What’s the evidence for the power of reason to change minds?

Last 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 now need to get backers for my proposal again.

So, here’s something from my proposal, please consider backing it so I can put my research to good use:

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 3000 words on the evidence from psychological science about persuasion by rational argument.

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! Thanks all! Watch this space for the finished article. I promise I’ll make the deadline this time

7 Comments

  1. Posted March 7, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Signed up and backed. Looking forward to the article.

  2. Frank John Reid
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    In my youth (20s), I tried to follow logical arguments (in philosophy) at all times, no matter what the affect produced in me. After a while, I realized this was nuts. The proper response to a blitz-argument is “I shall have to consider this further.” Sometimes you change your opinion, sometimes you refute the other guy, sometimes you simply become more sophistocated in your thinking about whatever issue(s). But a certain hysteresis* is actually a virtue.

    *Resistance to change, fans.

    • Jon Edwards
      Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      This and exactly this!
      It is one of the reasons I hate arguing with people. Opinions change. New information emerges. What one knows today will slightly change tomorrow. When you become backed into a corner during an argument it is usually because of a limited knowledge of the subject. But rather than admit lack of knowledge/defeat, the ego kicks in and one fights harder to hold their position, which becomes untenable. Even if you give somebody all the information in the world, they usually need to dwell on it in their own time, relate it back to their existing schema, and then, maybe then, you will have convinced them to change their mind. In saying that, there is that sheepish feeling you get when you agree with somebody who you disagreed with a week earlier. Oh the horror! I hope I don’t get called out on it!

  3. Paula Clark
    Posted March 30, 2014 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    if you give people the rational they will do anything, including hurt themselves or others!

    this has been tested in psychology studies – when people are under hypnosis and told do do something that will cause them pain but given the rationalization that it will NOT hurt them this time, they will do it.

    this is NOT new information – i am an antique

  4. Steve Merrick
    Posted April 8, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I’m getting impatient! Have I missed publication somehow? This question has puzzled me for years, but I have/had no idea how to find out more….

  5. Posted May 6, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    A fascinating article — but I was sad that the time window discussed (in all the reported research) was so narrow. It is interesting to know that “strong arguments were only persuasive if people were given some deliberation time before being forced to answer,” but what about the time it takes to learn to pay attention to strong arguments? How trainable is that skill?

    Watching a group of mathematicians and philosophers discuss policy, I was very struck by their different cognitive styles: the mathematicians would immediately concede a suggestion to be wrong if given a clear counter example, and were as eager to reach definite conclusions as the philosophers were to avoid one. Some of that would be people sorting themselves into jobs where they already fitted, but some seems like training — mature examples show more definite styles.

    I suspect that people can be educated toward rationality, and toward kindness, but I doubt whether experiments on a ‘publish or perish’ timescale can test either of those hypotheses.


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  1. […] 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 was […]

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