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How Minds Change: The New Science of Belief, Opinion and Persuasion by David McRaney

Recently, a relative asked what I thought about “how everyone’s shoving Te Reo down our throats right now.” Because one of my additional roles at the primary school where I teach is to promote Te Reo and Māori tikanga among staff and students, I really wish I’d read this book before she asked me that. While I calmly, carefully and very briefly outlined my take on things - I’m not usually one for confrontation - at the back of my mind I berated myself for the lost opportunity, for I felt I wasn’t skilled enough in the art of persuasion to make her change her mind and instead see the current resurgence of Te Reo as a positive thing for Aotearoa.

But could I become skilled enough? And how exactly would I go about doing it? That’s the tantalising notion explored in this book, which is so timely in terms of where the Western world is at, with people increasingly more divided in their thinking, due to the likes of Covid vaccinations, “alternative facts”, Trump, Q-Anon…even Flat Earthers are still going strong. (Who’d have thought?!)

The book begins with a group of avid 9/11 “Truthers” who took part in a reality TV show that took them to the crash sites and introduced them to survivors, the bereaved, demolition experts, government officials, the original architects of the World Trade Centre, among a host of others. During filming, and afterwards, the truthers still vehemently denied it was real - all except one, who was immediately ostracised from the conspiracy theorist community in which he’d once earned his living. So why did he change his mind? And why was he the only one in the group to do so?

Before we’ve had time to ponder this further, the author introduces us to professional mind changers in Los Angeles. In 2012, the majority of people in the US were against same-sex marriage. By the next year, the majority were for it. What caused that seemingly abrupt flip? Perhaps a small part of it was due to hundreds of door-knocking activists in Los Angeles engaging in one of the most exciting developments in this field: deep canvassing.

Deep canvassing is "the subtle art of connecting, listening and letting people change their own mind as they discuss conflicting feelings" - essentially, engaging from a position of empathy, rather than furiously foisting facts upon them; asking questions such as, ‘What are your fears?’ and ‘Do you know anyone affected by this?’ Research shows using deep canvassing about the same-sex marriage debate can help 1 in 10 people change their minds - which sounds pretty piddly, but is actually enough to “change laws, win a swing state or set in motion a cascade of attitudinal change that could change public opinion in less than a generation.”

To get a better understanding for how deep canvassing might work, McRaney then provides fascinating examples of how reality can be subjective but feel objective. Remember the 2015 internet phenomenon, The Dress? The world was split on whether it was blue and black, or white and gold. Everyone saw the same photo, and everyone was convinced they were right, and thought everyone who didn’t see it the way they did was wrong. (Turns out that the colours you see depend on how much time you’ve spent exposed to artificial light prior to viewing the photo.)

The reason deep canvassing has an effect may also be because of the “illusion of explanatory depth”: initially we may think we know how some things work, such as zippers or toilets, but when you have to drill down into the detail, you may be stumped. Similarly, when providing reasons for opinions, we may initially voice strong positions, but when we’re asked to explain issues in detail, our opinions become less extreme.

But wait, there’s more: while researching deep canvassing, McRaney then stumbled upon its close cousins: street epistemology, Smart Politics and motivational interviewing. Although similar, each serves its own purpose. Street epistemology is best for beliefs in empirical matters “like whether ghosts are real or airplanes are spreading mind control agents in their chemtrails”; deep canvassing is best for when emotional evaluations guide us, like whether “a CEO is a bad person or a particular policy will ruin the country”; Smart Politics is suited for values “like gun control or immigration reform” and motivational interviewing is best for “motivating people to change behaviours, like getting vaccinated to help end a pandemic or recycling your garbage to help stave off climate change.” Helpfully, the author gives a summary of all these techniques, so we can try them for ourselves.

Traversing philosophy, neuroscience, psychology and ethics, How Minds Change is thought provoking, illuminating and inspiring. And hopefully mind-changing.

Reviewer: Stacey Anyan



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