Why facts don’t change our minds

J.K. Galbraith, an economist, once said, “Faced by the choice of changing one’s mind or proving that there is no need, almost everybody gets busy with the proof.”

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Leo Tolstoy was bolder still: “The most difficult topics can be explained to a slow-witted person if he does not have any idea of them; but the simple thing cannot be explained to an intelligent man if that man is convinced that he already knows, without a shadow or doubt, what lies before him.”

What is the story? What is the point of facts changing our minds? Why would anyone believe a false or incorrect idea? What does this behavior serve?

The logic of false beliefs

To survive, humans need to have a fairly accurate view of the world. You will struggle to take action each day if your reality model is drastically different from the real world.

Truth and accuracy aren’t the only things that matter for the human mind. People also have a deep need to belong.

Atomic Habits was my first book. I wrote that humans are herd animals. We seek to be accepted, to feel loved, and to gain the respect and approval from our peers. These inclinations are vital to our survival. Our evolutionary history was dominated by tribes. Being separated from a tribe, or worse, being exiled was a death sentence.

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We don’t need facts to change our minds. Friendship does.

The process of persuading someone to change their mind involves convincing them to join a different tribe. They run the risk losing their social ties if they change their beliefs. If you remove their community, it’s impossible to expect them to change their minds. You must give them somewhere to go. If they are left to their own devices, it is not something that they want.

To change someone’s mind, you need to make friends with them, integrate them into your tribe and bring them into your circle. They can now change their beliefs without being left behind socially.

Alain de Botton, a British philosopher, suggests that we just share meals with people who don’t agree with us.

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The Spectrum of Beliefs

An idea Ben Casnocha shared with me years ago that I still can’t shake is this: People who agree on 98 percent are more likely to change their minds.

You are more likely than others to consider a radical idea if you like it and trust them. They already agree in many areas of your life. You might reconsider your position on this issue. It’s easy to dismiss someone who has a radical idea that is completely different from yours as a crackpot.

Why Do False Ideas Continue to Persist?

Bad ideas don’t die, but people talk about them. Any idea is doomed to die if it remains silent. A person who has never written down or spoken an idea is dead. Ideas are only remembered if they are repeatedly repeated. You can only believe them if you keep repeating them.

As I mentioned, people often repeat the same ideas in order to indicate that they belong to the same social group. Here’s the crucial point that most people overlook:

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When they criticize someone’s ideas, they also tend to repeat them. You must refer to an idea before you can criticize it. People will keep repeating the same ideas that you want to forget. But, they won’t forget because you keep talking about them. People are more likely to believe bad ideas if you keep repeating them.