Studies show that facts won’t change our beliefs, and if we want to create real change in ourselves or others, we need to be working with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Facts don’t change people’s beliefs. Ever.
The human species is a mess of mysterious contradictions, and this, apparently, is one of them.
Facts don’t change our beliefs.
There was a study recently that tried to look at ways you could change people’s minds about something – if they had latched on to a false belief.
The study, conducted by Dartmouth University in the US, theorised there were four ways to change somebody’s mind.
- Show them the facts
- Explain the science
- Work their emotions
- Give them stories, examples and anecdotes
And so they wanted to test which was the most effective. Take a look at that list, what do you reckon?
They looked at the link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) and autism. To date there’s been no scientific link between the two, apart from a now discredited report by a doctor with a financial interest in replacing MMR with his own vaccine system.
But the belief is deeply and passionately held by a lot of people. So the question then is, what’s the most effective way to change somebody’s mind?
And so they divided their study of young parents into five groups. One received a leaflet from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention about how there was no link between MMR and autism. Another received a leaflet on the dangers of the diseases MMR is trying to prevent. The third received a package of photos of children with the diseases. The fourth received a story about a child who almost died of measles. The fifth got nothing.
The researchers didn’t get what they bargained for and the results were dramatic.
None of the interventions did anything to change people’s attitudes to vaccination. In fact, three of them backfired. The first leaflet made those who already believed in the negative impacts of vaccines less likely to vaccinate. The images of sick children increased the belief that vaccines cause autism, while the dramatic stories somehow managed to increase belief in the dangers of vaccines.
The researchers described their results as “depressing.”
So how do we understand these results?
The key to understanding it I think is to remember that humans have a very strong attachment to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. I’m this kind of person living in this kind of world.
And it’s like we’re programmed to defend those stories vigorously. Perhaps its about self-esteem. If someone attacks us – “Jon, you’ve got a weak left boot” – then we want to rally to our defence. Ward off the discomfort of the attack and make ourselves feel better.
And so you have this phenomenon where people will accept new information if it doesn’t relate to the stories they tell about themselves.
Say you think the capital of Canada is Montreal. And then someone tells you it’s actually Ottawa. You don’t really care, and so you accept this new way of viewing the world.
But people reject vigorously anything that challenges their world view. And that’s what we saw in the vaccine study. The folk who were already disposed to vaccines incorporated the information. Those who weren’t, rejected it.
The implication, and this is powerful, is that if you want to change someone’s attitude towards something, you need to get deep down into the stories they tell about themselves.
For example, if you wanted to build consensus for policies tackling climate change, you’re probably working with two competing stories within people. One story is about a person’s independence and not being told what to do. The second is a desire to look after the planet.
Before you ask people to make a choice on a policy that might limit their freedoms to a degree in order to create better climate outcomes, you need to get them aligned with the part of themselves that sees themselves as a being that values the planet.
Once their operating from this space, then they’re likely to willingly embrace the policy you want.
Of course you see this all the time in politics, but normally in reverse. The politics of fear has dominated the past 20 years.
And the firestorm around this year’s budget was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The coalition was incredibly effective at creating a sense of economic emergency. People believed that the whole economic show was collapsing.
But now they’re in power, they’re stuck with that world view. And a fearful people are wondering how you could be so callous – to be cutting spending on welfare, education and services at a time like this. Have you no heart?
Hockey and co. are out there arguing the facts, but as I said, the facts don’t really have much to do with it. And suddenly Bill Shorten the invisible man, finds himself preferred Prime Minister.
They made this bed, and now they have to lie in it. Once you got people all worked up, I don’t think there was anything they could have done with the budget that would have made people happy.
Anyway, this is all just interesting theory so far, but it does have a personal application.
One study gave women a maths test. Half the women were asked to identify if they were male or female before beginning. The other half were not.
The one’s who had to identify as female did consistently worse than those who didn’t – as if they were conforming to the social stereotype of women not being good at maths.
The stories we tell about ourselves are more important than anything, and we act – even subconsciously – to preserve the narrative.
The implication is that if you want to change your life and your luck, you need to change the stories you tell yourself about yourself.
All journeys of change begin here.