how minds change

How Minds Change by David McRaney (Book Summary)

In “How Minds Change” David McRaney explores the surprising science of beliefs, opinion and persuasion. Combining his in-depth knowledge of psychology with extensive experience of navigating difficult conversations, McRaney illuminates the hidden mechanisms that lead someone to change their mind. This book will not only make you better at changing people’s minds it might even make you change your own. 

*All sentences in quotations are direct quotes from “How Minds Change” and are attributed to David McRaney. Bold is added for skimmability. 


How Evolution pressures us to change our minds

  • Groups that did a better job of reaching consensus, by both producing and evaluating arguments, were better at reaching communal goals and out-survived those that didn’t.
  • “That led to the innate psychology that compels us to persuade others to see things our way when we believe our groups are misguided.”
  • “When creatures have the capacity to change but there’s little encouragement to do so, they remain mostly the same from one generation to the next. But when the pressure to adapt increases, the pace of evolution increases in response.”
  • “Over long timescales, a pattern emerges, long stretches of sameness punctuated by periods of rapid change. Looking at the history of social change, revolution, and innovation, it seemed like the same pattern,”
  • the speed of change is inversely proportional to the strength of our certainty, and certainty is a feeling: somewhere between an emotion and a mood, more akin to hunger than to logic. Persuasion, no matter the source, is a force that affects that feeling.”
  • “Creatures with nervous systems that encode information, then compare and contrast correlations, became better at using that information to survive, thrive, and reproduce.” 


Why we disagree on reality 

  • “no organism can perceive the totality of objective reality, each animal likely assumes that what it can perceive is all that can be perceived. Objective reality, whatever it is, can never be fully experienced by any one creature.”
  • “For brains, everything is noise at first. Then brains notice the patterns in the static, and they move up a level, noticing patterns in how those patterns interact. Then they move up another level, noticing patterns in how sets of interacting patterns interact with other sets, and on and on it goes.
  • “consensus realities are mostly the result of geography. People who grow up in similar environments around similar people tend to have similar brains and thus similar virtual realities. If they do disagree, it’s usually over ideas, not the raw truth of their perceptions.”
  • “When we are in unfamiliar and ambiguous territory, we disambiguate using our priors, short for “prior probabilities”—the layers of pattern recognition generated by neural pathways, burned in by experiences with regularities in the external world.”
  • “In novel situations the brain usually sees what it expects to see.”
  • “One’s beliefs can demonstrably color perception”

    The Dress Fiasco:

    the dress

  • “The more time a person had spent exposed to artificial light (which is predominantly yellow)—typically a person who works indoors or at night—the more likely they were to say The Dress was black and blue.”
  • “That was because they assumed, unconsciously, at the level of visual processing, that it was artificially lit, and thus their brains subtracted the yellow, leaving behind the darker, bluish shades.” 
  • “However, the more time a person had spent exposed to natural light—someone who works during the day, outside, or near windows—the more likely they were to subtract the blue and see it as white and gold. Either way—and this is the important point for us going forward—the ambiguity never registered.”
  • “At no point in processing the image of The Dress did anyone feel the uncertainty that led to their disambiguation. It’s the fact that uncertainty is eliminated so stealthily—that these processes are both unconscious and undebatable—that leads to our most intractable disputes.”
  • “When faced with uncertainty, we often don’t notice we are uncertain, and when we attempt to resolve that uncertainty, we don’t just fall back on our different perceptual priors; we reach for them, motivated by identity and belonging needs, social costs, issues of trust and reputation, and so on.”
  • “Since subjectivity feels like objectivity, naive realism makes it seem as though the way to change people’s minds is to show them the facts that support your view, because anyone else who has read the things you have read or seen the things you have seen will naturally see things your way, given that they’ve pondered the matter as thoughtfully as you have.”
  • “Until we know we are wrong, being wrong feels exactly like being right.”
  • “Since the brain doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, when it constructs causal narratives it fills holes in reality with provisional explanations.”

What is SURFPAD?

  • “SURFPAD. When you combine Substantial Uncertainty with Ramified (which means branching) or Forked Priors or Assumptions, you will get Disagreement.”
  • “When the truth is uncertain, our brains resolve that uncertainty without our knowledge by creating the most likely reality they can imagine based on our prior experiences.”
  • “People whose brains remove that uncertainty in similar ways will find themselves in agreement, like those who saw the dress as black and blue. Others whose brains resolve that uncertainty in a different way will also find themselves in agreement, like those who saw the dress as white and gold.”
  • ‘The essence of SURFPAD is that these two groups each feel certain, and among the like-minded it seems those who disagree, no matter their numbers, must be mistaken. In both groups, people then begin searching for reasons why so many people in other groups can’t see the truth without entertaining the possibility that they aren’t seeing the truth themselves.”


