knocking on doors and change people’s minds about wedge issues in about 20 minutes.

I spent time with the researchers in NYU who studied the dress, which helped me understand the nature of disagreement at the level of neurons, and there’s all sorts of stuff. And Westboro Baptist Church. I visited Westboro Baptist Church, talked to people who left, went to their Valentine’s Day Sunday services, and also went to the building across the street that protest them regularly, the Rainbow house.

One of the things that I found in all this, people who have techniques that actually work and have techniques that are supported by research, most of them had never met each other and weren’t aware of each other, and most of them had never actually looked into the science behind what they were doing. They were just doing a bunch of A/B testing and going with what worked and tweaking what didn’t.

I thought of it kind of like if you wanted to make an airplane, like before airplanes were invented, and you were trying to make something that flew, no matter where you were in the world, or what you made it out of, it would pretty much look the same because we’re dealing with the same physics and the same planet.

Persuasion techniques that really work all look about the same and work the same way because brains work pretty the same way in this dynamic, and that’s because we’re all sharing the same DNA that’s using the same proteins to make the same brain structures that were all influenced by natural selection and so on. That leads to me, if I was going to give you something that I feel that demonstrates this well, I would use street epistemology because I think it’s the easiest one to understand up front and it helps you understand the others really well, and you can apply it in a business setting, in a workplace really easily.

The first thing you need to do if you want to change somebody’s mind, my step zero in all this is ask yourself, “Why do you want to do that?” I find there’s a lot of value in introspecting as to why it is important to you to persuade someone one way or another. Try to make sure that you do have, at least believe you have, the moral high ground, the ethical high ground, or you are factually correct, and then investigate as to whether or not that is so before you enter into this space.

Then try to determine what it is that you want to change on the other side. Is it a belief, is it an attitude, or is a value? A belief is an estimation of something being true or false, a fact-based claim. An attitude is an evaluation of positive or negative, good or bad. And a value would be, “Where should we put this in the hierarchy of things that we are willing to put our time, money, and effort into?”

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like important or not important.

David McRaney
Right. So, establish that first, and then you’ll be much better off as to which one of these techniques works best. Street epistemology works really best when it’s a fact-based claim, like we use for anything. So, the order of operations goes like this. First, build rapport. Rapport is important because we are social primates, and the thing that we care about even more than our own mortality is whether or not our reputation is at stake in any dynamic.

If you communicate anything to the other person that can be interpreted as “You should be ashamed for thinking, feeling, or believing X,” that’s the end of that conversation. You are now in a place and a category of them, or you’re just considered a dangerous person who might get them ostracized or might get them canceled or something that, in effect, nobody wants to be on the end of that dynamic. So, you may not intend to do it, you may not have that in your heart, but it’s very easy to get somebody to feel that way. It’s very easy to communicate it, and you may actually do feel that way. You need to make sure you establish rapport.

The same way, like I’m sure we all have friends that we can go have drinks with, and we don’t agree with half of the things they think about the world but it’s okay, they’re our friends. Like, they’d go on our zombie survival apocalypse squad even though we don’t agree with them on everything. And we might even see the same movie and they’d have it and we love it, and we’re okay with that because we have that trust as social primates. So, you need to establish that up front. Do what you have to do.

If you have a relationship with that person, like it’s your parent, or your family member, or someone in your job who you’ve sort of had a lot of bad conversations with over the years, it may take a while to build that rapport. You might not be able to start this process until you’ve had a couple of meetings and hangouts where that rapport is re-established. So, it’s vital that that’s there first, otherwise they’ll stay in what psychologists call the precontemplation stage. They’re not going to engage in the act of processing the message you’re going to deliver until they feel like they can trust you. They need to feel that they can disagree with you and nothing bad will happen. So, that’s kind of up front.

Now, that’s very easy with strangers. You can establish trust very quickly with strangers, and then you can be transparent, be open, ask their consent, and say, “I’d like to explore this topic with you. I’d like to hear what you think about it. I’d like to kind of figure out where you’re coming from in all this. And if that’s okay with you, you may even change your mind by the end of this conversation. If you’re alright with it, would you be willing to have this conversation with me?”

