Rotman Visiting Experts

David McRaney on the science of persuasion

Episode Summary

The world feels more divided than ever. Left versus right. Anti-vaxxer versus doctors. Marvel versus DC. But can you change someone's mind and bring them over to your side? Author and journalist David McRaney joins host Brett Hendrie to talk about why we dig into our beliefs and how, with the right approach, we can actually change people's minds, including our own.

Episode Notes

The world feels more divided than ever. Left versus right. Anti-vaxxer versus doctors. Marvel versus DC. But can you change someone's mind and bring them over to your side? Author and journalist David McRaney joins host Brett Hendrie to talk about  why we dig into our beliefs and how, with the right approach, we can actually change people's minds, including our own. 

Episode Transcription

Brett Hendrie: In January 2022, a convoy of trucks and a parade of protesters descended on downtown Ottawa. They set up camp, blocked off roads, and they honked their horns... a lot. 

They wanted the federal government to repeal all vaccine mandates and all lockdowns. The only problem - most of the mandate and lockdown orders were actually coming from the provincial level. They were in the wrong city. 

When locals informed them, sometimes politely but mostly through shouting matches - the protesters dug in the heels. They wouldn't be swayed. It turns out no matter how right you are, you can't just shout at someone until they agree with you. 

There's a science to persuasion. 

Welcome to Visiting Experts, a Rotman School podcast featuring backstage conversations on business and society with influential scholars, thinkers and leaders featured in our acclaimed speaker series. 

I'm your host, Brett Hendrie, and I'm joined today by author David McRaney to talk about his new book, How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion and Persuasion.

In his book, David takes us on a journey through the worlds of conspiracy theorists and science deniers to door-knocking political activists. He speaks with persuasion experts, neuroscientists and psychologists deconstructing why we dig into our beliefs and how, with the right approach, we can actually change people's minds, including our own. 

David is a best-selling author, journalist, speaker and the host of the You Are Not So Smart podcast. He's covered topics ranging from Hurricane Katrina, to NASA's test rockets. And we're excited to have him here with us today as our guest. 

Welcome, David,

David McRaney: Oh my god, thank you so much for having me.

BH: David, we have access to more information than ever before. We have vast digital libraries available at our fingertips, infinite amount of data, the world's best scientists and researchers are all available and their information about them is available online. Facts are everywhere. But we can't seem to agree on major issues, everything from climate change to vaccine safety. Why are we so divided? 

DM: Wow, that’s the big one, huh. Well, it's not like this is new. We're social primates, this goes back to what separates us out as a species, we are a very groupish entity in the world of the Great Tree of Life. And the thing that gives us a give us all of our advantages, really early on as a species was we could group up toward group goals, group plans of action, and we could deliberate and argue with each other as to what we should be doing next, or how we should interpret something.

So thanks to language and our sociality, we can clump up and pursue shared goals and face shared problems. That's great, right. 

Then every once in a while, you get some sort of nice paradigm of change within how we communicate. And you get the printing press or something like that, you get or written language even or mathematics, you get something like radio and television and VHS tapes. 

And, eventually, we got the internet. And it was not evenly distributed at first. And then we got smartphones, which got very evenly distributed. Then we got social media, which became a weird platform for trading stuff back and forth. At first it was tacos and pictures of babies, and then it slowly became my political ideas. 

So okay, we all have all the information that's ever been in our pockets, so we should all be on the same page. But that's an old refrain. That's an old idea. 

You can go back to the founding fathers of the United States. One of the ideas was public education. If we do public education, then everybody will have all the access to all the information, and we'll all agree on that information. And then they'll have a utopian society.

Then there was the idea of okay, well, maybe public libraries are the way this work. You put a public library in every small town, and then every day we'll all have access to all the information available. We’ll all agree when it means, and we'll have utopia.

And the Internet back then was still fascinated with Encarta on CD ROM. You'd have the cyber punks like Timothy Leary who would say okay, now there's no information gatekeepers, you have power to the pupil, as we used to call it, you can put whatever you want in your eyeballs. And you know what's going to happen, then all the information, everybody has it. Utopia.