How Brains change 

  • “the brain. It continuously “burns marks” into neurons to match the patterns it senses in the world outside, along with a continuous sanding away of those marks as it recognizes other patterns.”
  • “In complex organisms, survival depends on predicting what will happen next based on what happened before. It may seem odd, but our ability to notice errors in those predictions depends on dopamine, a neurotransmitter crucial for regulating motivation.”
  • When experiences don’t match our expectations, a spike in dopamine lasting about a millisecond motivates us to stop whatever we were doing and pay attention.”
  • “After the surprise, we become motivated to learn from the new experience so we can be less wrong in the future.”
  • This process of burning and sanding may start at the senses, but it leads to a hierarchy of abstractions. At the bottom, raw sensations like shapes and sounds and colors. In the middle, concrete constructs like caterpillars and calliopes. At the top, higher concepts like humility and hurricanes. Each level depends on the levels beneath to make sense of the levels above.” 
  • The brain walks a tightrope of adaptiveness, switching back and forth between overwriting old information and conserving what it already holds.”


Beliefs, Attitudes, Values & Truth 

  • “What we know depends on beliefs: knowledge we assume is true. It also depends on attitudes: our positive or negative evaluations of that which we believe. And these both influence and are influenced by, our values: our estimations of what is most important, most worth our time to pursue.”
  • Today, psychology defines beliefs as propositions we consider to be true. The more confidence you feel, the more you intuit that a piece of information corresponds with the truth.”
  • Attitudes, however, are a spectrum of evaluations, feelings going from positive to negative that arise when we think about, well, anything really.”
  • “We estimate the value or worth of anything we can categorize, and we do so based on the positive or negative emotions that arise when that attitude object is salient.”
  • “Attitudes are multivalent. We express them as likes or dislikes, approval or disapproval, or ambivalence when we feel both.”
  • “Taken together, beliefs and attitudes form our values, the hierarchy of ideas, problems, and goals we consider most important.
  • “Belief and doubt are the results of neurons in associative networks delivering an emergent sensation of confidence or the lack thereof. When those networks weight that feeling in one direction or another, we sense a proposition is either true or false.” 


Understanding Epistemology & The Scientific Method 

  • “In philosophy, the idea of “knowing” something doesn’t mean believing that you know something. It means knowing something that also happens to be true.”
  • “To philosophers, beliefs and knowledge are separate, because you can believe things that are false.”
  • “Philosophically for about two thousand years or so no one has been able to agree on what the word truth even means. We can’t be in a post-truth world if we never lived in a truth-filled paradise to begin with.”
  • “For millennia we’ve been debating not only what is the truth, but how we go about determining it. The only way out of this loop has been to study how we come to agree on facts in general, the academic discipline known as epistemology.”
  • “Epistemology is the study of knowledge itself—facts, fictions, rationalizations, justifications, rationality, logic—all of it.”
  • Epistemology is: a framework for sorting out what is true.” 
  • We can know that. Pudding exists and trees are tall, yesterday it rained, tomorrow is Sunday. This is declarative knowledge. We can also know how: the method behind break dancing or changing a tire. This is procedural knowledge.”
  • “In either case, if someone makes a claim to some form of knowledge, the way that claim was tested for a very long time was through the use of propositions. Propositions are neither true nor false, just claims that could go either way.”
  • “In the end, epistemology is about translating evidence into confidence.” 
  • Sometime in the 1600s, we developed the scientific method to test our fact-based beliefs and reach consensus on what is empirically true among what is observable and measurable.”
  • “In science, you treat all your conclusions as maybes, and instead of thinking deeply using propositions or meditating using peyote, you spend time creating tightly controlled experiments.”
  • “Then you use the outcomes to create piles of evidence for your many competing hypotheses. The piles that grow very large become theories, and together they become models that predict how future experiments will turn out. As long as those experiments continue to turn out the same way, the models hold. When they don’t, you update the model.”
  • “Science, as an epistemology, is great for things that depend on facts alone. Why is the sky blue? Where does oil come from? When it comes to questions about the best policies and politics, about morality and ethics, science can only advise other epistemologies.” 
  • “But the philosophy of the scientific method works in those domains as well, from its insistence that we should always work to disconfirm our conclusions and those of others instead of confirming them, which is what we would usually rather do.” 


