Changing Minds - a Magic Wand?

Probably not. But have we ever seen a period in our lifetime when more people hoped more fervently to change more minds – but were ever so nervous about trying to do so? Did you ever before walk on eggs like you’re walking on eggs now? Biting your tongue? Holding back with strangers – nice, friendly folk you genuinely like – because they might be “on the other side”? Carefully remembering not to tread on certain ground with family because one can never be sure who’s in what camp? 

But, oh, how we’d like to change their minds! And how they’d like to change ours! In many cases, I think, we also long to change our own minds.

Those thoughts lurked in the back of my mind when I received a delightful invitation recently to “read along” with a newly-minted charitable foundation, The Greater Sum. To be honest, I probably would have read a comic book or The Hardy Boys, had they asked me to, so I was especially thrilled that they’d chosen Changing Minds, the 2006 offering by Howard Gardner, the psychologist who won our attention long ago with his theory of “multiple intelligences.” I thought I’d stumbled upon a handbook for changing minds. Surely Gardner would lay out a simple process, step-by-step, of convincing others to believe as we believe. A quick read and, voila! I would have unlocked the mysteries to changing other people’s minds!

Once I’d read the book through, I realized the complexity of the human mind, its resistance to change, the many arenas in which mind change takes place, and the numerous tools at one’s disposal to try to effect such a change. So, I am educated now – and more realistic – but still hopeful. For readers who truly want to understand how our minds’ contents are formulated, the various “levers” that might appeal to different audiences, and the multiple intelligences available to marshal an effort toward change, Gardner’s book is the real deal. No, it’s not a quick user’s guide to instantly unlock the secrets of your pesky neighbor’s pesky mind; it’s a comprehensive, thoughtful psychological examination of the changing of minds in all its important aspects.

I will attempt to summarize here those “lessons” of Gardner which I perceived to be most practical and insightful, using his own language as much as possible: It’s easier to talk about changing minds in general than to effect enduring changes in any particular mind. It becomes difficult to alter one’s mind as the years pass; we develop strong views and perspectives that are resistant to change. It is never easy to bring about a change of mind; it is even more difficult to replace a simple way of thinking about a matter with a more complex way. And making sense is not the same as being correct. Individuals will go to great lengths to square apparently discrepant information with their firmly held beliefs. Still, it is worth attending to ideas that have affected many others, even when one personally finds little of value in them.

It is difficult to recognize the themata (fundamental presuppositions) to which one has a deep and often unconscious affiliation. The leading mature scientists of a generation (“senior savants”) are least likely to be able to accept a dramatic new line of explanation. Surprisingly, even birth order plays a role in willingness and ability to change. Later-borns, who from the start have to contend with rival siblings, are more sympathetic than first-borns to revolutionary tenets. The fundamentalist voluntarily decides that he will no longer change his mind in any significant way. All of the efforts within the fundamentalist community are directed toward shoring up the current belief system and rejecting notions that are alien to doctrine. And once one has made public pronouncements on a perspective, matters of pride and consistency push one toward hugging the theory, however discredited.

All of that said, if you feel ready to undertake to change minds, take heed of these lessons: Spend less time trying to convince individuals of a new perspective and more time trying to understand and thereby to neutralize the resistances. The more an individual’s intelligences you can appeal to when making an argument, the more likely you are to change a person’s mind, and the more minds you are likely to change. Individuals learn most effectively when they can receive the same message in a number of different ways, each re-presentation stimulating a different intelligence. In changing the minds of adults, search for the resonance and stamp out the resistance. The most effective mind-changers build up accurate mental models of their own minds. Asking questions, listening carefully to the answers, and following up appropriately are almost always wise tactics. Avoid egocentrism – becoming ensnared in one’s own construal of events. The purpose of a mind-changing encounter is not to articulate your own point of view but rather to engage the psyche of the other person. The most important point is the amount of time one is willing to spend. It is not possible, in most cases, to accomplish transmission and acceptance in short order. In most cases it takes much time, much practice, and considerable backsliding.

To change minds effectively, leaders make particular use of two tools: the stories they tell and the lives they lead. The optimal story for mind changing will be familiar enough so as not to be immediately rejected but distinctive enough to compel attention and engage the mind. The surest route to mind changing in the disciplines (formal education) is the effective exploitation of multiple intelligences. Most of us gain the most when we can bring about changes in intimate settings – and it is here that we pay the heaviest prices when our attempts fail. A feeling of hitting a dead end often primes one for a change of mind. The decisive step is taken when one attempts the alternative behavior for the first time.

Perhaps the greatest charm of Gardner’s book can be found in the numerous real-life stories he tells of familiar figures who embody the specific message of particular “lessons” in mind-changing. You will enjoy truly insightful analyses of the work of Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Nelson Mandela, Whittaker Chambers, Mahatma Gandhi and Newt Gingrich, along with vignettes of some high-profile academic and corporate leaders of the past you might or might not recognize. It is in these stories that Gardner’s principles come alive and make the most sense.

Now, knowing how many books I, myself, want to get to yet this year, and cognizant of the hurried pace of contemporary society, I am again going to give my readers a break: Although your very best bet, in a time when you fervently hope to change minds (especially for the upcoming election), is to read Gardner’s book, I know the chances of that happening. Therefore, as is my custom, I will provide below a full precise that, hopefully, covers all the most important points Gardner offers. Perhaps it will be of some use to you. And, perhaps once you’ve waded through it, you’ll go to the real source, the book itself: Changing Minds by Howard Gardner. Now please join me as we walk through this important volume – and prepare yourself for a substantial journey. You may assume quoted passages are Gardner’s words, verbatim.

“There is a difference between a deepening of mind – as occurs when one learns more about a subject or enhances one’s skills – and a genuine transformation of the mind, when one’s knowledge or skill veer in a new direction,” Gardner tells us in his introductory remarks. He goes on to catalogue the factors involved in mind change: entities, arenas and levers. He explains, “In any given effort to change minds, one should identify the specific entity, the particular arena, and the most suitable lever of the seven.” And then he pulls us right back to reality with this caution: “spend less time trying to convince individuals of a new perspective and more time trying to understand and thereby to neutralize the resistances.” 

John Maynard Keynes, British economist, Gardner tells us, explained long ago why changing a mind – our own or another’s – is so challenging: “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.” Our author expands on that challenge: “Individuals think and behave differently depending on whether the culture of their organization is flat or hierarchical; whether it mandates the same requirements for all members, or is flexible and individualized; whether it regards cognate organizations as mortal enemies or as potential collaborators, or ignores peer organizations altogether.”

And, with that, we’re off to the first chapter, in which Gardner explains to us just what’s inside a mind, after all. 

1. THE CONTENTS OF THE MIND

“Changing minds [refers to] the situation where individuals or groups abandon the way in which they have customarily thought about an issue of importance and henceforth conceive of it in a new way... I focus on the changes of mind that occur consciously... as a result of forces that can be identified...” Gardner specifies what his book will reveal:

  1. The various agents and agencies of mind change 
  2. The tools they have at their disposal 
  3. The seven factors that help to determine whether they succeed in changing minds [which] ultimately involves changes of behavior

The key to success is to “produce a shift in the individual’s ‘mental representations’ – the particular way in which a person perceives, codes, retains and accesses information.” One powerful way to do this is to present multiple versions of the same concept, hence the seven factors of mind change. (Gardner refers to them as “levers.”)

Seven factors or levers of mind change:

  • Reason – “identifying of relevant factors, weighing each in turn, and making an overall assessment... a list of pros and cons”
  • Research – “collection of relevant data... the identification of relevant cases and a judgment about whether they warrant a change of mind”
  • Resonance – “the affective component... it feels right... seems to fit the current situation, and convinces the person that further considerations are superfluous... often comes about because one feels a ‘relation’ to a mind-changer”
  • Redescriptions – “lends itself to representations in a number of different forms... reinforcing one another... the potential for expressing the desired lesson in many compatible formats is crucial.”
  • Resources and Rewards – “mind change is more likely to occur when considerable resources can be drawn on... little cost may tip the balance... the provision of resources is an instance of positive reinforcement... being rewarded for one course of behavior”
  • Real world events – wars, attacks, eras, availability, legislation, economic depression...
  • Resistances – “the existence of only facilitating factors is unrealistic... it becomes difficult to alter one’s mind as the years pass... we develop strong views and perspectives that are resistant to change. Any effort to understand the changing of minds must take into account the power of various resistances.”

