Ruth Conniff, Wisconsin Examiner
October 20, 2023
Not a moment too soon, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has chosen a paradigm-shifting book on truth, persuasion and social change for its 2023-2024 Go Big Read common reading program.
“How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion” by David McRaney (Penguin Random House 2022) tackles the psychology that drives our bitterly divided, tribal politics, and sheds light on the path to a more civil, democratic and constructive future.
McRaney will be delivering a live-streamed address on the UW-Madison campus on Nov. 7. In the weeks leading up to that event, UW has made copies of his book available all over campus and via the Go Big Read website.
Pick up a copy and take a break from doomscrolling social media posts about the horrific war between Israel and Hamas and the partisan Punch and Judy Show now playing on the floor of the U.S. Capitol and in Madison, to learn how we might climb out of our silos, get past the politics of resentment and improve our relationships.
“This timely book gives us all an opportunity to challenge our own beliefs and assumptions, and to recognize the importance of empathetic listening,” UW Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin said in a statement announcing her choice of McRaney’s book. “McRaney invites us not only to think about how others think, but to think about our own thinking too.”
McRaney, a former newspaper reporter, author and host of the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast, draws on neuroscience, psychology, and political research to explore how people form certain beliefs, why those beliefs harden when challenged, and what works to persuade someone to change a deeply held opinion.
Spoiler alert: Self-righteous diatribes backed up by a barrage of incontrovertible facts generally push people to cling even more tightly to their opposing viewpoints.
If you want to change hearts and minds, you have to actually listen to people, and ask them sincere questions about how they came to see things the way they do.
McRaney learned this technique from the work of LGBTQ rights activists who embarked on a project they called “deep canvassing” in California in the mid-2000s, to bolster support for same-sex marriage. By engaging people on their doorsteps in video-taped conversations about their beliefs about gay marriage and other hot-button issues, including abortion, the deep canvassers demonstrated that their process, in which interviewers gently encouraged their subjects to examine inconsistencies in their own thinking, resulted in lasting changes in opinion. The results made national news and stunned social scientists. In 2020, People’s Action repeated the experiment in Wisconsin and other swing states, McRaney writes, “deep canvassing” hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters and achieving, on average, a 3.1-point swing in favor of Joe Biden.
McRaney tells a good story, and his book is a page-turner. He begins by introducing readers to Charlie Veitch, a 9-11 truther who had a change of heart after grappling with the evidence that the attack on the World Trade Center was not, in fact, an inside job. Vietch is ostracized by his community of fellow truthers. McRaney spends the rest of the book trying to figure out why Veitch was different – able to recognize that he’d been sucked into a false narrative that he ultimately rejected while so many of his allies only became more aggressively attached to their beliefs when challenged.
As part of his quest, McRaney gets to know former members of the Westboro Baptist Church who left their community and were excommunicated after they renounced its virulently homophobic and antisemitic ideology.
His book offers hope that people can change, gain perspective and develop empathy. By exploring what reaches people and what doesn’t, he points the way to a more productive approach to civic dialogue.
In a chapter titled “The Truth is Tribal” McRaney explains how deeply motivated humans are to conform to the opinion of the group — so much so that we would rather be wrong than ostracized. Despite connecting people around the globe, social media has made this tendency to conform worse. We instantly evaluate news and opinion and feel pressured to weigh in to show we are members in good standing of our tribe.
Elizabeth Spiers points out the absurdity of this phenomenon in a New York Times op-ed headlined “I Don’t Have to Post About My Outrage. Neither Do You.”
The pressure to make simplistic statements about the Israel-Gaza war helps no one, Spiers writes, describing the weirdly insistent demands on public figures with no expertise in the Middle East to weigh in on the conflict, from the chief marketing officer of the clothing company American Eagle to Justin Bieber. People on Spiers’ own social media feed “seemed to believe that not making a statement was itself a statement – and an immoral one at that,” she writes. She captures the absurdity of this demand for universal punditry in a quote from a reporter at Women’s Wear Daily, who wrote “many major players in the beauty — and overall fashion — industry have remained largely silent in support of the victims on both sides of the conflict.”
Watching people who expressed horror at the carnage in Israel on Oct. 7 being attacked for supporting Israel’s occupation of Gaza, or seeing others who decried the bombing of civilians in Gaza castigated as antisemites, I have to agree with Spiers: The kind of thinking that leads to posturing on social media is “deeply unserious and further fuels hostilities, warping nuanced positions into extremism and mistaking tweet-length expressions of outrage for brave action in the face of atrocity.”
“Sitting with uncertainty is hard,” Spiers adds. But that’s exactly what it takes to reach better, more considered opinions. It’s also what the research in McRaney’s book shows: that by taking some time to gather information, think things through and make room for doubt, people are able to change their minds and accommodate a bigger picture than the narrow, us-versus-them thinking that is so depressingly familiar. By disengaging from debate as a form of tribal combat, McRaney shows, people can arrive at more humane, more constructive conclusions.
We badly need more of that.