If they agree to all that and you’re transparent, you just ask for a very specific claim. If it was, “I believe the Earth is flat,” that’s what you would say, like, “Give me a specific claim,” and they’d say, “Well, I believe the Earth is flat.” Once you get that claim, repeat it back to them in their own words. They may tell you all sorts of things, they may be very elaborate, and you need to try to repeat it back in a way that shows you really do understand where they’re coming from.

This borrows a little bit from the “Feel, Felt, Found” method of approaching people. It also borrows from all sorts of therapeutic models but it’s important to reflect, to paraphrase and reflect back what they’re telling you. If they say that you’ve done a good job and they’re satisfied, now you need to clarify their definition.

Like, some people, you may be talking about something like the government, and you think you’re talking about the same thing because you might have like a civics textbook idea of what governments are, and their idea of the government is maybe completely different. They may think that’s like a smoke-filled room where they divide the country up and all that sort of thing. So, you want to make sure you have the same definitions, and then use their definitions, not yours.

And then after that, this is the crucial moment, you need a numerical measure of their competence or their certainty, zero to 100, zero to 10, something like that, where all the way on one end is absolute certainty, and all the way the other end is zero certainty. This is important for a couple of reasons. One, if it’s a contentious issue, like gun control, or at the job, there could be something that’s happening too that there’s a lot of emotions wrapped up in it, they may know that by telling you where they’re on that scale, it could cause you to think poorly of them. It’s important for them to tell you on that scale, and then your reaction to it isn’t, “Oh, my God, what’s wrong with you?” So, that’s important.

The other thing is this is the way we’re going to encourage metacognition because this is a tool for exploring. You can just try this right now. Like, let me think of a movie. Like, the last Avengers movie, like, “Where would you put yourself on a scale, like from one to ten, how much you liked that movie?” And then, it’s weird, like if you asked somebody to put a number on it, like you start to feel yourself thinking about it in a different way.

You might’ve, just before, said, “I liked it.” But if I asked you, like, “Yeah, but how much, like one to ten, zero to ten?” You say, “A seven.” It feels different. It feels like a totally new thought that you hadn’t had before but that’s important.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, there’s more effort, for sure, like, “Well, seven is not as good as The Dark Knight. I mean, come on. But I mean you know…”

David McRaney
“Yeah, where would you put yourself on The Dark Knight?” “Oh, I would say that’s a nine. It’s not perfect but it’s a nine.” Like, “So, where’s the Avengers then if that’s a nine?” Like, “Oh, well, I mean, it was good. I enjoyed it. Seven, six, seven. Seven, six,” you can feel that process is taking place. You can do it with any topic, “What do you feel about this new policy we’ve put in at work? Like, from one to ten, like ten it’s the best thing it ever was; one, we should never have done it.” “Well, you know,” and they start having that reaction. Or, it could be about a contentious wedge issue, like, “What do you feel about vaccines or gun control?”

So, once you have that number out there, then you want to ask, “What reasons do you have to hold that level of confidence?” or, “Why does that number feel right to you, basically?” And this is when you hand off this conversation to the other person. This is the part that allows all of us to work because no longer are you trying to copy and paste your reasoning into them. You’re evoking their reasoning out into the world, which may have never happened to them before. This is maybe their first chance to actually have a true opinion about it.

So, you ask for their reasons, like, “Well, I feel that it’s a seven because this, this, this.” That may not be the actual reason, like we covered earlier. That doesn’t matter. It’s just important they’re thinking about it in that way. And then once they’ve put a reason out there for you to discuss, ask, “What method are you using?” You don’t have to worry at this point. I’m telling you broad strokes here, but you want to ask in a very natural way, “What method are you using to arrive at that as a good reason for having that number?”