“A mind change is most likely to come about when the first six factors operate in consort and the resistances are relatively weak.”

So, what exactly are the contents of this mind we wish to change? Gardner specifies four discrete contents:

  • Concepts– “any set of closely related entities (e.g. all four-legged furry household pets that bark are dogs)”
  • Stories – [I guess we all know what stories are.] 
  • Theories– “relatively formal expression of processes in the world”
  • Skills– “(or practices) of which an individual is capable... procedures that individuals know how to carry out, whether or not they choose to – or even can – put them into words... Skills can also be subject to more dramatic forms of change, and when they are, we find ourselves centrally in the terrain of ‘mind changing’ under study here.”

2. THE FORMS OF THE MIND

Confessing that he “rarely took the brain seriously” as a graduate student, Gardner says his goal at that time was to unravel the mysteries of artistic creation. He begins with a brief background on the popular work of behaviorists and cognitivists. In 1969, when he became involved in Harvard Project Zero, Gardner began to pay attention to the brain. He learned that, “despite their mirror appearances, the two halves of the brain carry out distinct mental activities... the left hemisphere deals with digital types of symbols – like numbers and words – while the right hemisphere deals with more holistic or analog types of symbols – like those embodied in painting, sculpture, dance and other artistic realms.” Clearly that right hemisphere was more appealing to the young Gardner.

Then he attended a lecture by neurologist Norman Geschwind, a leading researcher in this field. “By the time Gerschwind had concluded, I had experienced a change of mind that amounted to a pivotal career decision.” He now wanted to learn about the human brain. “Such lightning changes of mind... do not occur like a thunderbolt” he explains. “A feeling of hitting a dead end often primes one for a change of mind ... while the decision to work with Gerschwind erupted almost instantly into consciousness, this change of mind had long been in the works in the subterranean recesses of my mind.”

When a mind changes, the forms of thought come into play – the “multiple intelligences” for which Gardner is so well known. A different position, he explains is the existence of just a single language of the mind, “neurons chatting with one another in a language like English.” But what of visual imagery? “Vital thinking occurs in imagery ... I believe that actual thinking takes place in a number of different formats that rely for delivery on the sensory organs but that transcend the specific in important ways.” The theory of multiple intelligences debunks the premises that “intelligence is a single entity, that people are born with a certain amount of intelligence and it is difficult to alter the amount of our intelligence – it’s in our genes, so to speak.” 

While psychologists might believe they can tell you how smart you are by administering IQ tests or similar kinds of instruments, Gardner isn’t buying it. He defines intelligence as “a biopsychological potential to process specific forms of information in certain kinds of ways... diverse information-processing capacities.” These, he said, allow us to solve problems or to fashion products, but they must be valued in at least one culture or community to appear “intelligent.” Gardner says, “individuals are not equally smart or dumb under all circumstances... they have intelligences that are variously cherished or disregarded.”

How are multiple intelligences relevant to mind changing? According to the author, “a change of mind involves a change of mental representation... the more an individual’s intelligences you can appeal to when making an argument, the more likely you are to change a person’s mind, and the more minds you are likely to change.” He offers us a quick overview of those multiple intelligences, arranged in four categories, to which we might appeal in our effort to change minds; it’s worth the brief tour.

The Intelligences of the Symbol Analyst

  • Linguistic Intelligence– “facility in the use of spoken and written language... [the ability] to secure useful information by skilled questioning and discussion... convince others of a course of action through the use of stories, speeches, or exhortations”
  • Logical-Mathematical Intelligence– “determining what has happened, and what might happen, under various circumstance... [allows us to] move comfortably in the world of numbers.” Gardner offers two cogent examples – one in which this type of intelligence succeeded, and another in which it was less useful: 
    • Alfred P. Sloan, leader of General Motors in the early 1920s, developed a company with precise lines of authority. Processes were coordinated; leadership allowed each division to retain the operational efficiencies of an earlier incarnation.  

    • In the 1950s, Robert McNamara led the Ford Motor Company, successfully employing logical analysis of numerical computation. It was assumed, then, “that McNamara’s genius would translate readily in the operation of another huge bureaucracy that needed to be rationalized and mobilized – the U.S. Department of Defense...[he] did indeed succeed in streamlining and regulating a massive organization...[but he was] ill-matched to the quite different cultural, historical and strategic issues posed by the emerging war in Indochina.”

“Noncanonical” Intelligences

  • Musical Intelligence– “figures prominently in almost any kind of public presentation... television commercials... movies... conferences, athletic events, and religious services... [This] is the least overtly semantic of the major symbol systems: It does not convey discrete meanings.”
  • Spatial Intelligence– used in wide spaces as well as more circumscribed spaces. “One can think of a play, a song, a sales plan, a management chart as embodied in spatial (or graphic) form... map out an experiment as if it were a new geological terrain...” This intelligence fits well with aerospace, architecture, design, perhaps “cyberspace.”
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence– skilled use of the body “... [Employed by] artisans, craftspeople, surgeons, and athletes who still depend directly on their bodies in order to carry out their work... those who make use of bodily imagery and metaphors in their conceptualization of sundry topics... We properly invoke bodily-kinesthetic intelligence when we conceive of those mental representations called skills [such as] skilled musicians... Over time bodily-kinesthetic intelligence retreats from view.”
  • Naturalist Intelligence– “the capacities to make consequential discriminations in the natural world...preparation of foods... construction of dwellings, the protection of our environment... mining of precious ores... our consumer society is also built on naturalist intelligences... pattern-detecting capacities... Each intelligence evolved over long periods of time to allow individuals to survive and reproduce in particular ecological niches... anyone involved with tangible products of any sort is necessarily using naturalist intelligence.”

The Personal Intelligences– knowing human beings

  • Interpersonal Intelligence– “sensitivity to others emerges as a crucial asset... sensitivity to temperament or personality, ability to anticipate the reactions of others... leading or following effectively... capacity to mediate”
  • Intrapersonal Intelligence– “distinct from the capacity to understand and interact with other human beings... capacity to distinguish one’s own feelings, needs, anxieties, and idiosyncratic profiles of abilities and to assemble them in a way that makes sense and is useful for achieving personal goals... create compatible working environments for themselves and others... keen understanding of their strengths and needs.” Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan are offered as examples.

Existential Intelligence– entails the human capacity to pose and ponder the biggest questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What is going to happen to us? What is it all about in the end? “We do not yet have convincing evidence that existential thinking draws on special dedicated neural or brain centers or has a distinctive evolutionary history.”

Why a Cognitive Approach?

Rival Accounts: Sociological and Historical-Cultural. “My quarrel with these rival perspectives,” Gardner says, “is that, unlike the cognitive approach, they stipulate that the moves that active human agents can make are severely constrained.” He details two such approaches. The Socio-biological perspective attempts to describe events in terms of human (or primate) characteristics, which, he asserts, “basically documents human limitations.” For example, some believe we are destined to be organized in dominance hierarchies and to jostle endlessly for position. “If we were to accept these limitations as a given, there would be no reason to attempt to create major transformations at all; we would just follow the script inscribed in our genes.”

The other such perspective is the “historical-cultural” approach. Gardner explains, “We have a lengthy prehistory and history and a powerful cultural or multicultural background, and both cast lengthy shadows if not powerful shackles on who we are, what we believe we can do, what we actually accomplish, and how... though cut from the same genetic stock, human individuals and groups are fascinatingly varied, owing to our particular histories, experiences, and even genetic accidents.” Although culture and history have very deep roots, “these roots risk becoming nooses that limit our capacity to change.”