Why “truth” is tribal 

  • “once people become an us, we begin to loathe a them, so much so that we are willing to sacrifice the greater good if it means we can shift the balance in our group’s favor.”
  • “Them. It’s a powerful word, and the research, in both psychology and neuroscience, suggests that because our identities have so much to do with group loyalty, the very word itself, identity, is best thought of as that which identifies us as, well, us—but more importantly not them.”
  • “humans value being good members of their groups much more than they value being right, so much so that as long as the group satisfies those needs, we will choose to be wrong if it keeps us in good standing with our peers.”
  • “social death is more frightening than physical death.”
  • “This is not entirely irrational. A human alone in this world faces a lot of difficulty, but being alone in the world before modern times was almost certainly a death sentence.”
  • “So we carry with us an innate drive to form groups, join groups, remain in those groups, and oppose other groups. But once you can identify them, you start favoring us.”
  • “The average person will never be in a position where beliefs on gun control or climate change or the death penalty will affect their daily lives. The only useful reason to hold any sort of beliefs on those issues, to argue about them, or share them with others is to “convey group allegiance,”.”
  • When we sense a threat to our place within a trusted group—if we feel like we might be considered untrustworthy for changing our minds—we avoid it.”
  • “The world is too vast, too complex, and ever-changing. So a hefty portion of our beliefs and attitudes are based on received wisdom from trusted peers and authorities. Whether in a video, within a textbook, behind a news desk, or standing at a pulpit, for that which we can’t prove ourselves, it is in their expertise we place our faith.”
  • “when we are fearful, we are constantly attempting to reduce the chaos and complexity of an uncertain world into something manageable and tangible, something we can fight, like the work of a small group of malevolent puppet masters.” 
  • “research into what psychologists call identity maintenance found that reputation management is the glue that binds us to our peer groups. When we feel as though accepting certain facts could damage our reputation, could get us ostracized or excommunicated, we become highly resistant to updating our priors.”
  • “But the threat to our reputation can be lessened either by affirming a separate group identity or reminding ourselves of our deepest values.”
  • “If we feel we are falling short of our values, if we are not good people by whatever standards we consider important, we become motivated to signal otherwise by publicly endorsing beliefs that will re-ingratiate us to our peers.”
  • “But if we feel affirmed, accepting challenging evidence or considering new perspectives poses less of a threat.”
  • “And that affirmation grows stronger if we’re reminded that we belong to several tribes and can rush to the safety of more amenable groups when the ones that judge us the harshest begin to feel less welcoming.”
  • it is rational to resist facts when one has no social safety net.”
  • Conspiracy theorists and fringe groups may hold individually coherent theories, but there is no true consensus, just the assumption of consensus. If they hung out together, they might catch on to that, but since they rarely do, they can each keep their individual theories and still assume they have the backing of a tribe.”
  • “Everyone can believe a different aspect of the 9/11 story or see vaccines as harmful in their own way and not realize how many people in the community disagree with them.” 


Why we need to argue 

  • “the more intelligent you are, and the more educated, the more data at your disposal, the better you become at rationalizing and justifying your existing beliefs and attitudes, regardless of their accuracy or harmfulness.”
  • “when the bathroom scale gives us bad news, we reweigh ourselves a few times to make sure. When it gives us good news, we step off and go about our day.”
  • “in studies where scientists present a series of numbers and letters, people paid to identify all the letters are more likely to mistake the number 13 as an uppercase B. But if offered cash to find numbers instead, people are more likely to mistake an uppercase B as the number 13.”
  • “When there are few downsides for making mistakes, we prefer to search for evidence that confirms our assumptions.”
  • “Information from our peers and our kin was, for most of our evolutionary history, vital to our very survival; so we developed a tool that comes online when we are on the receiving end of a data transfer. It’s called epistemic vigilance.”
  • In an information exchange, epistemic vigilance helps protect individuals from updating too hastily. Without the order afforded by rough consensus, social situations would become unnavigable, and the behaviors that usually put food in your belly and keep your blood in your body might fail in both regards. By avoiding bad information, even from people you typically trust, brains and groups maintain their vital cohesion.
  • “In a biased but trusting environment, individuals can enjoy a communal, constant, forward flow in several directions. Biased motivations and imperfect senses paired with collective vigilance and trust ease the cognitive load on all the individual brains, thus reducing the overall cognitive load of the collective.”
  • We developed a processing hierarchy that is trustworthy of our peers by default but that remains constantly vigilant for bad information.
  • “Yet our dependence on that vigilance led to a second dilemma. Sometimes it produces false negatives. Some completely accurate and extremely useful new ideas, discoveries, and innovations seem too good to be true—or sometimes too challenging or socially costly.
  • “a “trust bottleneck.” The normal flow of information gets jammed up as people begin to question a new idea that runs counter to the shared worldview. To avoid this, the brains of our most human-like ancestors evolved a new trick—arguing.”
  • “Rather than looking for flaws in our own arguments, it’s easier to let the other person find them, then adjust our arguments if necessary.”
  • By producing arguments in a biased and lazy fashion, individuals can quickly off-load their unique perspectives and save their mental energy for the evaluation process.
  • Because we are biased and lazy, when we argue with ourselves, we usually win. We draw self-serving conclusions based on our unique experiences and motivations, and then we employ reasoning to create justifications and rationalizations for our own thoughts, feelings, behaviors, plans, and goals.”
  • “Reasoning is coming up with arguments—plausible justifications for what you think, feel, and believe—and plausible means that which you intuit your trusted peers will accept as reason-able.”
  • “Research shows people are incredibly good at picking apart other people’s reasons. We are just terrible at picking apart our own in the same way.”
  • “The function of reasoning is to argue your case in a group setting.”
  • Reasoning is biased in favor of the reasoner, and that’s important, because each person needs to contribute a strongly biased perspective to the pool. And it is lazy, because we expect to off-load the cognitive effort to a group process. Everyone can be cognitive misers and save their calories for punching bears, because when it comes time to disagree, the group will be smarter than any one person thanks to the division of cognitive labor.”
  • “In studies in which people work on puzzles from the Cognitive Reflection Test, a tool for measuring people’s tendency to favor intuitive reasoning over active processing, people almost always get the wrong answers when reasoning alone. In groups, however, they tend to settle on the correct answers in seconds.”
  • It is much more important to reason in the proper context than it is to be a good reasoner.  * Note – get out of echo chambers to avoid group-think. By surrounding yourself with an immense variety of perspectives you are more likely to get to a deeper level of truth.
  • “If we can create better online environments, ones designed to increase the odds of productive arguments instead of helping us avoid arguing altogether, we may look back on this period of epistemic chaos as a challenge we overcame with science.” 