So, you can already feel, this is a three-dot chain. You have a number, you have a reason, “What’s the method?” And you ask it in such a way that you are easily guiding that person backwards all the way back to foundation. And then, hopefully, like in the best cases, the most sudden changes, the things closest to a complete flip happen, where a person realizes they weren’t using a very good method or good epistemology to like sort out the reason.

And that’s it. from that point forward, just repeat all three of those over and over again, especially the method part. Listen carefully, be a nonjudgmental empathetic listener, summarize, repeat, and help them sort it out. Just be a guide to help them sort through all of that. And when you reach a point where it feels natural, you can wrap up and wish them well. You may have to do this several times but just engaging a person in that way almost guarantees that they will see the issue differently than they saw it before that conversation.

Which, seeing something than they did before, is changing their mind, but moving at your attitude one way or the other is changing your mind, and moving your certainty up and down is changing your mind, and moving your idea of what is and is not important is a way to change your mind. And all those things can take place in this particular framework.

Pete Mockaitis
Whew, that’s beautiful. Well, David, could you roleplay and see in action right now?

David McRaney
So, that’s the method. Some conversations, like the one we’re having, like the character you’re presenting is a person who you can tell when there are moments when like they’re admitting to themselves maybe they haven’t considered this very deeply, or they’re admitting to themselves they’re using epistemologies that aren’t very rigorous, but usually at that point, a person starts to feel a little bit of reactance and they don’t want to lose face in front of the other person. They need time to think better on their own and let it flourish, let it blossom inside of them.

The key thing is to never get into an argumentative frame, and that’s what I was avoiding at every step of the way. So, they typically want to have three conversations with a person, and they do. They often keep up with them. I think they spreadsheet it out, they make sure they do contact them again. And on an issue like this, where if you’re the street epistemologist, if you’re not a climate expert, you’re avoiding talking about facts anyway, you have to admit to yourself that there are good points on the other side, and you have to bring those points forward.

But the idea is to establish a good dynamic in which we’re both trying to kind of figure out, “How would we understand this thing?” or, “Are we using good ways? Are we parsing the data well? Are we actually using news sources? Are we experts?” And I hope some that some of that was coming through in the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, thank you. Yeah, that is handy in terms of, indeed, at no point you’re like, “You really are going to get us all killed, right? Oh, so you’re climate denier. That’s what you are. Okay. I have all I need to know about you.” So, yes, so non-argumentative and it does, indeed, feel open. And I guess as I reflect on this conversation, it’s refreshing and it’s different from, I guess, what you see in politics on both sides. It’s just like, “The other side is very bad and wrong and evil, and what we need to do is to demolish and defeat them,” is the vibe you get when you look at US political discourse in 2022.

David McRaney
Yeah. I used the dress in the book to demonstrate what the dress some people saw as black and blue, some people saw it as white and gold, but you had no choice in the matter. Like, that’s just what your brain resolved it to be. And if you got into an argument with someone about, “No, it’s this way. No, it’s the other way,” you’d never get an opportunity to have the kind of conversation where you could ask, like, “I wonder why we see it differently?” or, “I wonder why other people would see it differently than you?” which opens you up to this introspection and also this sort of critical-thinking frame of like, “Hmm, I do wonder what is the nature of disagreement?”

And some little voice inside you says, “Oh, yeah, I could be wrong about this,” or, “Oh, yeah, it’s difficult to be certain of anything, and there are reasons why people think, feel, and believe things.” And with the dress, it was because the more exposure you have to sunlight, the more time you spend in the daylight or you work around windows, the more you assume when something is overexposed, is overexposed in the blue side of the spectrum, and the more time you spend around incandescent light, which is mostly yellow light, the more you assume something is overexposed in the yellow side.

So, the picture itself was very ambiguous as to what it was overexposed but it was ambiguous as to what was causing the overexposure. And so, a person’s experiences with different kinds of light sources determine what they subtracted from the image resulting in two completely different ways of seeing that thing.

But the same thing takes place in politics or even an issue like climate change, like we were discussing. All the experiences that person has had up to that moment, this is an issue that’s uncertain and ambiguous and requires some expertise to understand. So, to come to any kind of conclusion on it, you’re going to have to use something that comes from your priors.

