How People Change Their Mind10:47
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How did you make your mind up about which brand of toothpaste to buy? In this photo, Crest toothpaste fills the shelves of a grocery store in Aventura, Fla. (Brynn Anderson/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
How did you make your mind up about which brand of toothpaste to buy? In this photo, Crest toothpaste fills the shelves of a grocery store in Aventura, Fla. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

With the midterm elections fast approaching, political campaigns are in full swing, trying to convince people to vote for one candidate over another.

But how often do people change their minds about major issues, like politics, or about small things, like what brand of toothpaste to use?

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks with Hugo Mercier (@hugoreasoning), cognitive scientist at the French National Center for Scientific Research and co-author of "The Enigma of Reason," about how people make up their minds — and how they change them.

Interview Highlights

On how we’re constantly changing our minds

“Whenever you read the newspaper, you're going to learn a lot of information, you're going to some extent change your mind on many of the issues you read about. So there was, for instance, a recent article showing that that op-eds are quite persuasive on the whole. When you read an op-ed people tend to change their minds in the direction of the of the op-ed's arguments.”

"On issues for which the social value of our beliefs matters a lot, that can make it harder to change our minds."

Hugo Mercier

On what we’re stubborn about when it comes to changing our minds

“It will depend really, to some extent, on the things that are socially valuable for you. So if you're embedded in an environment in which, let's say, everybody is deeply religious, or everybody is a very committed Democrat or Republican, it's going to make it more costly for you to either to change your mind or at least to express your change of mind. So on issues for which the social value of our beliefs matters a lot, that can make it harder to change our minds.

“It doesn't really stop you completely from changing your mind, but it does create some dissonance. So on the one hand, you want to have accurate beliefs, so you might encounter a good argument that changes your position, but you also don't want to annoy or maybe be respected less by the people you care about.”

On changing your mind when it comes to political beliefs

“It is largely true that political campaigns, especially for high stakes elections for which people have a lot of prior beliefs and prior preferences, ... have very little role, which can be surprising, given the huge amounts of money that are spent on political campaigns, in the U.S. in particular. But it seems as if it makes very little difference, partly because most voters are set on one party.”

"To some extent, changing your mind can appear to be losing face."

Hugo Mercier

On the biases that keep people with one party

“Part of it is laziness. So you've made the decision at some point to say, ‘Well, you know, I've thought about it, and I've considered what people around me think, and what are the broad platforms of the two parties, and I'm going to be a Republican.' And that's it.

“Political scientists have argued that, given that your own vote is obviously extremely unlikely to make a difference, it's not necessarily that irrational to be quite lazy when you're making political decisions. It might be a bad thing for society. I mean, people would like to have a society in which citizens are more enlightened, and take more time to think about these decisions. But it's not necessarily irrational to be quite lazy when making political decisions.”

On how it’s harder to change your mind in public

“To some extent, changing your mind can appear to be losing face. That’s one of the reasons why you'll never see one of the two presidential candidates openly change their minds during the presidential debates. They really have no incentive whatsoever to do this. Likewise, in a more local scale, if you're having an argument with one of your friends, or you see one of your friends put something that you dislike with them on social media, you might be more likely to convince them if instead of challenging them openly on Twitter or Facebook, you message them or you try to talk to them directly. It may be easier for them to change their mind if they do it less publicly.”

On whether or not you should try to change anyone’s mind

“Yes, very much so indeed. I mean it would be very depressing if it weren't the case. So then again, on the vast majority of issues, argumentation works pretty well. If you think of everyday issues about practical decisions, where to go for dinner, what car to buy, what decision to make at work, in all of these cases arguing with people tends to work relatively well.

“And even in politics, and people who've looked at debates taking place between citizens, in particular the political scientists who work on deliberative democracy in which they bring in a bunch of citizens together on both sides of the political spectrum and they have them talk about issues, talk about policies, and on the whole you see people having constructive arguments, and they tend to converge towards some kinds of middle ground. I mean they don't go all the way, but there is some convergence. So even though we have the intuition that we've never managed to change people's minds about politics, on more specific issues, and in some contexts, these things work quite smoothly.”

One something he’s changed his mind about

“Progressively, I guess have become less of a leftist than I was. I’m French, and I was a French student in psychology. So it's hard to imagine for an American how much of a leftist I was, and I've become much more in the middle of the ground in many respects progressively by encountering myriad arguments in newspapers, with friends, in books. And I think if we look at, most of us if we look at our views, you know, they're not identical to the views we had when we were 18, for the people who are, you know, older than 18. And it is quite likely that arguments have played a significant role in these changes of mind.”

This segment aired on September 21, 2018.

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