Cognitive Accounts– Defending the cognitive approach, Gardner asserts that most mental representations are constructed over time and “can be reformed, refashioned, reconstructed, transformed, combined, altered and undermined.” They are within our hands and within our minds. While altering representations might not be easy, changes can be effected. He gives the example of American automobile analysts in the 1960s and 1970s, who became “skilled (though probably unwitting) cognitivists... it was within their powers to change their minds, as wells as the minds of their employees, their customers, and their rivals...they were free to return to the drawing board... 

“Conscious awareness of cognitivism is a boon when it comes to changing minds,” Gardner explains. “One can alter the format... experiment using new symbol systems... create new mental representations in one’s mind... devise a set of markings adequate for sharing and implementing these novel ideas... use various levers of mind changing... until a tipping point has been reached.” 

Cognitivism synergistically weds the marks of the hand with the ideas of the mind, opening up the possibility of representing constraints and alternatives in various ways. It “invites precision, testing, revision, progress.” He calls the perspective “an optimistic one [that] can be used to understand the minds of others as well as our own minds.”

Having introduced the two major lenses by which the human mind can be examined, the author is ready to look beyond the content and forms of the mind to the way in which the mind’s contents can be presented. And so we move on to chapter three.

3. THE POWER OF EARLY THEORIES

“We need to take into the account the ways in which human cognition develops over the course of childhood... a fascinating paradox that bedevils our fundamental issue of mind changing.”

The Paradoxes of Childhood Development: The study of children’s cognitive development, Gardner says, offers a window onto the phenomenon of mind change - the ease of mind changing and its difficulty. Jean Piaget explored the first areas where the mind changes readily.

Gardner explains, “Children think about the world in ways that are fundamentally different from those exhibited by adults... youngsters can almost seem... like members of a different species... yet...youngsters come to change their minds in fundamental ways... accompanied by total conviction.”

Sigmund Freud held that, though the mind can change quite easily, especially when we’re young, it simultaneously proves, in certain respects, surprisingly resistant to change. Freud probed the complementary realms of emotion, motivation, and the unconscious and found that interpersonal relations were emotionally loaded. “These strong feelings,” the author says, “continue to color our subsequent relations with others.”

But back to the paradox: Per Piaget, children’s minds change readily, decisively, without the need for formal teaching. Per Freud, however, the mind proves remarkably resistant to change, even when such change would be highly desirable. “We need to know as much as we can about how the mind naturally changes and where the resistances lurk.” This applies to both the “lifelong” perspectives of Freud and the cognitive phenomena investigated by Piaget.

Entrenched Theories of Childhood: “When examined outside of a school context, their [children’s] understanding is frequently shown to be tenuous.” This is not limited to astronomy, physics, biology, history and the arts. “By and large, students who have had the benefit of secondary education tend to respond in much the same way as individuals who had not studied science, history or the arts... Early in life, young individuals develop very powerful theories of the world... Some of these theories are correct...some... are charming... many are simply wrong... Theories, I have claimed, represent our efforts to make sense of the world... [they are] a deep human motivator, but making sense is not the same as being correct.” 

Gardner categorizes young people and their powerful theories as follows. He says each of these theories is prevalent among young people everywhere, and none of them proves easy to change.

  • Intuitive theories of matter (Heavier objects fall more rapidly than lighter ones.)
  • Intuitive theories of life (If it is moving, it is alive; if it is still, it is dead.)
  • Intuitive theories of mind (I have a mind, you have a mind. If you look like me, then your mind is like mine and you are good. If you look different from me, then your mind must differ as well, and we are enemies.)
  • Intuitive theories of human relations (Individuals who are big are powerful.)

Why Childhood Theories Prove Resistant to Change

“These theories... all have a surface plausibility to them. They are based on the evidence of the senses... [and they] appear to be validated from time to time.” It is possible to assimilate apparently inconsistent information so that it accords with one’s theories, Gardner asserts. “Individuals will go to great lengths to square apparently discrepant information with their firmly held beliefs... human beings are primed to come up with one kind of theory rather than another... The more the theory seems to be borne out, the deeper the dips become until a significant valley has formed. Barring mental bulldozing, these valleys are likely to endure... and so when one is posed a question for which one has not been properly prepared... [one] slides back into the valley of ignorance.”

He says early theories prove especially difficult to alter. For example, “children around the world are not explicitly taught to become conservers. They just become conservers at about the time that school begins. The more emotional one’s commitment to a cause or belief, the more difficult to change. And once one has made public pronouncements on that perspective, matters of pride and consistency push one toward hugging the theory, however discredited. Finally, personality factors are at work. The more absolutist one’s approach to life, the more certain of one’s opinions, the less likely one is to abandon them... It is far more adaptive to be low key, flexible, curious.”

Factors that Impel Changes of Mind

Mind change is more likely to occur “when there is a natural proclivity to adopt a certain stance... when a perspective that clashes with one’s own is widely shared by a new, powerful, and resource-rich constituency... Behaviorists would have us think that the most powerful incentives for alterations in behavior are shifting contingencies of reward and punishment. Clearly, there is something to this argument.” 

So, how does one take advantage of this proclivity to change a young person’s mind? “The cognitively oriented teacher constructs experiences that will help to bring about the discovery of a more powerful concept, a more compelling story, a more robust theory, a more effective practice, and – in the end – a superior mental representation...when confronted with an explanation that is moderately more sophisticated than their current favorite, children tend to embrace it.”

Occasional changes of mind, Gardner says, can be sudden, but “reports of such dramatic mind changes are more frequent than their actual occurrence. Many who tout a new belief that, for example, they’ve been ‘born again,’ have reverted to earlier beliefs within a matter of days or months.”

Reprise

Here Gardner pauses to review: “The mind is a surprisingly conservative mechanism. Theories, concepts, stories and skills are formed early, and many resist change. [There are] a few rules of thumb. It is more difficult to change the mind when perspectives are held strongly, and publicly, and by individuals of rigid temperament. It is easier to change minds when individuals find themselves in a new environment, surrounded by peers of a different persuasion...or when individuals undergo shattering experiences... or encounter luminous personalities... Opportunities for backsliding are patent among those who make a lot of noise... it’s easier to talk about changing minds in general than to effect enduring changes in any particular mind.”

A Look Ahead

“Sometimes, as in the young, these minds appear to change on their own; at other times individuals themselves consciously change their minds... For the most part, however, minds change as the result of efforts by external agents... the six different arenas in which mind changing ordinarily takes place... [form] an inverted pyramid” as follows:

Six arenas in which minds are usually changed

1. Large-scale changes involving the diverse population of a region or an entire nation

2. Large-scale changes involving a more uniform or homogeneous group

3. Changes brought about through works of art or science

4. Changes within formal instructional settings

5. Intimate forms of mind changing

6. Changing one’s own mind

Now for a brief explication of each arena of mind changing listed above and examples for each.

  1. “[Minds changed by people in] positions of authority over large populations... Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher... world leader Mahatma Gandhi... [The audience includes] individuals who are typically quite disparate from one another.”
  2. “[For example, a] corporation head... or a college president...the individuals with whom one is dealing share a common knowledge base and a similar degree of expertise.”
  3. “[Mind change] wrought by the works an individual creates... Karl Marx...Albert Einstein... Charles Darwin... James Joyce... Martha Graham... Pablo Picasso.”
  4. “[Teachers, professors, instructors] crystallize the current state of knowledge... [and] assume responsibility for monitoring how and to what extent the minds of students have in fact been changed.”
  5. “[Within] intimate settings...of family members... friends or enemies of our point of view... boss... employees... lovers... most of us gain the most when we can bring about such changes in these intimate settings – and it is here that we pay the heaviest prices when our attempts fail.”
  6. Our own minds

Sometimes mind changing cuts across these various arenas. Each arena of mind changing favors certain kinds of content and features certain prevalent levers. Here we have “the full armamentarium of mind changing: contents and countercontents of the mind... arenas...discrete representational forms in which these contents and countercontents can be presented... seven factors or levers that ... determine whether a candidate mind change is likely to occur.”