The Psychology of paradigm shifts 

  • “When we first suspect we may be wrong, when expectations don’t match experience, we feel viscerally uncomfortable and resist accommodation by trying to apply our current models of reality to the situation.”
  • “It’s only when the brain accepts that its existing models will never resolve the incongruences that it updates the model itself by creating a new layer of abstraction to accommodate the novelty.” 
  • The result is an epiphany, and like all epiphanies it is the conscious realization that our minds have changed that startles us, not the change itself.” 
  • “Kuhn wrote that “novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation.””
  • “In other words, when we don’t know what we don’t know, at first we see only what we expect to see, even when what we see doesn’t match our expectations. When we get that “I might be wrong” feeling, we initially try to explain it away, interpreting novelty as confirmation, looking for evidence that our models are still correct, creating narratives that justify holding on to our preconceived notions. Unless grandly subverted, our models must fail us a few times before we begin to accommodate.” 
  • “When this happens in science, Kuhn called it a “paradigm shift,” that moment when a model that can’t incorporate its anomalies is retired for one that can.” 
  • “Jean Piaget agreed with much of what Kuhn had to say, but he disagreed on one major point. His research into the development of children through stages suggested that the old models are never tossed out; instead, we build upon them.”


Understanding Disequilibrium 

  • Piaget introduced these two concepts, assimilation and accommodation, as part of his theory of constructivism, which is widely used today in education to develop modern lesson plans informed by the science of human development. Where Kuhn saw mind change as akin to punctuated equilibrium in evolution, long periods of stasis and resistance punctuated by bursts of sudden and often traumatic change, Piaget saw it as continuous and balanced.”
  • “For Piaget, organisms continuously adapt in the pursuit of making their environment optimal until they feel like they have sufficiently mastered that environment. At that point, they’ve reached what he called “equilibration.”
  • Equilibration is both assimilation, “integrating new information into pre-existing structures,” and accommodation, “changing and building new structures to understand information.”
  • “The key to synthesizing the ideas of Kuhn and Piaget is what Piaget called “disequilibrium.”
  • “The brain is a plastic entity, always learning, always updating, but carefully so, at a pace that avoids danger by favoring neither stasis nor chaos. In those moments when this careful pace is interrupted, in moments of extreme environmental change or overwhelming uncertainty, we experience an excruciating disequilibrium. 
  • When a person’s core expectations are massively subverted in a way that makes steady change impossible, they may experience intense, inescapable psychological trauma that results in the collapse of the entire model of reality they once used to make sense of the world.”
  • “Psychologists like Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun gathered evidence for a new theory about how people deal with extreme change. They found that for most individuals, surviving a trauma leads to an adaptive spiral of positive development, an awakening of a new self through what they call “posttraumatic growth.”
  • where fundamental assumptions are severely challenged,” people must update “their understanding of the world and their place in it.” If they don’t, the brain goes into a panic, unable to make sense of reality. The resolution of that panic necessitates new behavior, new thoughts, new beliefs, and a new self-concept.”
  • “The assumptive world serves us in three main ways. First, it puts the immediate present into context. It tells us the who, what, when, where, and why of our second-by-second existence. Who is my mother? When should I go to sleep? Where is my mailbox? Why did the egg shatter against the floor?”
  • “This assumptive world also provides us with a library of if–then statements. These causal narratives tell us what will happen in the future when we interact with the world in a certain way.”
  • “The assumptive world allows us to create plans to reach goals now, next week, and decades in the future.”
  • “the third way the assumptive world aids our understanding of reality is it tells us how we ought to behave if we want to maintain our social support networks.”
  • When our assumptions completely fail us, the brain enters a state of epistemic emergency. To move forward, to regain a sense of control and certainty, you realize some of your knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes must change, but you aren’t sure which.
  • “What is clear, however, is there’s no option to continue as if your current models are true, so you enter a state of active learning in which you immediately and constantly consider other perspectives, honestly assess your weaknesses, and work to change your behaviors to resolve the crisis.”
  • “This process is automatic. No one chooses to seek meaning after trauma or to grow a new self in its aftermath. It’s a biological switch, a survival mechanism that comes online when needed.”
  • “the unfortunate truth is that experiencing the “I might be wrong” feeling doesn’t guarantee people will accommodate, only that their brains will become alert to a potential conflict.”
  • Unless otherwise motivated, the brain prefers to assimilate, to incorporate new information into its prior understanding of the world. In other words, the solution to “I might be wrong” is often “but I’m probably not.””
  • we are forever balancing between assimilation and accommodation, because if we changed our minds when we shouldn’t, we might become dangerously incorrect; at the same time, we might remain dangerously incorrect if we failed to change them when we should.”
  • Assimilation, they discovered, has a natural upper limit. Redlawsk and his team call this the “affective tipping point,” the moment after which people can no longer justify ignoring an onslaught of disconfirmatory evidence. Redlawsk told me no organism could survive without some failsafe for when counterevidence becomes overwhelming. Once a person reaches the affective tipping point, the brain switches from conservation mode to active learning.”
  • Depending on the source, a person’s motivations, the issue at hand, the amount of exposure to challenging ideas, and so on, the affective tipping point may be harder to reach.”
  • there is a number, a quantifiable level of doubt when we admit we are likely wrong and become compelled to update our beliefs, attitudes, and values. Before we reach that level, incongruences make us feel more certain, not less.
  • “Kuhn and Piaget used different terms and metaphors, but their conclusions were similar. Both realized that people change their minds in much the same way that new theories in science supersede old ones.” 


