Why your approach to changing people's minds is all wrong

Eleanor Gordon-Smith of Princeton University says if you think reason changes minds, you’re wrong. Turns out everything that makes you human goes into how you make decisions — and how you can influence others.
Emotions play a big part in our decision-making, says Eleanor Gordon-Smith. (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Eleanor Gordon-Smith used to put a lot of stock in the idea that reason could influence people's decisions.

As a student of philosophy at Princeton University,  and a champion debater in her home country of Australia, it was a big part of her identity. 
Eleanor Gordon-Smith studies philosophy at Princeton University. (Eleanor Gordon-Smith)

But when she tried to convince men that women didn't like being catcalled, she realized that reasoning with them didn't actually work.

It all started with a bit of an experiment. In 2016, Gordon-Smith got dressed up — in red lipstick and high heels — and strolled down the streets of Sydney's club district.

Sure enough, men started catcalling.

So Gordon-Smith approached them, asking them why they catcalled women and what it would take to get them to stop.

She ended up having a particularly engaging debate with one guy named Zac. No matter what Gordon-Smith said, she couldn't get Zac to shake his belief that women liked being catcalled.

After two hours of debate, Zac did agree to stop smacking women on their bottoms as they walked by.

But he wasn't willing to give up the catcalling, or "compliments," as he called them in Gordon-Smith's radio documentary, which aired on This American Life.

Gordon-Smith told Tapestry host Mary Hynes that she set out to change Zac's mind — but the experience ended up changing her, in a really big way.

"It felt like I was really having a crisis  …  that I didn't really know what to do about it. I didn't know where we went or where I should go if so much of what I had grown up believing, had turned out to be false."

She spent the next eighteen months researching how people change their minds on important issues.

The research gave her a better understanding of the "richness and humanity" that goes into decision-making, which isn't just about facts and conclusions.    

Gordon-Smith said everything that makes us human - from our ego, to our emotions, to our personal relationships - helps form our decisions.

"I see people chastising each other for being too emotional, or for being too swayed by the opinions of other people, or for letting their sense of self get in the way of how they're thinking. And that's really strange to me. Because in fact, those are things we use in our reasoning all the time" - Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Gordon-Smith said shame, in particular, leads people to cling to their beliefs when they're presented with conflicting, yet credible evidence.

"People will bend themselves in unbelievable cognitive loops, trying to avoid the sensation of loss that comes with admitting that they were wrong," she said.

"And I think that's such a shame because it ties up ego with the things that you believe. And of course people are going to be reticent to let go of their beliefs, if letting go of their beliefs feels like shame."

Because emotions play an important role in decision-making, Gordon-Smith says they shouldn't be ignored.

She describes the "hot, prickly" sensation she felt while talking to Zac — like her words weren't coming out right, and she was going to cry.

At the time, Gordon-Smith thought that feeling meant she wasn't speaking clearly or intelligently.

Now she says "that's such a terrible lie."

"I think that feeling … rightly indicates that you are speaking and not being heard," she said.

She said if there's one important lesson she learned from her discussion with Zac … or research into the reasons why people change their minds, it's this:

"If you want to understand reason, if you sincerely want to understand how we can do better at changing other people's minds and our minds, you will need to do a better job of engaging with what makes us human. Because the flaws and the foibles but also the ways that we think all go into reason in a way that we need to understand."