4. LEADING A DIVERSE POPULATION

In this chapter, Gardner focuses on the first arena – trying to change the minds of an entire nation or other large, diverse group that does not share identical values, goals, skills, knowledge or sometimes even language. “To change minds effectively, leaders make particular use of two tools: the stories they tell and the lives they lead... the resonance between those stories and those lives proves of telltale importance.” The author goes on to present two examples of successful large-scale mind changing in other countries and then contrasts two American leaders – one who successfully changed minds and one who failed to do so.

Margaret Thatcher

“The fact that she herself had risen to a position of power and prominence through cleverness and hard work greatly enhanced her credibility. The life that she had led, and the way that she had led it,embodied well the message that she sought to convey in words... the courage that Thatcher displayed in office... [particularly during the] struggle to retain the embattled Falkland Islands... [in the face of] bombing.. choosing to remain at that locale while under siege – reinforced the national story that she was putting forth... Her message contained the essential elements of any good narrative: a protagonist... a goal... obstacles...”

Gardner suggests we think of the mind as “a vast hall of combat...... stories compete, wrestle, vie... for long-time entrenchment in the mind/brain... to stimulate consequential behaviors... Optimally, a new story has to have enough familiar elements so that it is not instantly rejected yet be distinctive enough that it compels attention and engages the mind. The audience has to be prepared, in one sense, and yet surprised, in another... [It becomes] a contest between... content and countercontent.” This is how Margaret Thatcher dealt with content, using each of the seven levers of mind change:

  • Reason– “Thatcher was an excellent arguer and debater.”
  • Research– “Thatcher was a demon for policy studies.”
  • Resonance– “Thatcher synthesized her reasoning and data in an appealing rhetorical manner... [She] directed her message to those constituents who had the potential to be convinced...they were able to relate to her, to rely on her, to respect her.”
  • Representational redescriptions – “Thatcher reinforced her message with clever visuals... [the] embodiment of the story of her own life... Her apparently happy and stable family life and sincere religious conviction reinforced these embodiments... her confidence that her path was right [contributed to the resonance of her message].”
  • Resources and rewards – She “knew that she had to have a strong and supportive inner circle... [She] was quick to retaliate, just as she was certain to reward those who remained loyal... [Her] key idea was to...return resources to individuals, to use as they saw fit.”
  • Real world events – “oil crises produced by the fall of the Shah of Iran... positive effects of the election of Ronald Reagan... [events] not within her power: seizure of the Falkland Islands by the Argentine military, the terrorist bombings by the Irish Republican Army, ascension to power of Mikhail Gorbachev...the mark of the leader lies significantly in the way in which she responds to, and makes her own, these difficult-to-envision-or-control events. Thatcher receives high scores on this dimension.”
  • Resistances– [She dealt with] resisters within her own party...attacked them with relish... [made good] progress in muting their force... [She exemplified] personal bravery... savviness in arraying resources and rewards... victory in the Falklands... [She] sought on occasion to address directly those of a different persuasion...admitted that one could never completely overcome such resistance... ‘I did not believe that I had to open windows into men’s souls on these matters [taxation, regulation, defense]. The arguments for them seemed to have been won. I now know that such arguments are never finally won.’” Gardner says “Thatcher’s case still stands out in my view as perhaps the most successful instance of ‘mind change’ in democratic politics in the last half of the twentieth century.” 

Leadership, American Style

Gardner now asks us to consider two leading U.S. politicians of the 1990s: Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. U.S. president Bill Clinton, he says,“achieved success largely through the effectiveness of the stories he told.” He capitalized on enormous resonance, having “a genius for understanding the minds of others [with] stunning interpersonal intelligence.” Clinton possessed the “ability to study the personalities of the people with whom he was dealing and to determine what it took to get along with them, where their weak spots were, who was lazy, who was committed... Clinton’s ability to read and relate to others was versatile... Clinton could both charm individuals one-on-one and speak persuasively to large, diverse audiences... He seemed to sense what audiences needed and deliver to them... always aiming to please... He always grabbed on to some point of agreement, while steering the conversation away from the larger points of disagreement.”  

Gardner credits Clinton with carrying out “a priori analyses about what was likely to persuade a particular person or audience... [He] combined this analytic capacity with the ability to make small but consequential changes in light of the ‘real-time’ reactions of his real time audience.” As for embodiments, “on some criteria, Clinton lived up to the stories that he told... [such as] an unremarkable social and economic background... [he was] ordinary...comfortable with individuals of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.” But, the author says, Clinton “seemed unable to go to the mat for issues in which he apparently believed... never clear what story he really cared about and embodied... Rather than mobilizing people’s energies, he sought to win their affection.”

Newt Gingrich, we are told, was a “shrewd politician as well as a master of history, current events, and invective... these two self-styled politicians...shared a number of levers of mind changing. Both... excelled at rational argument, coveted and marshaled data...were expert at using resources... [took] advantage of events in the real world. But Gingrich had three problems... [He was] not effective in persuading those who did not agree with him...stimulated opposition rather than neutralizing it... [had the] misfortune of opposing the most skilled politician of his generation, Bill Clinton.

“Clinton was a genius,” Gardner says, “at... reconciling stories that ordinarily clash. Gingrich...insisted on underscoring these differences and in alienating... the stories he told did not resonate... [they] did not embody the story that he told about his own life... Gingrich succeeded all too well in undercutting the message because of his own misbehavior.”

The Challenge Posed by Large Populations

“How can one gain and hold the attention of a large, diverse population?” the author asks. Through “a compelling story [and] embodying that story...in many different formats.” One must also “topple the counterstories...Yet any old story will not do; it must exhibit certain characteristics: simple, easy to identify with, emotionally resonant, and evocative of positive experiences.” In Weimar Germany in the late 1920s, he says, when conditions in Germany deteriorated, “the simpler, baser stories of the Nazis prevailed.”

Your story for large populations must also capture an audience at a deeper, more visceral level. “Resonance works by intimation...like those ‘cool’ television figures.” John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, Gardner explains, were “likely to exhibit staying power... [their] personalities encourage audience members to participate, to project onto them the qualities for which the viewers or listeners are looking.” Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Newt Gingrich, on the other hand. “were ‘hot’... [They] attempted to say everything and left no role for the imaginative powers of the audience...Clinton was able to ... alter his tone and message essentially at will... [He was] not easily pinned down or classified... [he] could recreate himself.”

Leading Beyond the Nation-State

Consider the role of secretary-general of the United Nations or the head of the World Health Organization, or perhaps leader of the Catholic Church. “Pope John Paul II stands out... [he was] able both to fashion stories about political and personal values and to embody them in the impressive life that he has lived... [he] embraced the traditional conservative values of the church and located the reins of power squarely within the Vatican... [as the] most traveled and international of Popes...[John Paul II] forged a special tie with the young of different lands...[and was] credited with an indispensable role in the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.”

Individuals have succeeded in exerting influence well beyond national boundaries, the author says, due to “the persuasiveness of their stories and the steadfastness with which they have reinforced those stories through their manner of living... Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Jean Monnet” are three good examples.

“Gandhi’s overt message was: ‘We do not seek to make war or shed blood. We only want to be treated as fellow human beings. Once we have achieved the status of equals, we have no further claims.’” His message “could not have been simpler... [and it] clashed with an entrenched counterstory... he also developed an integrated program of prayer, fasting, and facing one’s opponents without weapons... His embodiment of the message” included a whole range of evocative formats.