But missing from all of that was always this the concept of motivated reasoning. My favorite go to example of this is, you know when somebody's falling in love with someone…they have this new person in their life and you ask them, like, what is it you like about them? What are your reasons for wanting to be with them? And they'll say something like, “Well, you know, the way they talk the way they walked with even the cut their food, and all this music they're introducing me to.” Then if they're breaking up with that exact same person, you ask them, “What reasons do you have to break up with that person?” They'll say, “The way they walk, the way they talk, the way they cut their food, this dumb music they made me listen to.” So reasons for will become reasons against when the motivation to search for reasons to justify your emotional state changes. That's motivated reasoning. 

So you'll notice that the facts were the same facts the whole time. But the facts in the reasoning process were useful as justifications for different emotional states, right?

And as social primates, we're very concerned with what other people think. And the reasons we typically come up with are the ones we think will be reasonable to others. So we mostly use facts that we have at our disposal to justify and rationalize and explain something for the sake of being considered trustworthy and reasonable to the peers that we care about. 

The great sociologist Brooke Harrington told me if there was an E equals MC square of social science, it would be the fear of social death is greater than the fear of physical death. So when the ship's going down, we'd rather put our reputation on the lifeboat and let our body go the bottom of the ocean. 

So when you talk about the truck protesters and the anti vaxxers, and the insurrectionists, and stuff like that, like they had entered into a state where they were much more concerned about their social selves than they were the facts of the matter.

And maybe this is becoming more and more apparent to everyone - the internet also offer us is the ability to group up in ways we never could group up before. 

BH: That's such a great answer, David, and no question, the Internet has changed everything. And it's hard to imagine that the great, philosophers of yesteryear were imagining Reddit and Facebook…

DM: If they were, they were imagining it was going to be this beautiful, wonderful, everyone wearing togas walking around and virtual books flying at them. We're going to have to live through the period of time where about three or four generations have to figure out, "Well, now what do we do with them now that we have this."

BH: Well, one of the phrases that you use in the book is that you identify that we're living in a "post-trust" world a little bit different. Oxford Dictionary said that "post-truth" was one of the most popular words in recent years, but can you unpack post-trust - what you meant by that?

DM: Post-trust was entered into the lexicon along with a bunch of other weird stuff - "truthiness" and "alternative facts" or "alternate facts-" a lot of people feel that way that like, especially when you feel like the facts are on your side, like with climate change.

But if you've ever got into an argument with someone, especially if they have a conspiracy theory that's lingering around, if you counter what they're saying, they'll say, “Where'd you hear that?” And that's the moment where they're thinking, is that a source that I trust? Is that a source that's on my blacklist? And you have your own as well, like, if we were having a debate about something and you said, “Well, I heard on Fox News that blah, blah, blah…” Everybody has a trigger where they're like, I don't trust that source.

Kate Starboard is a great researcher who talked about, after a hurricane or a tornado, people enter into a information voids. It's a chaotic information ecosystem where you're okay with rumors in a state like that, because everything is fluid, and what you learn now might change tomorrow, or might change the next hour. And in a place like that, where everyone has high anxiety and a lot of uncertainty, you start modulating the information that you're going to take in and make plans and goals around based off of trust. And you'll say, “Okay, that's a fireman, that's a police officer.” You will modulate the information coming to you about how you should manage the natural disaster based off of the levels of trust and experience that you're familiar with around you, right.

We're in a state right now of high anxiety and a lot of uncertainty, this lot of big, humongous changes in world events, everything from AI to weird political things. And at the same time, we’re given this incredible information ecosystem. 

And from Kate Starboard’s point of view, we're treating it like information of rumors where we modulate on trust more than anything else. There's too much information. And we each have a small list of these the sources I trust. And oftentimes, when we're having an argument with someone, it'll go to that place of like, your sources aren't good enough for me. You got to find a source that I trust, if we're going to talk about this issue, because neither one of us is an expert on the topic. 

BH: So much of society is built on these groups that we belong to - whether it's our employer or our religion, or cultural interests. Can you talk about how tribal identities inform how we develop our ideas and our decisions and attitudes? 

DM: One of my favorite studies in social psychology was a hallway experiment, where they had these men that filled out a questionnaire and they had their blood sample and their saliva sample. And they were supposed to hand this the questionnaire to somebody at the end of the hallway, and along the way, they had an actor come out of a side door and bump into them and look at them and go, “asshole,” and then to keep walking, and then [the participant] hands in the questionnaire and they get their blood sample. 

