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Saturday, 10 May 2014

What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?

Contributoria / Mind Hacks
Tom Stafford

Are we, the human species, unreasonable? Do rational arguments have any power to sway us, or is it all intuition, hidden motivations, and various other forms of prejudice? 

The question has been hanging over me because of my profession. I work as a cognitive psychologist, researching and teaching how people think. My job is based on rational inquiry, yet the picture of human rationality painted by our profession can seem pretty bleak. Every week I hear about a new piece of research which shows up some quirk of our minds, like the one about people given a heavy clip board judge public issues as more important than people given a light clip board. Or that more attractive people are judged as more trustworthy, or they arguments they give as more intelligent.

Commentators and popularisers of this work have been quick to pick up on these findings. Dan Ariely has a book calling us "Predictably Irrational", and the introduction tells us "we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually think of ourselves [with] ultimate control over the decisions we make [but] this perception has more to do with our desires...than reality". Cordelia Fine's book "[A mind of its own]( )" has the subtitle "how your brain distorts and deceives", whilst David McRaney doesn't pull any punches with the title of his "You are not so smart".

The wider context is the recent progress in the sciences that puts our species in the biological context of the animals, a project that most psychologists are signed up to to some degree. A reflection of this is all the experiments which attempt to give a mechanistic - that is natural - account of the mind, an account which downplays idiosyncrasy, subjectivity and nondeterminism. The philosopher John Gray was reflecting on this trend in research, as well as giving vent to his own enthusiastic pessimism, when he wrote:
We think our actions express our decisions. But in nearly all of our life, willing decides nothing.
"We cannot wake up or fall asleep, remember or forget our dreams, summon or banish our thoughts, by deciding to do so. When we greet someone on the street we just act, and there is no actor standing behind what we do. Our acts are end points in long sequences of unconscious responses. They arise from a structure of habits and skills that is almost infinitely complicated. Most of our life is enacted without conscious awareness."

The science, and those who promote it, seem to be saying that we're unreasonable creatures. That's a problem, given that many of our social institutions (such as democracy) are based on an assumption that rational persuasion can occur. If I believed the story told in these books I would be forced to choose between my profession as a cognitive scientist and political commitment as a citizen and democrat.
Fortunately, as a cognitive scientist, I don't have to believe what I'm told about human nature - I can look into it myself. So I set out to get to the bottom of the evidence on how we respond to rational arguments. Does rationality lose out every time to irrational motivations? Or is there any hope to those of us who want to persuade because we have good arguments, not because we are handsome, or popular, or offer heavy clipboards.

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