Nelson Mandela was, as we all know, imprisoned for 27 years. This experience “seemed only to fortify [him]. On his release... [he] worked with his political opponent...to set up democratic institutions... [and] went on to win the presidency of a post-apartheid South Africa.” Mandela “called for reconciliation... convened a Commission of Truth and Reconciliation... A master of nonverbal as well as verbal forms, Mandela asked his one-time jailer to sit in the first row during his presidential inaugural ceremony.”

Jean Monnet– French economist and diplomat, “amid the physical and psychological ruins of war-torn Europe, envisioned – and proceeded to sow – the seeds of a larger European polity... Like Gandhi and Mandela, Monnet had been pursuing his mission for half a century and was well into his seventies by the time of his greatest impact... After Monnet’s death in 1979, the European Union was well launched, the euro was adopted in twelve countries.”

We are told that “neither Gandhi, nor Mandela, nor Monnet had a dedicated, guaranteed audience... [they] had to create their constituencies from scratch, with neither financial inducements nor coercive political weapons. They had to identify and speak to an opposition that held power... had to address and convince a lay constituency... [using] only the weapons of persuasion and embodiment...and ultimately undermine the regnant counterstories. And it is here that they showed their genius.” Each was able to “fashion and articulate a story that is serene in its simplicity... They did not just tell a simple, familiar story more effectively.” They worked to “develop a new story, tell it well, embody it in their lives... help others understand why it deserves to triumph over the simpler counterstory... drew continually and imaginatively on several other levers of mind change: reason, multiple modes of representation, and resonance... attempted to mollify the resistances... took advantage of real world events... marshaled whatever resources they had at their disposal.”

5. LEADING AN INSTITUTION: HOW TO DEAL WITH A UNIFORM POPULATION

In such efforts at mind changing, “individuals are generally employees or members of the organization, and they define themselves that way: ...participation is in part voluntary...also temporary... [Members of the audience] have a common knowledge core, a common purpose...common destiny... A leader...can present a story of somewhat greater complexity...” 

Here Gardner reminds us “It is never easy to bring about a change of mind; it is even more difficult to replace a simple way of thinking about a matter with a more complex way.” Referring to Gresham’s law, he explains that “simpler mind changes tend to trump more complex ones...More complex stories and theories have a better chance of success when the entity in which one is working is of limited size and composed of individuals of similar background and with common expertise.”

James O. FreedmanChanging the Mind of a University  

The author sets the stage by explaining that, when Freedman became president of Dartmouth, the university’s reputation for academic excellence had slipped markedly; its claim to fame – and seemingly major focus of the student body – was athletic dominance. “Could Freedman turn Dartmouth around, or would he be fodder for ‘Animal House’ alumni, for whom a winning football team was the most important consideration – and for their current representatives, the irreverent staff of the Review... Yet despite various resistances Freedman faced from all corners, he is widely credited for having turned the institution around during his eleven-year tenure... He proposed...to attract intellectually powerful students...he needed to reach at least two of three main constituencies: faculty, students, and alumni...

“Freedman created various awards to recognize outstanding faculty, consulted with them... involved them in decisions...emphasized the importance of research for faculty... [and] never came close to an open split with the faculty. This left the students and alumni...[which were] much more challenging [audiences]... [Freedman] began by talking often and at length about what mattered to him...the importance of excellent ideas... of excellent discourse... contributions... by individuals who valued the life of the mind... [He] eulogized personal heroes...cultivated relationships with the press... recognized the importance of embodying his rhetoric in relevant actions... introduced a program of presidential scholars...set examples of scholarship and of participation in public debate...published a book...

“The annoying presence of the Dartmouth Review [remained]...he was repeatedly advised to ignore the Review or to treat it with humor, but he ultimately found it too painful to follow this advice.... [Freedman] decided to denounce the Review at a meeting of the Dartmouth faculty... [he] made sure that the press received copies of the speech as well...

“It is widely agreed that Freedman accomplished his goals... Dartmouth had become a more serious and more impressive university... a more attractive environment for clubs and publications that represented a range of viewpoints... [He had also] used events to help tip the balance on campus...”

So, which factors can alter the landscape of an institution in favor of change? Based on the examples of Freedman, Clinton, Reagan, Thatcher and Gandhi, the author offers these steps to changing minds: Learn from and emulate other people’s examples; directly challenge constituencies; initiate new practices to reinforce your message; present your message in many different forms. Below, Gardner fleshes out these factors by reminding us how successful mind-changers have used them:

  • Research– learning from others’ examples
  • Resistances– “Clintonforged a new consensus that recognized the need for welfare...but emphasized a return to work...Freedman...rather than directly challenge the quality of students and faculty... dealt with resistance by instituting procedures designed to raise the standards of admission and tenure...the Dartmouth Review... strategy initially was to ignore it... [Ultimately he] debunked both the conceit that the publication had appreciable support...as well as the idea that it was simply an irreverent, innocuous undergraduate broadside.”
  • Resources and Rewards– “Freedman encouraged the admission of more students on the basis of their intellectual strength or their particular talents or passions... [He directed Dartmouth to] reach out to secondary schools... made an intellectual advance... [He offered] a sufficient reward”
  • Representational RedescriptionFreedman described “his vision in a variety of ways and provide[d] nonthreatening opportunities for people to ‘try on’ his new vision... Individuals learn most effectively when they can receive the same message in a number of different ways, each re-presentation stimulating a different intelligence... a logical argument...in language...for some, numbers...graphs, tables, or equations... by appealing to deep questions about life, experience, possibility...Freedman...developed intellectually rich standards... challenged his constituents to meet those standards...Ronald Reagan was a master at invoking imagery from the movies... involving them ‘hands-on’ in the new vision...Gandhi...[was] encouraging constituents to work together to figure how best to implement the desired changes...

“In cognitive language: Use several alternative formats... monitor the words and actions of a leader’s constituents...carry out repeated ‘surgery’...until we ‘get it right’... the most important point is...the amount of time that one is willing to spend...it is not possible, in most cases, to accomplish transmission and acceptance in short order... in most cases it takes much time, much practice, and considerable backsliding”

  • Reason– “Freedman’s...weighing the pros and cons...cultivate[d] services in the media to help make the case publicly...legal training also helped Margaret Thatcherand Bill Clinton.”
  • Resonance– “Margaret Thatcher... [used] rhetoric... [that] resonated...with the kind of life Thatcher herself had led...with the way that many British citizens saw themselves... Freedman[‘s] actions reflected his convictions...examples that he used...stirred the consciousness of his audience and catalyzed them to identify with the policies that he sought to implement.”

When Stories Fail

“John Chambers of Cisco Corporationwas the golden boy of American business...The story that Chambers and his associates conveyed during the 1990s was clear. As he told a reporter: ‘The Internet will change our lives in ways that people are just beginning to grasp. We are at the heart of that...We will change the world. And we’re going to do it in ways that other people have never thought of. We are inventing so many business principles.... This is truly the second industrial revolution...’ For a while this story seemed true; indeed at one Camelot-like moment, Cisco was the highest-valued company in the world...[In] 2000...[we witnessed] a rapid reversal of fortune in Silicon Valley... for the first time, Cisco had to lay off a significant number of workers (17% of its workforce) ...Chambers...had to change his story...[He] remained silent, avoiding public pronouncements...

“[In] 2002...He found a way to put a positive spin on the events of the past two years: ‘The way to judge whether companies become great companies is how they handle their successes and how they handle setbacks.’ ...the story...he had told in the 1990s... was built at least in part on a hyperbolic narrative...one critic [stated]: ... ‘He does it very convincingly and he gets people to buy into it. But it’s totally self-serving.’ ...[Chambers] found a way to integrate the disappointing events of recent years into a once-more-upbeat narrative... that Cisco was merely affected by real world events...Yet the hyperbole that Chambers relied on rhetorically also contributed to the failure of his story.”