In the character you were communicating to me just now, this person was using ideas of trust. This idea of where the money goes. Like, that’s something that you can understand. That’s something you can use to determine whether or not I feel very strongly about this. But one of the parts of the technique is, that comes from motivational interviewing, is always ask the other person if they’re a five, why are they not a four. Or, if they’re four, why are they not a three.

And what happens often is that they have to present an argument for not going that way. And then you take that argument and that’s what you pump your energy into, into giving them the ability to articulate, “Oh,” and usually they’ll go up. What I didn’t do is ask you where are you on the scale again because that’s usually how you measure that you had some sort of effect.

But it didn’t seem, in that particular conversation, that the person on the other side was ready to re-evaluate because the thing that was coming to the fore was, “Oh, I’m not an expert. It will be difficult to become an expert in this, and I haven’t read a lot about this. And so, therefore, my opinion isn’t really on a strong foundation.” And that needs to mature in the other person before you would take it to the next level.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I liked how, I guess, we also determined that if I have skepticism associated, or the character has skepticism associated with monied interests, then that really could be an interesting point in terms of, “Hey, get a load of these people who walked away from tons of money by going to the other side.” It’s like, “Oh, huh. So, there are some folks who made this call based on convictions that caused them something. That’s sort of persuasive.”

David McRaney
Or, you could go with oil and gas companies, or politicians that are supportive of them, they have vested interests, and so the conspiracy could be on the other side, if there is something like that afoot. Or, there are just human activity that’s based more off like, “I need to stay rich and have a nice car and live in a nice house.” So, you could always take that because that’s more like that’s the fundamental attitude, that’s the fundamental anxiety, that’s the fundamental skepticisms at play, and it’s something that could be applied on either side of this dynamic, of this issue, and could move a person from a four to a five, or at least put them into this state.

The street epistemologist, they often say like their goal is not to change the other person’s mind. Their goal is to encourage that person to use critical thinking, or encourage that person to examine how they come to certainty at all. If they happen to change their mind in the conversation, that’s one thing but that’s not what they’re really attempting to do. It’s just sort of a happy happenstance, if it does happen. It’s more about, “Did I encourage that person to think in a new way about this particular issue?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, David, thank you. So much good stuff. Let’s hear about some of your favorite things now. Can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

David McRaney
It’s attributed to Mark Twain. He probably didn’t say it, like most things attributed to Mark Twain, “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” I like that one a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

David McRaney
One of my absolute favorite studies is this coin flip experiment done by Tversky. Kahneman-Tversky, one of their old ones. You have a person flip a coin, you tell them you’ve flipped the coin, it’s all on paper, and you say you flip a coin, “If it comes up heads, you win $200. If it comes up tails, you lose $100.” And that’s the situation, and then you divide people into two groups.

One group, you tell them the outcome of the coin flip and you randomize it, and then you ask them, “Would you like to flip the coin again under the same conditions?” And everybody chooses to flip it again. And you ask them why, they say, some will say if it didn’t come up in their favor, they’ll say, “I need to flip the coin again to win back the money I lost.“ And if it did come up in their favor, they say, “I need to flip the coin again because I’m ahead and I can risk it.”

So, either way, they come up with a justification for flipping the coin a second time. However, in the other group, you don’t tell them the outcome of the coin toss. And if you do that, nobody chooses to flip the coin a second time, which is incredible because we already know from the other group, it wouldn’t matter which way it comes up. You would’ve chosen to flip it.

But if I don’t give you the information required to justify flipping it a second time, you won’t do it because you can’t do it, because there’s a mountain of evidence to suggest we don’t make the decision that is “best.” We make the decision that is easiest to justify. And if we’re denied the opportunity to justify, we just won’t make a decision.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and it’s not fun. It’s like nothing is going to happen if I tell you to flip the coin again, so.