What they found was that some of these men would have massive spikes in cortisol and the hormones related to “I think I might have to get into a fight.” And other men who have would not. And the correlating factor was “Where did they grow up? Where did they spend most of their time before they went to those get involved in the study.” People that lived in like the Deep South and the Midwest, when asked in the debriefing when they got bumped said they felt like “I might have to fight this person, I can't believe they insulted me in this way.” Whereas other people from other cultures were like, “I thought that was funny, what a stupid dude. I don't care about this at all.” 

It was an experience that felt natural and normal, like any other person would experience, because they were unaware that you could have a different bodily response to something like that. They didn't choose to feel that way. The environment that led to that was cultural. It was their upbringing. It was the people they had hung out with. It was the norms and values of the people surrounding them that led to that reaction. That same sort of thing is being applied to everything you read, everything you experience, every news story that comes along, every questionable fact. And those anxieties, as they bubble up, when you have access to pick and choose the groups to which you're going to spend most of your time with on the internet, the sources that you will spend your time with to get your information, we get very groupage. We get very tribal. 

And the hard truth of identity, as far as the social psychologists concerned, is that which identifies you as "us" and "not them." And when those become the strongest motivations and how you navigate information, the us-versus-them aspect of things starts to corrupt things what would normally be neutral, like wearing masks and getting vaccinated. But it quickly leaves the realm of neutral facts and neutral science information once it becomes a signal to other people that you are a good member of your group or a bad member of your group. And unfortunately, when it came to mask, it was a very overt signal as to what which side you're on that issue. It becomes a badge of shame or a signal that you are loyal  in one way or another. That's when things get weird. 

BH: So speaking of us versus them, and people coming out of that situation in the book, you spent a lot of time with some, what I'll call, outsider communities. 

DM: Quite a few. Yes. 

BH: People who think 9/11 was staged, hate groups who rally against LGBTQ rights. 

DM: Yea with Valentine's Day Services at Westboro Baptist Church - it was quite the experience. Yeah.

BH: But then you also met folks who found their way out of those communities and change their beliefs. What had to happen for those people to change their minds?

DM: One of the first people I met with Charlie Veatch, a 9/11 truther who had left that community. And I also spent time with people at Westboro who had left that group. And I spent time with former Moonies and people who were in anti-vaxx communities. 

What seemed to be common in all their stories was that they never really left their groups because they disagreed about the sort of the shared, common sense of reality that they all had. Oftentimes, when they left, they still kept the same beliefs and the same sort of concepts of what was a fact and what wasn't. Oftentimes, they would leave for reasons that would just be the reasons you'd leave any group that you became tired of.

The motivational lures that got you in there are very different from one person to the other. But once you're in the group, it’s the fact that you're in a group that becomes the most motivating factor. You're gonna be a good member of the group, right. 

And if you start having bad experiences, it's hard to leave because you've devoted so much of your group identity to that. Those are the people that you share information with, those are the people that you have dinner with, those are the people you talk about your problems with. Those are the people to whom you are invested. And you have a fear of ostracism because of those people.

The same thing is what happens with conspiratorial groups. With the people that I met who had left those groups, what had happened, in every case, was someone from another community that had values that this person had, but they had not found their way into that group, that somebody from that group was not dismissive of them. They did not insult them. They didn't tell them they were stupid. They didn't tell them that they were evil - even if it would have been justified for them to call them out on the horrible things we're doing. They held space for that person and non-judgmentally listened to them, and then gave them an avenue to discuss matters within their organization with someone who was outside the organization. They were building, whether or not they realized it, this off ramp. 

And then when something happened within that group that that person didn't like- like Westboro it was changes within the group that made it much more authoritarian and women in the group became subjugated in a way they hadn't been before, such as their dress codes and things about where you could work. These were things that made them very upset. But most of them had no social safety net to discuss this with people outside the organization. But the people who would talk with people outside the organization feel like there is a way out of here to a group of people who would accept me, and they would bit by bit move into that direction. 