“Robert Shapiro...Monsanto’s CEOafter heading its Nutrasweet division...[was] an enthusiast for genetically modified foods...the ‘Johnny Appleseed’ of genetic modification... [He] won the backing of many individuals in the company and was hailed by the press as a harbinger of a new age...[Shapiro] was unprepared for the resistance that his ‘story’ would ultimately encounter... [the] counterstory...[He] relied far too much on the logic of his argument and on the findings of lab science...[but] did not speak to the concerns of ordinary individuals...found himself preaching to the converted...became the chief target of protesters...[the] tipping point never happened... [He] apologized for his insensitivity to environmental concerns... ‘Our confidence in technology...has... been widely seen...as condescension...arrogance.’ The counterstory – the competing mental representation – was triumphant

“Both men were guilty of hyperbole – of putting forth a story that was not supported by current facts...carried away by their own rhetoric...[Both] underestimated the degree of resistance...each man ultimately altered the story that he told. But by that point, it may have been too late.”

Hallmarks of the Effective Leader: Intelligences, instinct and integrity

“...I have become intrigued with the personal resources on which they draw...

  • Intelligences - ...leaders must be gifted linguistically...must therefore know how to create a story, how to communicate it effectively, and how to alter it if changes prove warranted... [Use] interpersonal intelligence... [One must] understand... [be] able to motivate...listen...respond. [Use] Existential intelligence... stories work best when they are embodied, reflecting the authentic conditions and experiences of the storyteller... [Have a] good working knowledge of oneself... set forth a clear-cut set of goals and values and... act consistently and transparently in terms of these goals and values... [The effective leader] can speak to the ‘unschooled mind.’...avoid alienating... can address both heterogeneous and homogeneous groups
  • Instinct – put their intuitions into words, to try them out on trusted associates and seek their candid reactions...acknowledged that sometimes a decision... will be wrong...Nor should one condemn failure in absolute terms... Jean Monnet [found that] crises create opportunities.
  • Integrity – daily analysis and reflection...openness to changes in the world and in oneself...flexibility...deep commitment to a mission ...humility”

“For a new era, different themes are desired...sugarcoating cannot...should not mask the fundamental, often brutal realities about the marketplace today.”

6. CHANGING MINDS INDIRECTLY

Through Scientific Discoveries, Scholarly Breakthroughs, and Artistic Creations

Beyond the political sphere, indirect leaders like Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Pablo Picasso “go beyond stories... While mind changes in all three of these areas usually hinge...on all seven levers of mind change, representational redescriptions and awareness of resistances play particular roles...

Charles Darwin– “eventually gained widespread acceptance... his change of mind was sudden...but occurred far more gradually than he recalled...So heterodox were his theories, so likely to offend...that Darwin hesitated to publish them in his lifetime...

“According to historian Frank Sulloway, willingness to change one’s mind about evolution hangs significantly on an unexpected factor: birth order...later-borns have been much more willing than firstborns to accept the basic tenets of Darwinian evolution...[It] took a full century for first-borns [to begin to accept them]...those who from the start have to contend with rival siblings are more sympathetic... [The] same pattern holds for other evolutionary perspectives...find an audience of later-borns...

“Darwin’s ideas are not intuitive... by and large, eight-year-olds are creationists...In addition to birth order...[certain other] factors... disincline individuals to accept the theory of evolution ... Fundamentalists: to the extent they have expressed their own antievolutionary views publicly, this resistance is likely to be strengthened... [The fundamentalist is] unlikely to change his mind... [Other factors include an] individual’s understanding of the scientific method and of the difference between matters of science and matters of faith...those who understand the scientific method find it increasingly difficult to overlook the enormous...evidence.”

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions– explains “how revolutionary theories – or paradigms -  came to be accepted... the leading mature scientists of a generation are least likely to be able to accept a dramatic new line of explanation...senior savants, trained in the old way of thinking, would have to abandon deeply ingrained and dearly held notions...[younger ones] lack a vested interest in the old perspective...the very resistance to an idea in general can incline members of that segment to accept the idea more readily.”

Thinkers who change minds about the human mind

Sigmund Freud– “While the mind-changing effects of Freud’s work operated indirectly, they nicely illustrate our levers of change. As a scholar, Freud relied on reason and data...secured resources to set up institutions, deftly rewarding those who supported him...seized on events in the real world...to document his assertions... [He was] a brilliant detector of resistances... arguing that resistance to one of his ideas was actually a sign that his idea was probably correct!”

How artists have changed minds

“...rather than operating primarily with linguistic intelligence, artists make use of diverse forms of mental representation captured in a variety of traditional and innovative symbolic systems... Tipping points have been achieved when fellow artists alter their practices and when audience members alter their tastes. The beginning of the twentieth century is generally deemed an artistic watershed... Russian Igor Stravinsky...created powerful new idioms that dominated classical composing for decades... Pablo Picasso...created powerful new cubist works out of fragmentary graphic units... T. S. Eliot... Virginia Woolf...James Joyce...Bertolt Brecht...Luigi Pirandello...Martha Graham...Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine...

“It makes little sense to describe their ideas in words...how do such artistic visionaries change minds? ...reason and research are not particularly relevant. Nor do most artists have available resources...artistic masters alter our minds in three ways:

  • Expand our notion of what is possible in an artistic medium...develop new skills in a medium ...call on members of their audiences to develop a complementary ensemble of perceptual skills.
  • Employing themes that rarely if ever had been the subject of art
  • Help us to understand...to define the spirit of an era.

“[They] primarily use three levers: representational redescriptions, resonance, resistance... create a work or a series of works that resonate with informed audience members... [Artists] must somehow neutralize the resistances...

“The most acclaimed creators not only create more works than their peers, they also generate more failures...each... works in a symbolic métier, altering mental representations appropriate to that format... resistances play a particularly powerful role in how a theory or creative work eventually gains acceptance or does not.”

The Uses of Resistance

“It is valuable to wrestle with ideas we initially resist, to show where they are inadequate or wrong... rising principally in France in the 1960s, deconstruction...questions the possibility of developing a coherent explanatory account of any phenomenon, or of arriving at agreement about what a text means... Unless one is committed to religious fundamentalism, one should always remain open to changing one’s mind; it is worth attending to ideas that have affected many others, even when one personally finds little of value in them.

“Charles Darwin, Carol Gilligan...Marcel Proust...Martha Graham...these creative individuals are directing their efforts to an audience that is limited, domain-restricted, indisputably expert, essentially homogeneous...[In] the commercial sphere, however...individuals who invent a product or develop a new policy seek from the outset to reach the widest possible public, to change minds of millions.”

Changing the Minds of a Wide Audience: Jay Winsten

“A professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health...marshaled the media to bring about social change on a large scale...his primary resource [was] the producers of leading television shows and mass-market films...[He] convinced [them] it would be possible to include redeeming social messages in their cinematic or video presentations...best-known intervention featured the designated driver...160 primetime television programs...death and injuries from drunk driving have dropped significantly in the United States, and the practice of assigning a designated driver has become increasingly routine...

“[His team now broadcasts vignettes about] how to walk away from an encounter rather than resorting to fighting... ‘squash it.’ ... [Among the] African-American community: 72 percent of respondents in a 1997 survey reported that they were aware of the campaign, and 60 percent had used the phrase.

“Social marketing uses the disciplined, iterative methods perfected by ‘high end’ advertisers to promote socially desirable ends...[the] problem is recognized...[constituents are made] aware of the available options and their costs and benefits...[and] motivated...The decisive step is taken when one attempts the alternative behavior for the first time....continuing strong support [is needed]...the newly emerging story, the entrenched counterstories, the use of imaginative formats n powerful media, and the possibility of a tipping point... He [Winsten] makes use of reason...significant resources from the telecommunications industry...compelling and dramatic representations...lifelike and appealing... [they] resonate... [and] identify the various resistances to behavioral change...”

The Two Axes of Mind Changing

“... which in turn yield four distinct forms”:

  • Two axes:
    • The directness of the effort
    • The composition of the audience – its uniformity or diversity
  • Result – four possibilities:
    • Direct and heterogeneous
    • Direct and relatively uniform
    • Indirect and homogeneous
    • Indirect and diverse

7. MIND CHANGING IN A FORMAL SETTING

School: The Institution Designed to Change Minds

“Around five thousand years ago...knowledge had accumulated to such an extent that...spontaneous forms of instruction no longer sufficed...technical knowledge...commercial information...written communication...

