About changing minds - a mystery solved

Changing minds is the hardest thing

Getting things done almost always means changing minds. Whether we are attempting to change the mind of a nation, of our spouse or just our own, such change requires a drastic re-organization of the other's deepest convictions, beliefs and values. We have to be able to create a shift in that person's mental representations, that is to say in the particular ways they perceive, code, retain and access information.

As any politician, therapist or advertising guru is paid to know, minds are exceedingly hard to change, and sometimes just impossible to.

Why is so damn hard to change minds?

Simply because we all tend to become set in certain ways. Even more so over time.

The more you believe in certain things, the more this shapes your neuronal pathways. The more emotionally invested you become – think personal values for example – the less you will be able to change a motivation or a behaviour. The more people witnessed your commitment to an idea, the more difficult it will be for you to repudiate it. 

So, what does it take to change a perspective?

Drawing on decades of research, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner explains that the art of persuasion comes down to efficient communication. 

Throughout Changing Minds, he describes seven levers - the "7R" - that can be used by anyone to successfully change a mind: 

  • Reason by way of the use of logical arguments.
  • Research, in order to collect relevant facts.
  • Resonance, to appeal to the feeling part of the human personality. Does a proposal feel right? Some people prefer it to a reasoned and researched position. 
  • Re-description can be profoundly effective. Matters are often expressed in the negative. When changed into a positive form of expression, they convey a different, more attractive meaning. 
  • Rewards. A financial reward may tip the balance.
  • Real-world events can change one's outlook.
  • Understand and overcome resistances.

Changing minds isn't about a sudden epiphany. Instead, we change our minds gradually, in identifiable ways that can be actively and powerfully influenced.

The psychology of leadership - Willpower

The personal qualities the most commonly associated with positive outcomes in life are intelligence and self-control. Sadly, we don’t know yet how to permanently increase intelligence. Our best hope  rests with self-control, also known as willpower. 

Self-control

While we have many common names for willpower - determination, drive, resolve, self-discipline, self-control - at its essence, willpower is essentially the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. Intuitively, we all understand what temptation is and what it means to overcome it. That, of course, doesn't help us a bit when it comes to resisting temptation.

The good news is, psychologists have looked into and found ways of successfully helping us increase our willpower.

The Marshmallow experiment

Imagine the following experiment: a 4 to 5 year old child is presented with a marshmallow and given a choice; eat this one now, or wait and enjoy two later. What will he or she do? And what are the implications for his or her behaviour later in life, if any?

American psychologist and Columbia University professor Walter Mischel’s now iconic 'marshmallow test' - run in the 1960’s - is one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology and proved that the ability to delay gratification is critical to living a successful and fulfilling life.

Based on these experiments, psychologists characterize willpower in more specific ways than our initial intuition. According to most psychological scientists, willpower can today be defined as not just the ability to delay gratification or the capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse, but a limited resource capable of being depleted.

In that sense, willpower is akin to a muscle: a conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self. It is an ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behaviour rather than a “hot” emotional system. Like a muscle, it can be trained, but it can also become strained, due to over-use.