My Facebook feed tends to display the same five stories framed in slightly different ways–the winner of the big game, the latest political outrage, Game of Thrones reactions, something Louis C.K. said, plus a few photos of babies and dogs. I scroll through it and take the temperature of my little slice of America each morning.
There are outliers though, and that’s the best thing about Facebook as a news aggregator, the weird stuff. I have friends in my feed who consistently post stories I haven’t seen yet and would not have seen otherwise, like this article from GOOD about how important pets can be to people who are homeless.
I called up a few experts, and also took an informal poll of friends to see if other minds out there were a-changing and if so, how and why.
It completely changed my mind. It reversed what I thought about homeless people with animals, and slightly widened lens through which I view the world. That’s unusual. I engage in just as much pleasurable confirmation bias as the next reader. It feels good to read something that states what I already think, but in a more organized way with quotes and a few facts I didn’t know. I was surprised by how nice it felt to change my mind about something, especially in a way that allowed for a more compassionate world view (the takeaway is that these relationships are mutually beneficial, yes, even for the animals).
Not long after I read that, a friend who is also an editor posted a link to this story, which embraces using “they” in place of “he or she” saying, “I’ve really come around to this.” That got me thinking, in the midst of a very contentious, polarizing election, about how we go about changing our own minds, and why it’s so hard to change how others think.
Denise Cummins, a cognitive scientist with a PhD, told me that there are certain types of opinions that are very hard to change, and with good reason–they’re central to our identities and the way we morally order the world. “Core aspects of our being that we strongly identify with are very difficult to change…these beliefs are very important to us and one of their features is that we will deeply defend them, not just to world but to ourselves,” she said in a phone conversation. “They’re very resistant to change, and in a way, they should be.”
What they said challenged a core belief about myself–that I am a friend to the larger queer community. That I am an open and accepting person.
Okay, so a strong sense of personal identity is a good thing, a crucial part of our humanity, even. It makes sense that arguments about, well, identity based in gender roles, religion and family structure are incredibly difficult. Those are core beliefs that help us parse what it means to live a good life.
It explains why we get so mad when a group we generally support tells us they would like to be supported in a different way, by using different language. I got a lot of blowback from the transgender community a few years ago for publishing an article that described a drag performer’s outfit as “tranny glam.” I got really upset because the article was written by a gay man, about gay teens of color. How much more of an ally could I be?
What they said challenged a core belief about myself–that I am a friend to the larger queer community. That I am an open and accepting person. It was only once I took a deep breath that I realized I needed to get my ideas about my own righteousness out of the way, and listen to other people tell me what feels respectful to them, on their own terms.
That GOOD article changed my thinking about the way other people live, without requiring me to change how I live, or threatening that in any way. It in fact played on the same core belief about myself–that I am open-minded and compassionate–that the transfolk who wrote to me threatened so deeply.
What about my friend, Indrani Sen, the editor who started using “they” instead of “he or she”? While it’s questionable that grammar should function as a core belief, it’s a powerful indication of one’s identity in terms of class and background, and Sen has made language her trade, and comes from an academic family (I should also mention that she’s one of the most open-minded people I know).
I asked her what she found compelling about the argument, and she said that it was something she’d felt was fine for others for a long time, providing what she called “a spasm of superiority” when she read it in a story edited by someone else. John E. McIntyre, the editor who swayed her, was convincing she said, because he seemed like a grammar authority, with his bow tie, references to Chaucer and straight-faced use of the phrase “epicene third-person singular pronoun.” (If language interests you, and if you’ve made it this far into this essay, it likely does, McIntyre’s blog, You Don’t Say, is incredibly delightful.)
Ah. Expertise and framing. Her answer touched on the findings of a Cornell University study that Cummins mentioned in our conversation. Chenhao Tan, Vlad Niculae, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, and Lillian Lee published a paper in February called Winning Arguments: Interaction Dynamics and Persuasion Strategies in Good-faith Online Discussions. They used the Reddit forum ChangeMyView, where users post a strong opinion and invite the community to convince them otherwise to investigate what the most compelling arguments had in common. (Current examples on CMV include: In the song, “Cats in the Cradle,” the son does not grow up to be like the father, Democracies are inefficient and allow people to influence things they don’t know anything about, and No one cares about anyone but themselves.)
Perhaps that’s why we tend to shed our youthful pretentious as we grow a bit older–we’re forced to realize that erudite taste in literature is not a moral accomplishment.