Pathways for persuasion 


What is persuasion?

  • “persuasion can seem like a form of manipulation. But it may put you at ease to learn that by its scientific definition, persuasion is the act of changing a mind without coercion.
  • “As Daniel O’Keefe, a professor of communication, defines it, persuasion is “a successful intentional effort at influencing another’s mental state through communication in a circumstance in which the persuadee has some measure of freedom.””
  • “Persuasion is leading a person along in stages, helping them to better understand their own thinking and how it could align with the message at hand. 

Avoiding Coercion: 

  • “we can avoid coercion by sticking to symbolic communication in the form of messages meant to alter another person’s attitudes, beliefs, or both via the “voluntary acceptance” of those messages.”
  • when people believe they are free to reject the communicator, that’s when ethical persuasion is at play. It’s only “when individuals perceive that they have no choice but to comply, the influence attempt is better viewed as coercive.”
  • “You can’t persuade another person to change their mind if that person doesn’t want to do so, and as you will see, the techniques that work best focus on a person’s motivations more than their conclusions.”
  • it is so important to share your intentions up front. Not only does that keep you on solid ethical ground, but it also increases your chances of success. If you don’t, people will assume your intentions. Whatever they assume will become your “actual” position in their minds, and you run the risk of not having the conversation you intended. 
  • “carry that question— Why do I want to change their mind?

“The ability to change our minds, update our assumptions, and entertain other points of view is one of our greatest strengths, an evolved ability that comes free with every copy of the human brain to leverage that strength, we must avoid debate and start having conversations.

When persuasion works and when it doesn’t:

  • “a person could learn every detail of a message and still not be persuaded, or a person could not learn the message at all and be totally persuaded.”
  • “Elaboration is contextualizing the message after it gets inside your head, something more akin to how people arrive at different interpretations of inkblots in a Rorschach test.”
  • “if elaboration leads to a positive evaluation of the reasoning behind an argument, persuasion will succeed. If it leads to neutral or negative evaluation, the persuasion will fail.” 
  • “the likelihood a person will elaborate can be influenced by a variety of conditions. Not every individual will feel motivated or able to elaborate on a persuasive message. Motivation is the willingness and desire to process information carefully, and ability is the cognitive wherewithal to do so.”
  • Motivating factors that increase likelihood include not only relevance but incentives to reach accurate conclusions, a feeling of responsibility to make sense of the message’s claims, and a personality trait called “high need for cognition.” Ability factors include a lack of distraction, experience or expertise with the topic, and how clearly communicated or well-articulated the message is. Anything that enhances both motivation and ability will increase the likelihood of elaboration, and the nature of that elaboration will then lead to acceptance or rejection.”
  • “When elaboration likelihood is high, people tend to take what Petty and Cacioppo called the “central route”; but as likelihood drops off, people tend to move onto what they called the “peripheral route.””
  • “Petty and Cacioppo found that the more motivated the students, the more they took the central route. On that route, they paid more attention, and so the stronger arguments were more persuasive. The more of them they saw, the better. But on the central route, the weak arguments were ineffective; students saw the flaws in the emotional, opinion-based messages and ripped them to pieces.”
  • “Unmotivated students took the peripheral route. For them, the strong and weak arguments were equally persuasive. So when they heard more arguments, of any kind, even bad ones, they were more likely to support the policy than if presented with fewer.”
  • “Instead of paying attention to the content of the arguments, they paid attention to their number. Uninterested in the reasoning behind them, they just thought: more arguments, better policy”.
  • “Research has found that successful attitude change via the central route may take more effort, but it also creates more enduring attitudes. Messages that persuade via the peripheral route tend to do so quickly and easily, which is great for making a sale or getting people to go vote, but the changes they produce are weak. They fade with time and can be reverted with minimal effort.”
  • “So which route should we encourage people to take? That depends. Vodka, for instance, is colorless, odorless, and mostly tasteless. There’s no great distinction between brands (until the next morning). With something like that, we would be correct to encourage people to take the peripheral route.
  • “It would be better for a vodka company to focus on interesting packaging, celebrity endorsements, and ad campaigns that play up the luxury, prestige, or playfulness of the brand. To make up for the fact that the peripheral route doesn’t lead to long-lasting change, they would need to continually deliver emotional appeals and routinely change out the presentation of the messages. Advertising can accomplish this with a constant stream of rotating celebrities, slogans, logos, and so on.”
  • “if we are trying to change attitudes about complex fact-based issues like immigration or health care or nuclear power, we need to know our audience. What motivates them? Are they knowledgeable? Are they distracted in some way? For facts to work, we need to move them onto the central route and keep them there. If we know they are already motivated and knowledgeable about the topic, most of the work is done for us. If not, facts must be delivered by a trusted source in a setting where people are amenable to learning new information.”
  • “In any persuasion attempt, your priority should be to curate the conversation in a way that strengthens the relationship between you and the other person.”
  • “The heuristic-systematic model (HSM). It posits that when lazily thinking about alternative ways of feeling about the world, we use heuristics or simple rules of thumb that mostly show we are right. When thinking effortfully, we systematically process information considering all the ways we might be wrong.”

