This week on Future Hindsight, we teach you to change other people’s minds!
Actually, Andy Norman, renowned philosopher, professor, and author of Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think, breaks it down for us. Be sure to listen to the full episode and check back May 18 when his books drops in stores!
Before I divulge the Jedi mind-trick I promised you in the headline, I’m going to give you a brief history lesson, courtesy of Professor Norman. Ready? Let’s begin.
Changing other people’s minds has a long history, stretching back millennia. There was a significant breakthrough roughly 2,400 years ago when a curmudgeonly old man began harassing strangers on the streets of a rocky city known for exporting democracy, silver, and ideas. The old grump was Socrates, and the city was Athens, Greece.
Socrates realized it was possible to use reason, logic, and pointed, combative questioning to challenge the ideas of others successfully. While still aggressive and often unwelcome, it was a far cry from previous methods of getting your neighbors to think like you, which usually involved stealing their family or burning their farm down.“
He would wander the streets of Athens and strike up conversations with his fellow Athenians,” Norman told Mila during our interview. “And he would use questions, initial, mostly clarifying questions to get people to reflect more critically on the views they held. Now, this didn’t make him very popular, and his fellow Athenians eventually convicted him of corrupting the youth and worshiping false gods and sentenced him to death.”
Socrates rubbed other people the wrong way so hard they forced him to drink hemlock elixir, killing him. As he learned the hard way, trying to get people to let go of deeply-held beliefs can be a dangerous proposition, depending on your location and tactics. Don’t worry, though; we’ll make sure you don’t get poisoned by family and friends.
“Now, one of the reasons Socrates was sent to death is that he could be a bit of a jerk,” Norman explained. “He would use his questioning method to make people look foolish, and this earned him enemies… but there’s a kinder, gentler version of the Socratic method that can actually win over people who are already very attached to problematic ideas….”
The New Socratic Method
Norman is speaking of his New Socratic Method—the lynchpin of his book. As Norman alluded to, people get defensive when confronted with facts or ideas that negate or threaten a part of their worldview. If people think their belief is under attack, they’ll defend it. Logical, but, as we see with the wild influx of conspiracy theories like QAnon, unfortunate.
The New Socratic Method picks up on Socrates’ basic premise that clarifying questions can help people examine their own ideas, potentially reevaluating them in the face of new information. It leaves behind the aggression and implicit I’m smarter than you tone, which was the part the good people of Athens took offense to all those years ago.
The New Socratic Method uses “two kinds of questions, both clarifying ones, and then gentle objections or challenges to get people, to see the drawbacks of the ideas they have grown attached to,” according to Norman. The key is to start with clarifying questions like: “What do you mean when you say ‘The Flying Spaghetti Monster is real?’” or “Can you help me understand why you believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster is real?”
“The idea here is just to get the person who’s making a controversial or problematic claim to just open up about what they think, what they believe, and to spell out its implications,” explained Norman.
Opening this interpersonal dialogue will help open an internal dialog, forcing the believer to reexamine their belief, even if they won’t admit it to you. Sometimes, weeks later, people will realize they’ve made a mistake. In opening this dialogue, you’ve remained essentially neutral, courteous, and are in little danger of a surprise hemlock cocktail.
If the dialogue is going well, and they’re showing you why they believe what they do, you can take the New Socratic Method one step further. You can begin to (gently) push back against this bad idea. For instance, questions like “How sure are you the Flying Spaghetti Monster is real?”, “Can you show me how you know the Flying Spaghetti Monster is real?” and “What would it take for you to believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster isn’t real?”
Again, you probably won’t change their mind right then and there. Instead, you’ve planted the seeds of doubt in their mind about their bad idea, encouraged them to reevaluate it, and have even gotten them to consider what set of real-world facts and standards they would need to see to change their mind. It may take several of these conversations, spread over months. Still, the easy-does-it approach Norman outlined avoids the powerful and immediate backlash we usually run into when we get into an argument. That backlash shuts off minds and often prompts people to defend their bad ideas more vigorously than even they may believe.
The New Socratic Method slips past our mind’s defenses and can, over time, heal minds damaged by parasitic bad ideas. We’ve never needed to strengthen our collective mental immunity more, and Norman’s New Socratic Method offers us a solid model.
Norman, Andrew. Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think. HarperCollins, 2021.“The Trial and Death of Socrates.” The Trial and Death of Socrates | Freedom and Citizenship, freedomandcitizenship.columbia.edu/socrates.