It’s important to keep in mind that this is a self-selecting community based on the premise that minds CAN be changed, and there’s a basic agreement to keep things civil and well argued. As Chenhao Tan said in an email, “At ChangeMyView, people spend significant effort explaining why they hold some controversial opinion, seek out counterarguments, and sometimes acknowledge changes in their opinions. This was quite fascinating to us.” In other words, CMV is not internet gen pop.
The Cornell team found that calmer language was more convincing. Supporting evidence in the form of links helped make arguments more convincing. The more comments in a thread, the more likely the person was to change their mind. And when the language used was significantly different that the original statement it was found to be more convincing as well.
“Our results show that wordings that use different words from the rationales of the opinion correlate with effective persuasion,” Tan wrote. “We were expecting the other way around: that it might be more persuasive if one uses language that matches the original author. But maybe dissimilar wordings can be an indication of new perspectives that the original author never thought about.”
McIntyre displays all of these qualities with his calm approach, references to Austin, Auden and other literary figures who enjoyed using they as a third-person singular, and his entire persona as a merry contrarian. The bow tie doesn’t hurt, either.
The conversations I had with my friends reflected what Cummins and Tan told me. I chatted with a gay journalist who had believed that all marriage was simply a tool of the patriarchy that he didn’t need and would make him a hypocrite to engage in. After years of interviewing the gay community about marriage equality this now-happily-married gentleman realized that the institution didn’t necessarily have the power to change his core identity–he could mold his own marriage any way he liked. So, that’s hearing lots of voices over time–more comments in the thread–and coming to the realization that his core identity wasn’t actually at stake.
What does all of this mean, though, as we get ready to crawl into a barrel and launch ourselves over the Niagara Falls of this election, hoping we survive, body politic intact?
A writer friend told me that he had put down his Proust (he’s one of the few people I know who has read it all) and picked up Stephen King after his daughter was born. He wrote in an email, “I changed my mind because, in truth, I’d made up my mind without enough information, but timing had a lot to do with it. I’m tired a lot. I wanted something ‘easy.’ King is easy, in that each page promises enough adrenaline to propel you to the next, but there’s, but there’s a lot in there that isn’t easy: morality, culture, craft, reflection on what the work means to the author.” He says it himself–he sought out new information and it changed his mind. Perhaps that’s why we tend to shed our youthful pretentious as we grow a bit older–we’re forced to realize that erudite taste in literature is not a moral accomplishment.
What does all of this mean, though, as we get ready to crawl into a barrel and launch ourselves over the Niagara Falls of this election, hoping we survive, body politic intact? We have to acknowledge that although the powerful anxiety many of us feel right now may be somewhat alleviated come next Tuesday evening, we are in for long years yet of difficult conversation with our fellow Americans. And that’s if we’re doing democracy right, seeking a more equitable society in which we feel better represented.
At minimum, let’s focus on how to have a civil conversation over the Thanksgiving turkey without limiting the conversation to health updates and weather reports.
The Cornell crew declined to offer a prescriptive advice on changing minds, saying that was outside the scope of their work, but there’s a lot to take away from their observations. Stay calm. Use your own words, and also try to reframe the argument in a new way. Cite evidence. And think about what Cummins said about core identity, considering why your point of view might feel threatening.
You may not change someone’s mind this way, but you may learn something about them. It’s a deeply compassionate approach, one that feels sorely lacking, at least in my Facebook feed.
“Think of ways of presenting yourself in a non-threatening way, that doesn’t say, ‘You’re stupid and you’ve held this stupid belief your whole life,'” Cummins suggested. She said that using analogies and metaphors had been found to be incredibly powerful rhetorical tools in several different studies. She also agreed that humor can go a long way toward diffusing a tense conversation. “We like people who make us laugh,” she said. “When we laugh we feel like things are okay. We drop the defenses and the air is cleared a little bit to present your case and for the other person to be able to hear what you have to say.” Gail Stern, a founder of Catharsis Productions, has made humor a cornerstone of her work to prevent sexual violence and change rape culture. One of her most popular presentations is called, “Fight Fire with Funny: Using Humor to Reframe Rape as a Moral Issue.”
Perhaps the most important advice Cummins offered was to be aware of your own reaction to a difficult conversation. “If you’re starting to feel threatened and angry, you’re feeling strong emotions, it’s time to check in and ask, ‘Why is this person making me feel threatened? Are they hitting a core belief, am calling out the calvary to protect myself?'” she said. When you start to feel this way it’s time to take a deep breath, or maybe a walk around the block, identify the core belief that’s being challenged, and move forward with an open mind.
Unless of course, you’re determined to be right, in which case you probably ought to change the subject to what completely normal, appropriately seasonal weather we’re having right now.