“All persuasion had to take into account “who says what to whom in which channel and with what effect.”


1.“Who: The communicator must seem trustworthy, credible, and reliable.”

  • “The most important factor in evaluating trustworthiness is something called source credibility, and the research suggests we evaluate it in three ways. We ask ourselves if the speaker is an expert. We look to see if the speaker is trying to trick us in some way. And we look to see if the speaker agrees with the groups with which we identify.”
  • “But even when people discredit a message from an untrustworthy source, if the argument is compelling, it will linger in their minds. If we hear the same information presented in other formats or from other speakers, the association with the untrustworthy source weakens.”


2. “What: A message becomes more impactful when paired with popular counterarguments, what psychologists call a two-sided communication.”

  • “If people are initially skeptical of a persuasive message, sharing counterarguments alongside the message works best.”
  • “Be it a rap battle or a political debate, by presenting your opponent’s arguments before they do, you not only demonstrate confidence in your ideas by revealing you’ve considered the other side, you also demonstrate trustworthiness by revealing you respect the audience’s intelligence.”
  • “The research suggests that presenting the argument most in line with the audience’s current attitude is the most effective. That way, a person feels confident and positive about their own attitudes and will be far more tolerant of counter-attitudinal appeals.”
  • “Saying “I know you don’t want to go to sleep, but you have to go to school in the morning” is far more effective than “You have to go to school in the morning, so you better go to sleep.”


3. “To Whom: A message must match the processing abilities and motivations of its audience.”

  • “Making messages clear and simple improves ability, and making it seem impactful to people’s lives increases relevancy. But the simplest trick is to frame messages as rhetorical questions. “Wouldn’t it be nice if marijuana was legal?” encourages people to produce explanations and justifications for their attitudes. “Do you think marijuana legalization should be legal?” merely primes people to express them as conclusions.”


4. “In Which Channel: The message should fit the medium through which it is conveyed.”

  • “A message that works welll in a book must be revised to work well in a film, and vice versa. A YouTube video based on an essay must use the language of YouTube, not the essay, to maximize its impact.”
  • “No matter the message, face-to-face messaging is far and away the most effective channel. We are biologically hardwired to respond to the human face.” 


Deep Canvassing

Deep canvassing is a form of conversation that uses empathic listening to change someone’s mind. This process was created by the Los Angelos LGBT center in order to sway voters’ perspectives on gay rights. 

  • Deep canvassing is best suited for attitudes, emotional evaluations that guide our pursuit of confirmatory evidence, like a CEO is a bad person or a particular policy will ruin the country. 
  • “Once people see where their ideas come from, they become aware that they come from somewhere. They can then ask themselves if they’ve learned anything new in the time since they last considered them. Maybe those ideas need updating in some way. Deep canvassing is about gaining access to that emotional space, because that’s where mind change happens.” 
  • “After dozens of these training sessions the team had learned it was important to spend a lot of time stoking enthusiasm and dampening anxieties before getting into the particulars of how to talk to strangers about sensitive topics.”
  • “they emphasized something they called “radical hospitality,” a form of selfless concern and energetic friendliness akin to what you might experience at a family reunion.”
  • “it seemed as if the people who changed their minds during these conversations didn’t even realize it. They talked themselves into a new position so smoothly that they were unable to see that their opinions had flipped.”
  • “after thousands of recorded conversations, they had found that battling over differing interpretations of the evidence kept the people they met from exploring why they felt so strongly one way or the other. “
  • reasons, justifications, and explanations for maintaining one’s existing opinion can be endless, spawning like heads of a hydra. If you cut away one, two more would appear to take its place.”
  • “Deep canvassers want to avoid that unwinnable fight. To do that, they allow a person’s justifications to remain unchallenged. They nod and listen.” 
  • “The idea is to move forward, make the person feel heard and respected, avoid arguing over a person’s conclusions, and instead work to discover the motivations behind them. To that end, the next step is to evoke a person’s emotional response to the issue.”
  • After a twinge of unresolved introspection, people become highly motivated to sort out their feelings. They will then produce a new set of justifications, weaker perhaps than before. That encourages a conversation.”
  • elaboration, a state of active learning in which a person unpacks a new idea by relating to something they already understand.”
  • When we stop ourselves from going with our first instincts, or our “guts,” when we are thinking about our own thinking, we become more open to elaborating, to adding something new to ourselves by reaching a deeper understanding of something we thought we already understood quite well. In short, deep canvassing likely encourages elaboration by offering people an opportunity to stop and think.”
  • people don’t get a chance to reflect like this very often. Daily concerns take up people’s cognitive resources.”
  • deep canvassing also encouraged analogic perspective taking, a key moment in human cognitive development.”