“I see schools in our contemporary world as engaged, in rough sequence, in helping students to acquire three new mental skills:

  1. Learning to learn in non-natural settings
  2. Learning to make sense of squiggles on a piece of paper or computer screen
  3. Learning to think in the manner of several key disciplines

“Schools as the context for out-of-context learning– “[The] first challenge...is to socialize youngsters into the school setting... [this is] mind changing at the most basic level: helping children to progress from learning through observation to learning through formal tuition...learn about objects and events in a setting remote from their actual location and time of occurrence.

“Schools as a means for becoming literate-  This relative decline of the primacy of print literacy is a phenomenon of our time...today, the task of changing minds is changing as well.

“Schools as a means for acquiring disciplinary modes of thinking- [We tend to] take the disciplines for granted...[they are] not given to us by God or nature. They were developed gradually, often painstakingly, over many years...[and] represent the most advanced and best ways to think... Yet...the ways in which most of us think about these issues are fundamentally flawed. How do we change minds to bring them into closer accord with sophisticated disciplinary thinking? ... most youngsters’ intuitive concepts are deeply flawed...Evolution may be scientifically true, but all eight-year-olds and many adults remain creationists.

“The heartland of mind changing...mastering the literacies is time consuming... Yet the literacies themselves are not counterintuitive... studies in cognitive science document that both disciplinary content and disciplinary habits of mind may be deeply counterintuitive... the ways in which disciplinarians go about the business are arcane... If we want to change the minds of learners...we need to devote years to educating students in the arcana of disciplines... disciplinary understanding is most likely to come about if three conditions are met:

  1. Confront directly the many misconceptions... of content...and...of method...regular and systematic confrontation of their ‘natural’ but typically inadequate modes and conclusions of thought.
  2. Individuals must absorb themselves deeply in examples.
  3. Chance to approach the topic in a number of different ways.”

Changing Minds through Representational Redescription

“Of all seven levers for mind change, representational redescription, as I’ve called it, is probably the most important way of changing the minds of students. Here, the concept of multiple intelligences is key...entry via a number of different routes...Any topic of significance can be represented mentally in a number of different ways...two important outcomes ensue: one reaches more students...one conveys...the idea that disciplinary experts readily conceive of topics in more than one way... the most versatile teachers [serve as] the most versatile guides...The surest route to mind changing in the disciplines, then, is the effective exploitation of multiple intelligences.”

Beyond School: Changing Adult Minds through Representational Redescription

“BP revamped its profile within the petroleum industry and among corporate giants more generally.... At the start of the twenty-first century, BP had climbed from being the fifth largest and least profitable of leading petroleum companies to the second largest and most profitable...earned it the nickname ‘Beyond Petroleum.’... BP became a learning company...strategy sessions...considerable experimentation...instantaneous communication of all knowledge within the company...

“Few goals are more challenging to achieve than significant, lasting change in adult human beings...a leader must proceed from her own internal representations of both the present and the desired (new) state of affairs...No one of these moves is likely to change the minds...if these methods work well together, then mind change becomes a distinct possibility... [There] needs to be a clear and reasoned statement of the proposed mind change...research...substantial resources...powerful resistances must be recognized... resonance must be cultivated...real world events...must be recognized and explored... [One must] capture and convey the desired shift in a multiplicity of formats (representational redescription).

“...resistances. One can and must go through an exercise of deep and pervasive mental surgery with respect to every entrenched view: Define it, understand the reasons for its provenance, point out its weaknesses...develop multiple ways of undermining that view and bolstering a more constructive one...search for the resonance and stamp out the resistance.”

Taking Charge of your own Education

“Lifelong learning is more important today than ever...those who rest on the laurels of a mind stocked long ago are likely to become anachronistic and – I might add – unemployable... understand how your own mind works: The most effective mind-changers build up accurate mental models of their own minds.”

8. CHANGING MINDS UP CLOSE

“A major task of therapy is to open up the contents of the mind – the mental representations... there is not only transfer of strong feelings on the part of the patient, but also countertransference on the part of the therapist... Individuals often end up in therapy...because the meanings that they attach to events are distorted, their perceptions are faulty, their feelings are inappropriate, and their behaviors are counterproductive... the core of the therapeutic encounter is the construction of interpretations that undo destructive habits.”

Creating Resonance in Intimate Settings 

Gardner advises us to “...adopt a much more nuanced tack. The key is the creation of resonance... establish common links between the protagonists...engage... in a common enterprise... If... [there is] little interest...drop the issue, at least for a time...two participants engaged in give-and-take...show interest...politely ask... Asking questions, listening carefully to the answers, and following up appropriately are almost always wise tactics...[Also important are] willingness to consider other approaches, to compromise, to rethink his position...both participants should feel that they have some control over events...keep the atmosphere open, upbeat, optimistic... [Be careful] to be attuned to signs that he is alienating a constituent...ask... how [the person is] feeling...find out as much as one can about that person’s traits, dispositions, script, and favored mental representations.”

The reader is cautioned that these are “high-stakes encounters,” so keep in mind the “implied continuum” at work. The aspiring mind-changer, Gardner says, should alter his/her approach to match movement along that continuum. Things to consider:

  • Argument, facts, rhetoric: “What role do facts, information, and data play in this person’s hierarchy of considerations?”
  • Central versus peripheral routes
  • Consistency: “...how can one help this person deal with any inconsistencies?”
  • Stance on conflict
  • Emotionally charged territory: “What are the issues and ideas about which this person feels strongly? ...Is this person motivated more by attraction to what she likes, or by fear of what she dislikes?”
  • Current scripts – content: “...gleaned from a person’s writings, conversation, or discussions with others who know the person well”
  • Current scripts – form: “...determine which ‘forms of representation’ are favored by an individual ...embed new concerns in those familiar forms”

“Avoid egocentrism – becoming ensnared in one’s own construal of events. The purpose of a mind-changing encounter is not to articulate your own point of view but rather to engage the psyche of the other person.”

The Most Intimate Mind Changes

All in the Family– “adults are aided by a process that psychologists term identification... [The] child perceives similarities between himself and a salient adult...models his behavior [on that person’s]... the words and action of the model provide multiple representations that resonate with the child...by about the age of ten, peers rather than parents ...assume primary importance... [This causes] a gradual shift from a relationship of authority/submission to a relationship of rough equality...The challenge...is to find ways in which the authority and superior knowledge of parents can be drawn on as appropriate, while the legitimate interests, knowledge, and goals of the growing adolescent are acknowledged. Reason, research, and real events typically gain power...”

Lovers – Love is the strongest human emotion... There is no greater motivator...

9. CHANGING ONE’S OWN MIND

“Our minds are changed either because we ourselves want to change them or because something happens in our mental life that warrants a change...All seven levers of mind change can play a role in changing our own minds.

President George W. Bush: a Change of Mind in Washington

“...in the months following the morning of September 11, it was evident to observers that Bush had changed... [He] was going to do whatever it took to extirpate the terrorist networks and to keep such acts from recurring... [He] became much better informed about foreign policy...developed personal relationships with leaders...The unilateralist became the multilateralist, the isolationanist became an internationalist.... [Bush] was willing to become involved in Afghanistan, in India and Pakistan, in the Middle East...in the Balkans...to undertake a full-scale war in Iraq... [He] changed his views on...the need for corporate reform...setting up a cabinet-level post devoted to homeland security. Bush devoted his energies to building up...[an] international coalition... Bush had a newly wrought sense of purpose, a base of knowledge that had not been manifest before... He now sought to use the levers of governing to achieve specific policy goals... [An observer said] ‘It’s now clear that President Bush, once feared to be an isolationist, has an agenda for remaking the world that rivals that of Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson in its ambitions, scope, and idealism.’

