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How to change opinions

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How to change opinions

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Change is a constant topic on this blog, with a great deal of discussion given to how organizations can become more social.  Most of this discussion has focused on the systemic things that can be done.  Indeed, the hypothesis of my book  was that if you create an environment that encourages certain behaviours, then those behaviours will emerge.

Nevertheless, it may be of interest to explore how one can try and change behaviours on an individual level.  I’m sure many of you will have experience of trying to persuade someone that your point of view is the right one.  It’s often a rather forlorn endeavour, as your attempts merely prompt your colleague to retreat into their existing mindset.

This phenomenon is often caused by what’s known as the illusion of explanatory depth, which makes us believe our understanding of a topic is much better than it actually is.  When the theory was tested, it emerged that people would only gain a realistic understanding of their knowledge once that knowledge was actually put to the test.

It’s believed that this delusion occurs because we mistake a superficial understanding of something for a more detailed understanding, and because nobody tests our understanding, we let this mirage persist.

The best way to overcome this therefore is often to force yourself to explain what you know to someone else (or teach if you will).  This process exposes the true depth of our understanding of a topic.

A study published last year used this basic theory to test whether it could be used to persuade other people that our opinion is the right one.  Researchers reasoned that if people were forced to explain their opinions, then they might be more inclined to shift away from them.

They tested this in one of the most entrenched of all fields – politics.  They recruited a sample of Americans from across the political spectrum who were then polled on various topics.  One group of participants was asked to support their assertions with reasoning.  These same participants were then given the opportunity to present their point of view to the rest, much in the way we do when debating.

A second group were asked to do the same thing, only they were not asked to provide reasoning for their beliefs beforehand.  Instead, they had to provide detailed explanations of how their beliefs would play out in reality.

The results were quite amazing.  Those in the first group were as entrenched as they were beforehand.  Those in the second group however reported a significantly larger drop in how they themselves believed in the views they previously held.  Their views were literally softened.

So the next time you encounter someone with deeply entrenched opinions, maybe the best approach you can take is to get them to explain their views in as much detail as possible.  Just remember, of course, that they might request the same from you.

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