The process of Deep Canvasing:

  • Establish rapport. Assure the other person you aren’t out to shame them, and then ask for consent to explore their reasoning. Ask how strongly they feel about an issue on a scale of one to ten. Share a story about someone affected by the issue. Ask a second time how strongly they feel. If the number moved, ask why. Once they’ve settled, ask, “Why does that number feel right to you?”
  • Once they’ve offered their reasons, repeat them back in your own words. Ask if you’ve done a good job summarizing. Repeat until they are satisfied. Ask if there was a time in their life before they felt that way, and if so, what led to their current attitude? Listen, summarize, repeat. Briefly share your personal story of how you reached your position, but do not argue. Ask for their rating a final time, then wrap up and wish them well.

“The cleaner, simpler approach seems best,” he said. “I show up at your door. Tell you a sympathetic story. Listen to yours. Through that you begin to humanize and empathize and demystify one another. That seems to be doing most of the work.”

  • The second active ingredient, which only works once rapport is established and resistance is set aside, is the power of narrative transport.
  • A long line of research shows that for narrative transport to take place, a story must contain three features: a component that keeps your attention from wandering, a component that consistently evokes strong emotional reactions, and a component that evokes mental imagery.
  • Why does transport persuade us so? Because it can eliminate counterarguing. When we’re engaged with a story, we don’t prepare a rebuttal, because we feel swept up. A story isn’t trying to change your mind. It isn’t threatening your autonomy or your identity.” 


Street Epistemology 

Street Epistemology is a type of conversation that seeks the explore the basis of one’s reasoning and beliefs. The term was originally coined by professor Peter Boghossian. 

  • street epistemology seems best suited for beliefs in empirical matters like whether ghosts are real or airplanes are spreading mind control agents in their chemtrails. 
  • the idea is guided metacognition: to encourage a person to think about their own thinking, but only after they’ve already used their own reasoning to produce a claim and presented its justification.”


The process of Street Epistemology:


1. ESTABLISH RAPPORT – “The quickest way to end a conversation before it begins is to communicate hostility. Anything that can be misconstrued as “you should be embarrassed for thinking that way” will be met with anger.”

2. ASK FOR A CLAIM – “Street epistemology works best on empirical, fact-based claims like “the Earth is flat” or “the government is listening to our Alexas,” but it can also be used to explore attitude-based claims like “Joe Biden is a bad president” or “strawberry ice cream is better than vanilla,” or values-based claims like “tax dollars should go to forgiving student loans, not aircraft carriers.””

3. CONFIRM THE CLAIM – “Repeat back to the other person in your own words: “If I understand you correctly, you are claiming that . . .””

4. CLARIFY DEFINITIONS – “The problem with most arguments is that we often aren’t actually arguing, because our definitions of the terms aren’t the same as theirs.”

5. IDENTIFY A CONFIDENCE LEVEL – “The conversation truly begins after step five. Ask them to put a number on their feeling of confidence, from zero to one hundred, so they can begin to step backward into their processing and ask themselves how sure they are about that feeling.” If a person says they are an eighty out of one hundred, you can ask: “Why not one hundred?” Which then opens up the conversation to the next phase, exploring a person’s reasoning.”

6. IDENTIFY HOW THEY ARRIVED AT THEIR CONFIDENCE LEVEL – “one of the most important questions we ask a person is, ‘If you discovered that was not a good reason for holding a high degree of confidence in what you think is true . . . is true, if you discovered that on your own or through this dialogue, would it lower your confidence?’ And if they say, ‘My confidence wouldn’t change even if I discovered that reason wasn’t good’, you’ve now basically eliminated that reason as being part of the mix, and you can just sort of rinse and repeat that as many times as necessary until you hit the real reason.””

7. ASK WHAT METHOD THEY’VE USED TO JUDGE THE QUALITY OF THEIR REASONS – “ask people to imagine someone has looked at the same evidence and reached a different conclusion, and now a third person is looking at both their arguments—how would that third person determine which conclusion was true?”

