[ExI] Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds

William Flynn Wallace foozler83 at gmail.com
Tue Sep 11 17:23:41 UTC 2018

This is really full of good ideas.  Worth your time.  bill w

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: James Clear <james at jamesclear.com>
Date: Tue, Sep 11, 2018 at 11:10 AM
Subject: Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds
To: foozler83 at gmail.com

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Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds *By James Clear*
Read this on JamesClear.com

The economist J.K. Galbraith once wrote, “Faced with a choice between
changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone
gets busy with the proof.”

Leo Tolstoy was even bolder: “The most difficult subjects can be explained
to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already;
but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if
he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt,
what is laid before him.”

What's going on here? Why don't facts change our minds? And why would
someone continue to believe a false or inaccurate idea anyway? How do such
behaviors serve us?
The Logic of False Beliefs

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. [1]

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.

In Atomic Habits
I wrote, “Humans are herd animals. We want to fit in, to bond with others,
and to earn the respect and approval of our peers. Such inclinations are
essential to our survival. For most of our evolutionary history, our
ancestors lived in tribes. Becoming separated from the tribe—or worse,
being cast out—was a death sentence.”

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.” [2]

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.

I thought Kevin Simler put it well when he wrote, “If a brain anticipates
that it will be rewarded for adopting a particular belief, it's perfectly
happy to do so, and doesn't much care where the reward comes from — whether
it's pragmatic (better outcomes resulting from better decisions), social
(better treatment from one's peers), or some mix of the two.” [3]

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.” [4] When we have to
choose between the two, people often select friends and family over facts.

This insight not only explains why we might hold our tongue at a dinner
party or look the other way when our parents say something offensive, but
also reveals a better way to change the minds of others.
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.

The British philosopher Alain de Botton suggests that we simply share meals
with those who disagree with us:

“Sitting down at a table with a group of strangers has the incomparable and
odd benefit of making it a little more difficult to hate them with
impunity. Prejudice and ethnic strife feed off abstraction. However, the
proximity required by a meal – something about handing dishes around,
unfurling napkins at the same moment, even asking a stranger to pass the
salt – disrupts our ability to cling to the belief that the outsiders who
wear unusual clothes and speak in distinctive accents deserve to be sent
home or assaulted. For all the large-scale political solutions which have
been proposed to salve ethnic conflict, there are few more effective ways
to promote tolerance between suspicious neighbours than to force them to
eat supper together.” [5]

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

Facts don't change our minds. Friendship does.
The Spectrum of Beliefs

Years ago, Ben Casnocha mentioned an idea to me that I haven't been able to
shake: The people who are most likely to change our minds are the ones we
agree with on 98 percent of topics.

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 an outlandish idea,
well, it's easy to dismiss them as a crackpot.

One way to visualize this distinction is by mapping beliefs on a spectrum.
If you divide this spectrum into 10 units and you find yourself at Position
7, then there is little sense in trying to convince someone at Position 1.
The gap is too wide. When you're at Position 7, your time is better spent
connecting with people who are at Positions 6 and 8, gradually pulling them
in your direction.

The 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.

When it comes to changing people's minds, it is very difficult to jump from
one belief to another. You can't jump down the spectrum. You have to slide
down it.

Any idea that is sufficiently different from your current worldview will
feel threatening. And the best place to ponder a threatening idea is in a
non-threatening environment. As a result, books are often a better vehicle
for transforming beliefs than conversations or debates.

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

Books resolve this tension. With a book, the conversation takes place
inside someone's head and without the risk of being judged by others. It's
easier to be open-minded when you aren't feeling defensive.

Arguments are like a full frontal attack on a person's identity. Reading a
book is like slipping the seed of an idea into a person's brain and letting
it grow on their own terms. There's enough wrestling going on in someone's
head when they are overcoming a pre-existing belief. They don't need to
wrestle with you too.
Why False Ideas Persist

There is another reason bad ideas continue to live on, which is that people
continue to talk about them.

Silence is death for any idea. An idea that is never spoken or written down
dies with the person who conceived it. Ideas can only be remembered when
they are repeated. They can only be *believed* when they are repeated.

