When did you last change your mind…

…about something really important?

 This week I read something very unusual in my daily newspaper. A former practitioner – and passionate advocate – of naturopathy described how she changed sides and became an equally passionate sceptic after she discovered evidence of fraudulent claims in relation to cancer treatment.

‘Once I realised that, everything changed virtually overnight’, Britt Maria Hermes told The Guardian. ‘By Monday morning I had hired a lawyer and I quit the practice.’

Earlier this month I heard something equally unusual on the radio. A man came on air to admit that he had changed his mind about something that had once stirred him to militant activism. ‘I changed my mind because I realised I had got the science wrong’, he confessed.

Mark Lynas was an eco-warrior, battling against genetically modified crops. Back in the 1990s he was one of the original GM field wreckers, descending on trial sites of GM crops at night and hacking them to pieces.

But in 2013 he apologised publicly for his actions and has now written a book with the self-explanatory title: Seeds of Science: Why we got it so wrong on GMOs.

 Facts are becoming indistinguishable from beliefs

Why is this noteworthy? Well, in this ‘post-truth’ era of ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and widespread mistrust of experts, it has become increasingly rare for people to change their minds in the face of objective evidence. At the same time, opinions (political and other) are becoming ever-more polarised and facts in many ways indistinguishable from beliefs.

‘When the facts change I change my mind,’ said the highly influential British economist John Maynard Keynes.

Tell that to the parents around the world who persist in refusing the MMR vaccine for their children despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that there is no causal link between the vaccine and autism, as once claimed by the now-disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield.

…or those who voted for the UK to leave Europe in the 2016 referendum, who continue to support their position in the face of mounting evidence that the UK will be significantly worse off after Brexit.

‘Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything’, said George Bernard Shaw.

Tell that to the 53 per cent of US Senators who persist in denial of climate change, although nearly all climate scientists agree that climate change is happening – and is a consequence of human activity.

…or that same country’s pro-gun lobby who cling to the belief that guns make society safer, although mass shooting after mass shooting has proved them wrong.

The internet is not the real enemy

It is tempting to blame the internet, the scapegoat for so many of modern society’s ills. There is so much unchecked, unproven and downright dodgy information out there that it is equally possible for ‘surfers’ to support or oppose any given proposition.

‘The real enemy of truth is not ignorance, doubt or even disbelief’, wrote Lee McIntyre in his book Respecting Truth: Willful ignorance in the Internet Age. ‘It is false knowledge.’

But you need to look beyond the internet and social media to understand why false knowledge sticks and why fact-based counter-arguments are not enough to change people’s minds.

Our brains are programmed to defend our beliefs

The real answers are to be found within the disciplines of psychology and neuroscience, which continue to clarify our understanding of how people’s brains are programmed to defend pre-existing beliefs and resist attempts to alter them.

As a communication skills trainer and coach, it is a core part of my role to help my clients influence their various stakeholders.

And it has become increasingly apparent to me that the data-heavy PowerPoint presentation, the influencing tool of choice for most communicators, is almost wholly unsuited to the task.

This current blog series is all about the challenges involved in changing minds. In subsequent posts I will be attempting to shed light on why people are naturally resistant to changing their minds and how influencers can work more smartly to overcome that resistance.

Meantime I would be fascinated to hear other people’s opinions and learn from their experiences. Have you changed your mind about anything significant recently – and what led to the change? Have you influenced others to change their minds? Please comment freely.

My offer to you

Clearsay works with senior executives in all sectors to develop and improve their spoken communication skills for use in presentations, media interviews, negotiations and critical meetings. For more information, return to the Home Page.