Humans need a reasonably accurate view of the world in order to survive. If your model of reality is wildly different from the actual world, then you struggle to take effective actions each day. However, truth and accuracy are not the only things that matter to the human mind. Humans also seem to have a deep desire to belong. Understanding the truth of a situation is important, but so is remaining part of a tribe. While these two desires often work well together, they occasionally come into conflict. In many circumstances, social connection is actually more helpful to your daily life than understanding the truth of a particular fact or idea. The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker put it this way, “People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true.” We don’t always believe things because they are correct. Sometimes we believe things because they make us look good to the people we care about. False beliefs can be useful in a social sense even if they are not useful in a factual sense. For lack of a better phrase, we might call this approach “factually false, but socially accurate.” When we have to choose between the two, people often select friends and family over facts.
Facts Don’t Change Our Minds. Friendship Does.
Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing them to change their tribe. If they abandon their beliefs, they run the risk of losing social ties. You can’t expect someone to change their mind if you take away their community too. You have to give them somewhere to go. Nobody wants their worldview torn apart if loneliness is the outcome. The way to change people’s minds is to become friends with them, to integrate them into your tribe, to bring them into your circle. Now, they can change their beliefs without the risk of being abandoned socially. Perhaps it is not difference, but distance that breeds tribalism and hostility. As proximity increases, so does understanding. I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s quote, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Facts don’t change our minds. Friendship does.
The Spectrum of Beliefs
If someone you know, like, and trust believes a radical idea, you are more likely to give it merit, weight, or consideration. You already agree with them in most areas of life. Maybe you should change your mind on this one too. But if someone wildly different than you proposes the same radical idea, well, it’s easy to dismiss them as a crackpot. he most heated arguments often occur between people on opposite ends of the spectrum, but the most frequent learning occurs from people who are nearby. The closer you are to someone, the more likely it becomes that the one or two beliefs you don’t share will bleed over into your own mind and shape your thinking. The further away an idea is from your current position, the more likely you are to reject it outright. In conversation, people have to carefully consider their status and appearance. They want to save face and avoid looking stupid. When confronted with an uncomfortable set of facts, the tendency is often to double down on their current position rather than publicly admit to being wrong.
Be kind first. Be right after.
The brilliant Japanese writer Haruki Murakami once wrote, “Always remember that to argue, and win, is to break down the reality of the person you are arguing against. It is painful to lose your reality, so be kind, even if you are right.” When we are in the moment, we can easily forget that the goal is to connect with the other side, collaborate with them, befriend them, and integrate them into our tribe. We are so caught up in winning that we forget about connecting. It’s easy to spend your energy labeling people rather than working with them. The word “kind” originated from the word “kin.” When you are kind to someone it means you are treating them like family. This, I think, is a good method for actually changing someone’s mind. Develop a friendship. Share a meal. Gift a book. Be kind first, be right later.