How often do you change your mind about something?
I don’t mean having difficulty deciding something and bouncing between a couple of options while doing so. I mean, once you’ve made you mind up, how often do you really change it?
If you’re like most people, the answer is, “not often”. Most people try to make big decisions in a moderately rational way. The bigger the decision, the more they try to apply logic to solve it. Small decisions like whether to order a latte or americano today, tend to be left to the more primitive parts of our brain. For the big issues, though, we like to go through a vaguely scientific process of asking a question, acquiring relevant information, balancing the information against preferred outcomes, and deciding what to do. Trouble is, most big issues are big because they’re difficult to solve logically, which means we end up having to make a final “gut instinct” judgement call in order to finally decide our opinion about the problem facing us. We end up using a heuristic rather than purely algorithmic approach; I’ve discussed such Wicked Problems before.
Heuristic problem-solving is inherently fraught with uncertainty; it’s based on a pattern-recognition approach, the validity of which varies according to the mind of the person applying the heuristic filter. Put simply, the wiser the person, the more likely they are to reach a correct result. But if the problem is truly wicked, then one can never test the result, and so we can never definitively prove who is wisest.
There are many proxy markers for wisdom, including reported or perceived happiness, wealth, position and/or influence in the eyes of others, and how well words stand the test of time. None of these is entirely satisfactory, for self-evident reasons, which means that definining wisdom itself ultimately becomes a matter of consensus and opinion. This is clearly troubling if one is concerned about creating an objective yardstick by which to measure human progress.
However, it is empowering if you are more concerned about making changes that chime in with your own personal opinion. Firstly, it allows you to define the frame of reference for success and failure. Secondly, it promotes uncertainty in other people’s decision-making, creating a space for you to influence their judgement. And lastly – if you are interested in making large-scale rather than personal changes – it provides you with a long-term tool by which to modify the broader cultural perception of what is ethically correct. As a culture, we have even given a name to this last process: Politics.
Politics is the art of persuading a sufficiently large number of people that your opinions are culturally correct. This actually applies as much to a tyranny as it does to the kinds of limited/representative democracies most readers will live in. It’s just that the violence and speed of the mechanisms of changing government that varies: revolution in the former; elections in the latter. But more than this, far-sighted politicians also understand that the optimal way of persuading people of their rightness is to modify the cultural mindset within which the choice is made. Alter the frame of reference, and you can ensure a specific answer will always emerge. This is also something tyrannies and democracies share, with only superficial differences between the two: tyrannies tend to use coercive force and single-party elections; democracies use advertising and other softer propaganda like manipulating the flow of information.
All the above is no more than I would expect an average teenager to grasp, and I actually think many do (at least on an unconscious level), even if the usual response is anomic cynicism rather than recognising the empowering potential. The more thoughtful will recognise another implication, however: even quite severe unpopularity in the short-term is irrelevant, provided you can sufficiently alter the mindset of a large enough group of people to influence their long-term cultural mindset in your favour to protect your long-term survival. This applies to individual lives as much as it does to organisations and to political parties.
Coming full circle to the start of this post, changing someone’s mind is very difficult in the short-term. Instead, you have to alter the way they make decisions. The more time you have to do this, the easier it becomes. This is partly what accounts for incumbency effect in politics: it’s harder to dislodge a known politician from a post than if two unknowns are fighting for the same position. It’s not usually that incumbents have really proven anything about whether they’re right or not; it’s just that they’ve become part of the mental furniture of voters. Even if they’re unpopular in some respects, the incumbent still usually retains a higher chance of retaining power than if they didn’t have that mindshare of reality. In a US Election year, it’s worth noting that this is a big part of the reason that most US Presidents tend to get re-elected for a second term, even if at mid-term it seems like they’re unpopular. UK politics frequently operates similarly: being in government allows you to craft the narrative in a much deeper way than being in opposition, and you can see it in many of the Budget 2012 changes being announced today (esp. personal tax statements, reducing reliefs & benefits and increasing personal allowances), despite the potential for some other changes to be unpopular in the short term. And even when the longer-term cycle of change occurs, political parties never reverse even a majority of changes imposed by their predecessors, no matter how vehemently they may have opposed them at time of their introduction.
Reality is like chewing gum: sticky but malleable.
The ultimate expression of this thesis of persuasion is that tactics should always be secondary to strategy, and that strategy should be guided by clear long-term insightful aims. Only that will allow you to gradually work on altering the perception of enough people for them to reach what you would consider correct decisions. Logic and argument is a poor convincer of anyone except a computer. Persuasion through modifying the frame of reference of the argument works much better on human beings. Next time you disagree with someone, or need to negotiate with them, remember these principles rather than attempting to argue with them. You won’t convince them today, but you might just change their mind tomorrow.