Why do People Change Their Minds? “How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!” – Jane Austen. Understanding why people change their minds is essential to leadership. Why do we decide to devote our lives to one thing or another for example? People don’t sit down and make a rational analysis of all the possible things that they could do with their lives. Rather, their eyes light on some particular course of action that caches their attention, and then the reasons why that course makes sense come quickly.

People change their minds in three ways: By experience, by observation, by symbolic learning. Human beings follow the same three ways of learning as honeybees.

Actual Experience: A single bee will visit different flowers in the morning and, if there is sufficient reward in a particular kind of flower, she will make visits to that type of flower for most of the day, unless the plants stop producing reward or weather conditions change.

Observed Experience: When bees are presented a maze with a choice between two paths – one, which leads to the food reward, marked with the same color that is used at the entrance to the maze – and one, marked with a different color – bees learn to choose the correct path and update their knowledge when there is a change in the marker.

Symbolic Learning: Bees communicate what they have learned about the source of food using a waggle-dance that is performed when they return to the hive after a successful foraging trip in order to recruit other worker bees of the hive to forage in the same area.

Persuading People to Change their Minds

Through Direct or Observed Learning

How do we persuade other people to do something different, not just on a one-time basis but passionately, so that they're willing to make a fundamental change to their lives? We can have an impact on people by involving them in actual or observed events to let them make experimental learning experiences. As a manager, you may be able to change the experiences that people have or observe and so contribute to changing people's minds. This can involve: Acting as a role model to embody the behavior that you are trying to induce. Conversations that create interactive experiences that may nudge people to adopt new points of view. Study tours that you can arrange, broadening people’s experience: visits to other people or organizations that are already implementing a change you are seeking to introduce. Role-playing exercises and simulations, in which people get to experience what it is like to be acting differently. Simulations provide more frequent feedback than real-life experience and can help people take corrective action or overcome their cognitive biases. Quick prototyping, which can enable people to experience an improvised version of a new product so that they can get the feel of what it is like to use it. Training can provide direct experience, by including practice for people in trying out the envisaged change in behavior.

Active experimental learning involves the emotions, and so has a chance of playing a significant role in people’s lives. Also, it allows people themselves to make up their own minds, not merely absorb something imposed on them, which increases the chance that it will become part of their own life story and passion. Studies show that experimental learning is more effective than passive learning. However, leaders often lack the power to change other people’s experiences and as a result, changing people’s minds falls on the use of language.

Through Language

Direct and explicit: Appeals to reason through detailed evidence and arguments. Narratives in which the object is to have the listener live the story as fully and movingly as possible. The traditional approach to persuasion is the road of reason. In the modern world, it is the default assumption that people do what you say if you give them reasons. This approach goes back to ancient Greece, where intellectual giants like Plato, Descartes, and Kant suggested that to obtain the best results, emotion should be kept out. This approach is honest, open and it isn't manipulative. It suggests that human beings should be rational in their decision making. But when it comes to inspiring enduring enthusiasm for changing behavior, it is not effective. It can even be counterproductive. Often when people are presented with reasons to change their behavior, the confirmation bias kicks in. In difficult, skeptical audiences, the emotional brain tends to dismiss or reinterpret reasons for change so that they present no threat to preexisting points of view. People become even more convinced in their current viewpoint, not less.

Indirect and implicit: Appeals to intuition, through cues, signs, and manipulative tricks. Narratives in which the object is to stimulate a new story in the mind of the listener. The fact is that most decisions made by human beings aren’t made on the basis of conscious reasoning. They are based on intuitive thinking, which is a fast, automatic, effortless, associative, natural, and often barely conscious process. By contrast, the operations of reasoning are slow serial, deliberate, and effortful. Intuitive thinking is prone to a set of cognitive biases that are difficult to eliminate or modify, like the confirmation bias. Efficiency is often more important than accuracy. If we were to apply conscious reasoning to every decision we have to make, we would never get out of bed. Intuition operates by using more rapid pathways based on context and similarity rather than the conscious use of logic and evidence. It incorporates emotions, to decide what we need to focus on and take action. It guides attention and keeps us focused on things to do and to avoid.