“...George W. Bush seems to have been skilled in what I call interpersonal intelligence... Even those who found him unimpressive intellectually liked Bush personally and were impressed by his skill in getting along with others and making people feel comfortable... After September 11, he began to deepen his intrapersonal intelligence... [This entails] a good working knowledge of oneself, who one is, what are one’s strengths and weaknesses...goals and how best to achieve them; how to build on one’s successes; and how to learn from one’s reactions to events...having a reasonably accurate mental representation of oneself.

“We must ultimately be in charge of our own mind changing... Changes of mind...[are] most dramatic in realms that [are] value-laden: politics, scholarship, and religion.”

A Change of Ideology: The Case of Whittaker Chambers

“[For this] gifted journalist...the increasingly unjustifiable actions of the Soviet Union became too much for Chambers to swallow...So in 1937... [he] left the Communist Party...joined the staff of Time Magazine and became one of its most esteemed writers and editorialists... But Chambers became part of U.S. history because in his 1952 best-seller Witness he described – with unparalleled piquancy and precision – the ways in which his mind changed during the period from 1920 to 1950.”

Chambers chronicles four successive states of mind: attraction to communism; decision to leave it; ambivalence about helping investigators; final decision to go public. “He began to read works that were critical of Communism and to voice his doubts to a few close associates... Intellectuals are particularly susceptible to the tensions of cognitive dissonance. When an occurrence runs counter to their theory, they are highly motivated to reinterpret events so as to eliminate the inconsistency... When Stalin shocked the world by agreeing to a nonaggression pact with Hitler... the intellectuals went to great lengths to deny what seemed obvious to many ‘ordinary’ people.

“What is striking...is how much counterevidence was needed to convince these individuals that the communist story or theory was wrong, and how hesitant they were to admit publicly that they had been committed to a fatally flawed cause... Chambers’s ... dramatic shift was due to his own powers of reason in the face of real world events... and the lack of resonance that those events had with the ideals that Chambers held dear.”

In the political realm, the author reminds us, “most changes of mind are more gradual and less epochal...less likely to be noticed by the person himself or by those around.”

Damascus, Luther, and the Fundamentalist Changes in Faith

“Of all the religious changes of mind, the most dramatic ones today involve fundamentalism... Many if not most converts come from families that are unhappy: common factors include broken homes, backgrounds of substance abuse and violence, and uncertainty about the identity of one’s parents...despair, doubts in their own self-worth, fears of rejection, unsuccessful attempts to handle rage, an emptiness, and an estrangement from others... Such individuals happen upon a community that is warm, welcome, and supportive. Without being asked a lot of questions, the lost soul is absorbed into the community and made to feel an integral part of it.”

Gardner describes the mind-set of the fundamentalist: “...voluntarily decides that he will no longer change his mind in any significant way. All of the efforts within the fundamentalist community are directed toward shoring up the current belief system and rejecting notions that are alien to doctrine.” The author quotes Israel-based philosopher David Hartman: “A monolithic framework does not create a critical mind...Where there is only one self-evident truth, nothing ever gets challenged and no sparks of creativity ever get generated.”

Surprisingly, Gardner states that “perhaps as many as half of the persons raised in fundamentalist communities break away from that way of thinking... many of them realize that what they have regarded as Gospel is just one of many ways of making sense of the world.”

Changes of Mind in the Scholarly Sphere

“Scholars open to new ideas can reasonably expect to change their minds.” Sigmund Freud, challenged by a student who pointed out that a statement just presented in a lecture directly contradicted something Freud had written earlier, proclaimed “that was right then... Noam Chomsky is famous for introducing a revised theory of linguistics every five to ten years... 

"The French philosopher and anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl...was roundly criticized for making...stark statements, especially by anthropologists...who claimed that he had misread the data on which his interpretations were built...To his credit, Levy-Bruhl...in subsequent writings... openly discussed places where he had gone too far and had overinterpreted the data; he actually admitted learning from his critics and took on a far more nuanced position. More remarkably, in a set of notebooks that he maintained in the last years of his life, he explicitly discussed his own ambivalences, changes of mind and errors of misinterpretation and argument.”

Gardner asks us to consider a few of Levy-Bruhl’s backtracking comments: “I know much more and I analyze much better than thirty years ago. I will no longer express myself in this manner...The step which I have just taken...consists...in abandoning a badly proposed problem.”

The author goes on to say, “I spoke of paradigm shifts... Most individual scholars are born with and die within a paradigm... As suggested by the case of Whittaker Chambers, two different tipping points seem to be at work: one’s own change of mind... [and] the willingness to announce that change of mind publicly and live with the consequences.”

Ordinary Changes in Ordinary Folks

Gardner says this topic “leads, finally, to issues of temperament and themata. We owe the concept of themata to Gerald Holton... Even though paradigms in science can change, Holton insists that deep underlying motifs tend to characterize a person[‘s] (and sometimes a field’s) approach to issues over time... themata are ‘fundamental presuppositions, notions, terms, methodological judgments and decisions...neither indirectly evolved from, nor resolvable into, objective observation... or logical, mathematical, and other formal analytical ratiocination.’”

Here are some themata (plural for “thema”) Gardner offers:

  • An assumption that the world is continuous
  • An anti-thema that the world is discontinuous
  • Everything is explicable (or, conversely, not all things are explicable)
  • All things can (or cannot) be expressed in mathematical terms
  • All knowledge can be reduced to the simplest units (or – anti-thema- it cannot)

“Changing minds on issues of consequences is never easy; proclaiming that one has changed one’s mind is even more difficult... It is difficult to recognize the themata to which one has a deep and often unconscious affiliation.”

10. EPILOGUE: THE FUTURE OF MIND CHANGING

Gardner indicates that a better understanding of the human brain in the future might help us finally solve specific problems like communication for one with dyslexia. “The result of such strategic intervention on our brains – or our “wetware” – of course, is ‘mind change’ in the most literal sense...I anticipate three different approaches to changing minds that directly involve ‘wetware’... behavioral training...frank neural intervention...manipulation of genes...I am not comfortable with proposals for direct brain and genetic experiments ... yet I have little doubt that these...will be attempted.”

In discussing artificial intelligence, the author says “... computer experts ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec...believe that artifacts will surpass humans in intelligence sometime in this century...It is as likely that our psychic needs for love, support, and motivation can also increasingly be met by well-designed and smartly programmed artifacts... We can even extend the use of artificial intelligence to multiple intelligences – in which smart programs can increasingly help people in those areas of intelligence where they have weaknesses.”

Mind Change, One Last Time

“Generically, mind change entails the alteration of mental representations... [which] have a content... ideas, concepts, skills, stories, or full-fledged theories... expressed in a variety of forms... Yet certain ideas develop very early in life and prove surprisingly refractory to change. The trick...is to accept the changes that will happen anyway, acknowledge that certain other changes may be impossible, and concentrate one’s efforts on those changes of mind that are important, won’t occur naturally, but can be achieved with sufficient effort and motivation.”

Finally, Gardner offers a checklist of crucial dimensions when one is considering candidates for mind changing:

  1. Present content and desired content – Identify the desired content and competing countercontents; present in various formats.
  2. Size of audience
  3. Type of audience – “heterogeneous...simple stories work the best...relatively homogeneous...stories or theories related to such groups...and counterarguments can and should be addressed directly”
  4. Directness of change
  5. Levers of change and tipping points - “Classically, change takes place through compulsion, manipulation, persuasion, or through some combination thereof...a shift of mind is likely to coalesce when we employ the seven levers of mind change.”
  6. The ethical dimension

A comprehensive appendix reviews each chapter and each illustrative personal story in terms of the key factors covered in the book:

  • Idea
  • Content
  • Countercontent
  • Audience
  • Format
  • Levers and tipping point

This appendix can be a very helpful tool for the serious student of mind changing and a good review for all readers.