How To Soften People’s Stances On Issues

The BBC has an article that puts experimental research behind advice I’ve long been giving based on my experience as a philosopher and a philosophy professor:

A little over a decade ago Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil from Yale University suggested that in many instances people believe they understand how something works when in fact their understanding is superficial at best. They called this phenomenon “the illusion of explanatory depth“. They began by asking their study participants to rate how well they understood how things like flushing toilets, car speedometers and sewing machines worked, before asking them to explain what they understood and then answer questions on it. The effect they revealed was that, on average, people in the experiment rated their understanding as much worse after it had been put to the test.

What happens, argued the researchers, is that we mistake our familiarity with these things for the belief that we have a detailed understanding of how they work. Usually, nobody tests us and if we have any questions about them we can just take a look. Psychologists call this idea that humans have a tendency to take mental short cuts when making decisions or assessments the “cognitive miser” theory.

Why would we bother expending the effort to really understand things when we can get by without doing so? The interesting thing is that we manage to hide from ourselves exactly how shallow our understanding is.

It’s a phenomenon that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to teach something. Usually, it only takes the first moments when you start to rehearse what you’ll say to explain a topic, or worse, the first student question, for you to realise that you don’t truly understand it. All over the world, teachers say to each other “I didn’t really understand this until I had to teach it”. Or as researcher and inventor Mark Changizi quipped: “I find that no matter how badly I teach I still learn something”.

So the advice is to get people to explain how their idea works out in particulars and in their struggle to articulate it their own limitations are more likely to be revealed to them. I explained the methodology like this:

When outright contradicting them, philosophers and other critical thinkers and teachers often employ Socratic questioning rather than with forceful statements. So, in the least antagonistic and most honest way possible approach people by saying, “I understand and appreciate that what you care about is x, y, and z, and so that’s why you say p. But here’s my hang up about saying p: isn’t q, true? And if q, doesn’t that mean ~p? Help me out here, how do you reconcile that?”

A little further down, I continued:

The onus is on them to think now. It’s up to them to experience their own cognitive dissonance arise. And you’re clearly not imposing on them. You’re giving them the floor to explain themselves, not telling them they’re wrong. You’re asking them to talk, not to shut up. People who love to give their own opinions are in this way willing to let you put the burden of proof on them. All you need to do is be the critic, which is way easier and more efficient than having to be the constructive system builder. Tearing down is much quicker, easier, and can be done much more gently. You can level a devastating, flustering challenge extremely politely, innocently, and honestly. Trying to get someone to accept an intricate alternative picture of things that goes against what they already think is much more work. While through gentle Socratic questions, you may only leave them with more questions and cognitive dissonance and not a replacement system, that can be the very best first step to clearing the ground in the first place for them to listen to you.

This and many more tips are in my post How to Win Arguments Without Coming Off as Closed Minded. In that post, I also talk a good bit about how not to have Socrates’s techniques backfire on you as badly as they did on Socrates himself. That post was also one of a four part series I recommend, which also included my thoughts on how closed-mindedness works in general and why people reflexively assert relativistic views when they’re philosophically challenged. Finally I gave some possible explanations for why even openminded philosophers sometimes come off dogmatic.

I also developed the logic behind asking questions more than making arguments in another post chock full of advice on persuasion:

people just like to be heard and they like people who listen to them. And they will feel more trust in you the more that they open up to you. You have to overcome the temptation to make your attempts to persuade others all about how you feel and what you think. Your focus must be on what the person you’re persuading feels and thinks. And the person you are persuading will feel better about you the more you let them be themselves and express themselves without their feeling judged. One habit to get into is active listening. Reflect back to them what they’re saying. Try to rephrase it, ask if you’re hearing them right and ask for honest clarifications. This helps you actually understand them better, spurs on their further openness, and shows them you care.

The more they talk, the less is on you to have to know what to say. When you ask them open questions it’s up to them to have answers and to realize they don’t when they don’t. That creates more doubt in people’s minds than telling them they’re wrong. Being frustrated trying to answer sincere questions can get them thinking because now they care to have answers. It’s the easiest way to get someone to see the problems with their own positions without having to know all the tough answers yourself.

In this context I also explained why it’s good to let your interlocutor steer the conversation towards their topical interests:

it allows the individual you are talking to do most of the talking and thinking if they want. If it is about their unique mind and heart changing, then it only makes sense to let their unique mind and heart lead the conversation. They subconsciously or consciously know where they want to go. Either explicitly and with self-awareness, or only implicitly and unwittingly self-revealingly, they know where their own heart and mind are at, and they inevitably express it if you get out of the way and let them. They will open up to you the entrance portals to themselves for you if you shut up and let them talk. As a fire marshall, my dad used to interview witnesses and suspects and he told me once that he always would let them talk rather than try to hem them in with his own questions. Why? Because if they thought they were only supposed to answer what he asked, they might leave out key things because he didn’t know to ask. Letting them talk, they can bring up lots of salient things he may not have guessed about.

These last few paragraphs were from my very popular (and very long) Top 10 Tips for Christian Evangelism (From An Atheist) but as you can see, without knowing where it’s from, it could apply to many other persuasion contexts.

For more of my advice posts keep tabs on my permanent Philosophical Advice page where I keep links to all the advice articles I give. You can also write me at with a question to answer on the blog (put “Philosophical Advice” in the subject header of such an e-mail so I know I have your permission to publish it, keeping you anonymous) and/or make an appointment for a private, confidential session seeking my philosophical help with your practical problems related to your choices, beliefs, values, direction in life, etc. (Put “Philosophical Practice” i the subject header of an e-mail interested in an appointment.)

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