Yes, You Can Change People’s Minds

Your group has always done things one way. You think you have a better way. How to sway them to your side?

You probably think data is the answer, but that’s unlikely to be enough to win over minds. Consider all the evidence of climate change and the many people who remain unconvinced by it.

“Data is important to uncover the truth, but it is not enough to convince people of that truth,” says Tali Sharot, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University College London and author of The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others. “When you show people data that goes against what they believe or what they want to believe, their brains shut down, metaphorically speaking, and don’t absorb what you’re saying.”

On the other hand, when people agree with you, their brains show “lots of activity throughout, indicative that they are paying close attention and encoding what you are saying,” Sharot says.

Ultimately, the problem with a facts-and-figures approach is that it “ignores what makes us human—our desires, our motives, our fears, our prior beliefs,” she explains. “We need to take these into account and address them first and foremost.”

Here, Sharot’s three tips on how to change people’s minds:

#1. Appeal to their emotions.
“Emotion is important for three reasons. First, anything that elicits emotion is more likely to be noticed, because an emotional reaction tells our brain ‘this is important; pay attention.’ Second, emotion is an efficient way to convey information: an emotional response tells us this is good, this is bad, this is scary. Emotions are preprogrammed responses of what we should do in certain situations. Third, we are more likely to remember a message that elicits emotion, because emotion modulates memory.”

#2. Reframe the message to highlight the opportunities.
“We found that the brain is really good at coding information about how things can get better. So if you tell someone, ‘I think you are going to make even more on this investment than you think,’ the brain reacts strongly. But for most people the brain does not do as good of a job at encoding if you say, ‘I do not think you are going to make much on this investment’. People are more likely to ignore bad news or rationalize it away, while embracing good news. Instead of saying, ‘if you take route A, you will lose time and money,’ say, ‘if you take route B, you will save time and money.’”

#3. Give them choices. 
“Making your own choices and having a sense of agency are coded in the brain as rewards like food and water. So instead of giving people the answer or telling them what to do, guide them while maintaining their sense of agency. For example, you can give your employees a choice between two projects, or have your kids create their own salad. Sometimes people do not want to make a decision themselves when the decision is too complex or when they realize there is someone else better equipped to make it for them. But they want to decide whether they make the decision or let someone else make it for them.”

Tali Sharot will be speaking at the 2019 Watermark Conference for Women.

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