The fact that intuition is prone to a number of biases means that it is apt to be exploited by those who want us to change our minds.

Hype: Multiple voices exaggerating the virtues of something can cause us to pay attention to it and have a more positive view of it than we otherwise would.

Halo Effect: The perception of one kind of trait can lead us to infer the presence of similar traits. Attractive people are often judged as having a more desirable personality and more skills than someone of average appearance. Celebrities are used to endorse products that they have no expertise in evaluating.

Spin: The offering of positive interpretations of events may cause us to have a more positive understanding of what is going on than is warranted by the facts alone.

Bait and Switch: If people agree to do something, they are more likely to honor that commitment, even if the incentive is removed after they have already agreed. E.g. in car sales, unexpectedly raising the price at the last moment can be effective because the buyer has already decided to buy.

Groupthink: People will do things that they see other people are doing. In a bookstore, we pay attention to bestsellers because other people have bought the book. This phenomenon is commonly used in the marketing of products, as with customer testimonials.

Imposition of Authority: People tend to be submissive towards authority figures. The politics of war shows how easy it is for governments to pressure people into supporting military action.
Celebrity Pressure: People are more easily persuaded by other people that they like or admire, such as celebrities.

Artificial Scarcity: If something is in short supply, that fact alone can help generate demand. E.g. making offers for goods that are available for a limited time only may encourage sales.

Direct Narrative

Stories have been hugely important throughout history as tools for changing people’s minds. Rather than making decisions by careful intellectual effort, we make most of them through narrative. We cannot decide that to do until we decide what story we see ourselves as living. If we want to change the way people act, we need to change those stories. It is increasingly recognized in business that storytelling is what effective leaders do. But why do some stories spark actions and others don't?

Some psychologists have suggested that the underlying mechanism for stories that spark change is what they call transportation. Listeners go on a kind of journey. They are transported by the storyteller into a different world. The imagined reality they visit is a world elicited by a storyteller who stimulates this mental world into existence, making listeners give up their groundedness in the here-and-now. When the story is very powerful, the listeners may return to their real world as changed persons.

However, it can take time to tell a story that fully transports the listener to another world. Nowadays listeners rarely have the patience for long stories. This can lead to exaggeration of the benefits in a story, which can leave the audience doubtful. To get the story to stick, financial resources, coordination with multiple storytellers, and exercise of power may be needed.
“Business leaders need a teachable point of view – a set of ideas about success in the marketplace and a set of values based on personal and organizational success.” – Noel Tichy

Indirect Narrative

Here the story is told not to engage the audience fully in the storyteller’s story that each listener returns a changed person, but to spark a new story in the mind of the listener. The presenter’s story is deliberately crafted to let the listeners not only hear the presenter telling the story, but to also hear their own silent voices within, as their minds look for an analogous story for their own lives.

The Biblical parables are examples of indirect narratives. The interest of the story in a parable isn’t in the story itself. The characters are not richly drawn and the events are described sketchily. The teller makes no effort to transport the listener to a different world by evoking sights, sounds, and smells of the context so he can return emotionally scarred by the experience. Instead, the object is to spark a new story in the mind of the listener about a similar issue that he may be facing. The parables are a long way from a well-told story, and yet they continue to be effective after thousands of years, because they generate new stories in the minds of the listeners - the change is espoused with energy and enthusiasm.

To sum up

Experimental methods are more likely to be effective than nonexperimental methods, because the emotional imprint of a live experience is usually more pronounced than that of a virtual experience by way of language.

Narratives are more likely to be effective than abstract communications, because this is how human beings think and make decisions, and because it stimulates the emotional significance of experiential learning.

Indirect methods are more likely to be effective than direct methods, because indirect methods leave it up to the audience to make up their own minds rather than having opinions forced upon them.

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