  • “What would you say is the biggest reason why you think the Earth is flat today? The reason that would influence your confidence the most? The reason that would lower your confidence the most if you discovered that it wasn’t true? If you were to teach a class to a roomful of kindergartners about why the Earth is flat, what would be your go-to argument?”
  • Do you use the same standards for counterevidence? How did you conclude this was the best explanation of your observation? The point here is to move away from the claim itself and help them see how they are evaluating it.

8. LISTEN, SUMMARIZE, REPEAT – “In a way, step eight is moving back through all the steps again, reflecting and paraphrasing.”

9. PART COMPANY BY SUGGESTING YOU CONTINUE THE CONVERSATION LATER – street epistemology is about improving people’s methods for arriving at confidence, not about persuading someone to believe one thing more than another. “I have no desire to misrepresent you, so please correct me. I have no desire to straw-man you, so if I get your arguments incorrect, correct me.” Don’t cut them off. Move at their speed. Allow for pauses. Use their meanings and their reasoning. Stay in their head and out of yours. 


Motivational Interviewing 

Motivational interviewing is a technique often used in therapy and coaching as a way to inspire behavioral change. Although motivational interviewing is not thoroughly outlined in the book here are some questions that are used in the MI process:

  1. Why would you want to make this change?
  2. How might you go about it in order to succeed?
  3. What are the three best reasons for you to do it?
  4. How important is it for you to make this change, and why?
  5. So what do you think you’ll do? 
  • motivational interviewing is best suited for motivating people to change behaviors, like getting vaccinated to help end a pandemic or recycling your garbage to help stave off climate change. 
  • “According to motivational interviewing, the four most common reasons a person is not yet ready to enter the contemplation stage are: one, they haven’t been confronted with information that challenges their motivations; two, they currently feel their agency is being threatened; three, previous experiences have made them feel hopeless to change; and four, they may be stuck in a rationalization loop.” 


How Societal Change Happens (understanding cascades)

  • “In complex human social environments, a variety of factors influence cascades of change, but the factors most crucial are the individual conformity thresholds among people who regularly interact.”
  • “the affective tipping point, the moment after which a brain can no longer assimilate anomalies and becomes motivated to accommodate instead. That threshold varies in individuals.”
  • ““thresholds of resistance.” In any group of people, some will be early adopters and others will be stubborn holdouts, and many will be in between.”
  • “This complexity of connections and thresholds—which itself is constantly changing as people form and break bonds, join and leave groups, and so on—makes the entire network quite stable most of the time. But if everything lines up in just the right way so that people with low thresholds of conformity are in regular contact with people among a few interconnected groups, it leaves the surrounding network vulnerable to a global, or network-wide, cascade.
  • “Societies aren’t fixed. Large social systems, though they seem stable, are always changing in subtle ways that are imperceptible to the people living within them.”
  • “Even if thresholds remain constant in a way that prevents a cascade from building momentum within a single group, all manner of circumstances can affect the average number of connections between groups, altering the conditions in ways that randomly create percolating vulnerable clusters.”
  • “Any society can, without its knowledge, change from one in which a global cascade is impossible to one in which it could happen at any time.”
  • “The old advice was that anyone looking to get information or behaviors to spread should seek out the ultra-connected nodes in a network, the people that others look to for guidance on how to think and act. In reality, though, anyone can start a cascade.”
  • “If there are enough connected people with low thresholds across groups, any shock—any person—can start a cascade that will flip the majority of the population.”
  • “At any given time, we’re in a box which defines the world and tells us what it is. These definitions constrain what we think, and also what we think we can think.”
  • “Every era, every culture, believed it knew the truth, until it realized it didn’t; then when the truth changed, the culture changed with it.”
  • “the environmental change that led to widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage and continues to drive its spread was the relative wealth and stability of national institutions. The more people who grow up within, or eventually obtain, physical and economic security will always develop values of individuality, autonomy, and self-expression. ( *Note – certain levels of human development lead to certain patterns in thinking) 
  • “Contact changes minds.”
  • “Before minds can change concerning members of a minority or an out-group, they must make true contact. First, members must meet, especially at work, under conditions of equal status. Second, they must share common goals. Third, they should routinely cooperate to meet those goals. Fourth, they must engage in informal interactions, meeting one another outside of mandated or official contexts, like at one another’s homes or at public events. And finally, for prejudice to truly die out, the concerns of the oppressed must be recognized and addressed by an authority, ideally the one that writes laws.” 
  • “The creation of new conceptual categories is the greatest sign that accommodation is occurring on a large scale, and thus social change is imminent.”
  • “For instance, the term designated driver was invented by the Harvard Alcohol Project as a public health initiative and then seeded into popular television shows like Cheers and L.A. Law.”
  • “According to the Project, after introducing the term to the public in 1988, alcohol-related fatalities dropped by 24 percent in four years, an extremely rapid shift in attitudes.”
  • “Every system occasionally grows fragile. The key to changing a nation, or a planet, is persistence.”


“At any one time, for any given system, thousands of us are banging away at it hoping to make the difference that changes the world, but no one knows where the vulnerable cluster is at. No one can will the system to cascade for them.”