David McRaney
I’m assuming you did or didn’t win the money but I’m not telling you yet till you flip it a second time. And most people just say, “Well, I don’t want to do that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

David McRaney
Fiction, I love Joe. It’s a really good Southern fiction from Larry Brown. It felt like the South of my childhood, but also it felt like the things that I’d noticed and felt about the people I’ve lived around. They were in there in a way that I’d never felt before in a book, so it’s great and I still love it.

And nonfiction, I always tell people to get, if you’re interested in this world that I talk about, start with Incognito. It’s a really great book by David Eagleman, talking about how the conscious part of our existence, of our organism is only a small part of what the brain does. It’s kind of the stowaway on the Titanic, whereas, the rest of the stuff we do is we’re unaware of it. But here, recently, and I mentioned it earlier, something that’s just been humongous for me as far, as nonfiction goes, is “The Enigma of Reason.” It’s not an easy read but it sure will change the way you see yourself and other people.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

David McRaney
I love Notability on the iPad. It’s become a super tool for me because I have to read a lot of studies, and I used to keep them in legal boxes, and then mark them up with a pen, and then have to have labels and all that kind of stuff. Now, I use Notability. I just import the PDF, I mark it up, it goes into a category. It’s in buckets, I can refer to it at any time.

And if you just want to take regular old notes, it’s incredible because you can manipulate the notes like you would with like Photoshop or something, and you can cut things out, paste them, enlarge, embiggen, you can speak directly into it, and it dictates it, you can circle things, and then turn it into, a handwritten, into texts in a type.

And I use it in interviews now because I connect a lavalier mic to my iPad, and I take notes while the other person is talking to me. And if I want to go back to the document, if I touch my note in any place, wherever that note is at, it moves the audio to that part of the conversation. It’s an incredible tool. It’s really, really force-multiplied the way I do my job.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

David McRaney
Well, I lost a hundred pounds over COVID, and the habit was tracking calories. The reason I did that, I did a lecture and somebody in the audience, or somebody who watched it on YouTube commented, they said, “I don’t know why you would listen to this guy about anything when he’s a fat dude.” So, it’s like, “I’m not going to listen to critical-thinking advice from a guy that can’t eat right.”

Obviously, it hurt my feelings but I also was like, “Fair enough. So, I should probably apply something to this from the world of what I do.” And I asked a couple of experts just on the side after interviews, and tracking your calories religiously was something that kept coming up. And I got an app, it doesn’t really matter what app you use, but the habit is to, like everything, like you put a little creamer in your coffee, add it. Every single little tiny thing you put in your body goes in there.

It is astonishing how overboard your calories are without your realization of it. You just really kind of have this intuition that, “Eh, that wasn’t that bad,” when you would go over the line pretty easily. Changed everything for me. I was able to lose 100 pounds using that technique.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate with folks; it’s Kindle book highlighted and retweeted, etc.?

David McRaney
Well, in the most recent book, a lot of people, the early interviewers I talked to you about, debates have winners and losers, and nobody wants to be a loser. So, the most important thing is to have a conversation where you try to get at, “Why is it do we disagree on the issue?”

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

David McRaney
All of my stuff and my podcast is under You Are Not So Smart, YouAreNotSoSmart.com, and that’s the name of the podcast. How Minds Change is just the name of the book, and you can find information about everything I do, from lectures to consulting, to books and everything else at just DavidMcRaney.com.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

David McRaney
Yeah, it’s a thought experiment that my friend Will Storr created, and it goes like this. Ask yourself, “Are you right about everything?” And some people are going to say yes. That is a whole issue you got to work on, my friend. But let’s assume you’re like the rest of us, and you say, “No.” If the answer is no, ask yourself, “What are you wrong about?” And if the answer to that is, “I don’t know,” ask yourself why you don’t know and how you would correct that. I think that’s useful in any job.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. David, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck with your book “How Minds Change,” and all you’re up to.

David McRaney
I appreciate it, man. Thank you for all your patience and for your participation and your willingness to get into weird territory. I think that’s fantastic.

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