I have already pointed out that people repeat ideas to signal they are part
of the same social group. But here's a crucial point most people miss:

People also repeat bad ideas when they complain about them. Before you can
criticize an idea, you have to reference that idea. You end up repeating
the ideas you’re hoping people will forget—but, of course, people can’t
forget them because you keep talking about them. The more you repeat a bad
idea, the more likely people are to believe it. [6]

Let's call this phenomenon *Clear's Law of Recurrence:* The number of
people who believe an idea is directly proportional to the number of times
it has been repeated during the last year—even if the idea is false. [7]

Each time you attack a bad idea, you are feeding the very monster you are
trying to destroy. As one Twitter employee wrote, “Every time you retweet
or quote tweet someone you’re angry with, it *helps* them. It disseminates
their BS. Hell for the ideas you deplore is silence. Have the discipline to
give it to them.” [8]

Your time is better spent championing good ideas than tearing down bad
ones. Don't waste time explaining why bad ideas are bad. You are simply
fanning the flame of ignorance and stupidity.

The best thing that can happen to a bad idea is that it is forgotten. The
best thing that can happen to a good idea is that it is shared. It makes me
think of Tyler Cowen's quote, “Spend as little time as possible talking
about how other people are wrong.”

Feed the good ideas and let bad ideas die of starvation.
The Intellectual Soldier

I know what you might be thinking. “James, are you serious right now? I'm
just supposed to let these idiots *get away* with this?”

Let me be clear. I'm not saying it's *never* useful to point out an error
or criticize a bad idea. But you have to ask yourself, “What is the goal?”

Why do you want to criticize bad ideas in the first place? Presumably, you
want to criticize bad ideas because you think the world would be better off
if fewer people believed them. In other words, you think the world would
improve if people changed their minds on a few important topics.

If the goal is to actually change minds, then I don't believe criticizing
the other side is the best approach.

Most people argue to win, not to learn. As Julia Galef so aptly puts it:
people often act like soldiers rather than scouts. Soldiers are on the
intellectual attack, looking to defeat the people who differ from them.
Victory is the operative emotion. Scouts, meanwhile, are like intellectual
explorers, slowly trying to map the terrain with others. Curiosity is the
driving force. [9]

If you want people to adopt your beliefs, you need to act more like a scout
and less like a soldier. At the center of this approach is a question Tiago
Forte poses beautifully, “Are you willing to not win in order to keep the
conversation going?”
Be Kind First, Be Right Later

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.” [10]

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. [11]
[image: Image]



   Technically, your perception of the world is a hallucination. Every
   living being perceives the world differently and creates its own
   “hallucination” of reality. But I would say most of us have a “reasonably
   accurate” model of the actual physical reality of the universe. For
   example, when you drive down the road, you do not have full access to every
   aspect of reality, but your perception is accurate enough that you can
   avoid other cars and conduct the trip safely.

   Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles by Steven Pinker

   Crony Beliefs
   Kevin Simler

   I am reminded of a tweet
   saw recently, which said, “People say a lot of things that are factually
   false but socially affirmed. They're saying stupid things, but they are not
   stupid. It is intelligent (though often immoral) to affirm your position in
   a tribe and your deference to its taboos. This is conformity, not

   Religion for Atheists
   Alain de Botton

   The linguist and philosopher George Lakoff refers to this as activating
   the frame
   “If you negate a frame, you have to activate the frame, because you have to
   know what you’re negating,” he says. “If you use logic against something,
   you’re strengthening it.”

   Clear's Law of Recurrence is really just a specialized version of
the mere-exposure
   But hey, I'm writing this article and now I have a law named after me, so
   that's cool. Plus, you can tell your family about Clear's Law of Recurrence
   over dinner and everyone will think you're brilliant.

   Tweet by Nathan Hubbard

   “Why you think you're right — even if you're wrong”
   Julia Galef.

   I found this quote from Kazuki Yamada
   but it is believed to have been originally from the Japanese
version of Colourless
   Tsukuru Tazaki
   Haruki Murakami.

   I have been sitting on this article for over a year. Many months ago, I
   was getting readiy to publish it and what happens? The New Yorker publishes
   an article under the exact same title
   week before and it goes on to become their most popular article of the
   week. What are the odds of that? In the meantime, I got busy writing Atomic
   ended up waiting a year, and gave The New Yorker their time to shine (as if
   they needed it). I thought about changing the title, but nobody is allowed
   to copyright titles and enough time has passed now, so I'm sticking with
   it. Now both articles can live happily in the world, like an insightful
   pair of fraternal twins.

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