What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?

Contributoria is an experiment in community funded, collaborative journalism. What that means is that you can propose an article you’d like to write, and back proposals by others that you’d like to see written. There’s an article I’d like to write: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?. Here’s something from the proposal:

Is it true that “you can’t tell anybody anything”? From pub arguments to ideology-driven party political disputes it can sometimes seem like people have their minds all made up, that there’s no point trying to persuade anybody of anything. Popular psychology books reinforce the idea that we’re emotional, irrational creatures (Dan Ariely “Predictably irrational”, David McRaney “You Are Not So Smart”). This piece will be 2000 words on the evidence from psychological science about persuasion by rational argument.

If the proposal is backed it will give me a chance to look at the evidence on things like the , on whether political extremism is supported by an illusion of explanatory depth (and how that can be corrected), and on how we treat all those social psychology priming experiments which suggest that our opinions on things can be pushed about by irrelevant factors such as the weight of a clipboard we’re holding.

All you need to do to back proposals, currently, is sign up for the site. You can see all current proposals here. Written articles are Creative Commons licensed.

Back the proposal: What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?

Full disclosure: I’ll be paid by Contributoria if the proposal is backed

Update: Backed! That was quick! Much thanks mindhacks.com readers! I’d better get reading and writing now…


  1. Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    there is no way to prove that. No psychological study ever made can be repeated 1 on 1 with different subjects and get the exact same results time after time. That’s because its not a science. It’s a belief system supported by every form of bias possible, on which base new ‘conclusions’ are drawn which become the base of the next level of make believe.

  2. Hugo Mercier
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Dear Tom,

    With Dan Sperber, we developped a theory of reasoning, called the argumentative theory of reasoning, which relies on the fact that people, on the whole, do react to good arguments. So I’m quite familiar with literatures that you mind also find relevant. Let me know if that might be helpful.

    Good luck with your project anyway!

  3. Posted January 17, 2014 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    You should read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.

  4. Posted January 20, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I’ve always wondered if a person’s pre-existing belief that she is a rational person predisposes her to respond positively to rational arguments. And the opposite belief (I’m emotional, or I always follow my gut) would possibly dispose in the other direction.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] month I proposed an article for Contributoria, titled What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?. Unfortunately, I had such fun reading about the topic that I missed the end-of-month deadline and […]

  2. […] On which note, a massive thanks to everyone who backed my proposal and offered comments (see previous announcements). Special thanks to Josie and Dan for giving close readings to the piece before it […]

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