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The Curious Psychology of Trying to Change Someone Else's Mind

It’s an interesting dilemma that there are times when it is important to speak up against wrongs, about destructive words and behaviours: racism, discrimination, misogamy, bullying. This takes courage, an ability to overcome our instinctive fear of conflict.

But there are other times when our desire to be right is destructive, particularly in our personal relationships, at work and at play. In my clinical work, I frequently see the outcomes of people wanting to fight to the last to be right.

Most of us have experienced the frustration of trying to change someone else’s opinions, their view of the world, and, as a result taken to the bottle or, worse, golf. The odds are, though, that we will do it again and experience the same level of anguish.

There are two interesting psychological phenomena happening here. The first is why we want to change someone’s beliefs, opinions values or attitudes in the first place. This is different to trying to convince someone of the need to turn off the gas before leaving the house or some other practical action, that is perfectly sensible. The need to change others is pretty universal despite the problems it causes. Religious wars are made of this as are battles over politics and principles.

The reason we have this habit of wanting to change another’s point of view has much to do with the need to be right. Our beliefs, attitudes and values make up our unique sense of self: who we are. We have a desire to protect this to maintain the integrity of the self to the point where alternate views can be seen to challenge us. How secure we are in our views will determine the extent to which we want to challenge the other. All of this operates at an unconscious level, out of our awareness of course.

Given that challenging others can lead to fractured relationships and even wars, maturity would seem to involve bringing into consciousness an awareness of what we are doing and deciding if maintaining peace is more important than winning. Of course, other motives for creating conflict might exist but we don’t have time here to cover those here.

Few people appear to have the wisdom to acknowledge an opposing point of view without wanting to bring the other around to our position. As F Scott Fitzgerald quipped, ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’ Sadly, we are not that evolved.

The second interesting phenomenon is our reaction when the challenge is laid before us. One would imagine, logically, that if someone presents facts that refute a particular view that this would result in a retraction, a change. Studies show that, in reality, the facts only serve to entrench the belief-it gets deeper. So, explaining the science to a climate change denier only makes them deny it more. It is an example of what psychologists call cognitive bias. Anger is also a typical response and is the result of needing to defend, as forcefully as possible our position. Get angry and perhaps we bully the other into submission. It takes a high level of maturity, what we call ego strength and personal security to fight the impulse to be right.

So, what to do. A really clever skill is to acknowledge, by quietly listening, but not to give the bear any food, not even a titbit by responding. Listen and move on. Resist the impulse to respond to that irritating Facebook post. Nothing can breathe without oxygen.

If you want to enhance a relationship is it better to, in the words of Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, be a lover rather than a fighter. Is a busted relationship worth winning a battle over opinion?

As always, if you have questions or comments-please get in touch.

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