Charlie found a group of people called the Truth Use community where they were like sex, drugs and free WiFi, like cyberpunk truthers who do Ayahuasca and stuff. And he was like, "Well, my values that got me into the Truther community are being expressed in this other community as well." When he was exposed to information that made him question whether or not 9/11 could not have a conspiracy was a truly conspiracy, he was open to that in a way the other people weren't. So they had these off ramps that had been constructed without them realizing and they were able to admit that they were wrong in the way other people weren't because admitting you were wrong for other people meant that I would have to deny the organization or deny the group. And they chose to resolve their cognitive dissonance in the direction of the of the group identity, whereas the other people were able to resolve in the direction of a alternate identity. And they left the groups in that way. And that's how they that's how they exited.

BH: It sounds like that off ramp, a gentle process to free yourself from those ideas was so important, very different from somebody arguing with them to get out. You spend some time in the book talking about arguing and learning about the role that it's played in society. What did you learn about arguing?

DM: As I spent more time with the scientists who work in the interactionist model side of things and the truth-win scenario side of things, they made it very clear to me that we're not so much flawed and rational, we're just biased and lazy. All the evidence points to that we have sort of two cognitive suites of mechanisms. One for generating arguments, and one for evaluating arguments. 

And the generative side is very biased, of course, it has to be it's coming from you, it's coming from your personal experiences, and all the emotions and attitudes and values that you're bringing to the situation. But the evaluative side is very objective.

And some of the latest research in this, they take a picture of your face, and you put on a VR headset, and you sit in a room and there's Sigmund Freud is in the room, the VR Sigmund Freud. And you tell Sigmund Freud all of your problems, the problem you're dealing with right now you can't seem to solve. And then they re-run the program. And then this time it reboots - you are Sigmund Freud. And you watch yourself come in, and it looks like you because they took a picture your face, and they 3d modelled it onto the avatar. And you actually sit there and just listen to yourself, tell yourself your problems. And they have a higher than 60% success rate of people having breakthroughs because they leave the argument production part of the of the cognitive mechanisms that are doing all this and they go to the evaluative side of things. 

And the reason we have those mechanisms because we are supposed to be solving problems as a group. Someone has a solution, we all evaluate it, and we offload the cognitive labor to the group. The issue is that we have created information technology and social platforms where we just all do the first half, and there's very little of the second part. Like Twitter is just a bunch of people throwing their biased, lazy arguments into a pile, and hopefully there's somebody out there who's like gathering it up and writing hot takes that helps us understand it. But as individuals it’s tough. 

Am I answering this question? 

BH: You are answering it. But it leads me into my next question, which is really about your advice to people in terms of how they can structure their conversations to help people change their minds.

DM: The most amazing thing in this process, writing all of this was I found all these different organizations who were not aware of each other. And most of them were not aware of the psychological literature that supported what they were doing. And yet, they had all arrived at the same sort of conversation structure, because it's the one that gives you results. 

Deep canvassers in Los Angeles, Street Epistemology people all throughout Texas. There's other places like smart politics and others and in the therapeutic realm, there are things like CBT, and motivational interviewing. 

There's two German researchers who divided this up for me. They call it a topic rebuttal versus technique rebuttal. And what you want to do is technique rebuttal. Now, topic rebuttal is great. Sometimes people talk about this, and they're worried that facts don't work anymore. But facts still do their job - you can give people information about something from a trusted source, and they will readily update their priors. It's just you need to be in a good faith environment, most of the time for this to happen - that would be in a scientific domain or a legal domain or in a academic structure where we're all playing by the same rules. We're all okay with facts doing what they do with evidence. This has more evidence than this, and so on. 

When it comes to argument and where people in most places, I think people get frustrated, they're trying to apply that topic rebuttal in a place where technique rebuttal would be the better option. And the difference between topic rebuttal and technique rebuttal is, I'm going to discuss this issue with you in a way where we're going to explore how you reasoned your way to this conclusion. But we're going to stay in your part of that - like I'm not going to try to copy and paste any of my reasoning into you. I'm going to start at your conclusion and work backwards. 

So it's many steps. But I’m gonna give you the only two steps you need right now. And you can like, go deeper if you'd like, because there's plenty of it in the book...

I guess there's a step zero, which is also ask yourself, "Why do you want to do this?" which is an important step. First, Socratic Method yourself into understanding why you are wanting to have this conversation with someone? Why do you wish to disagree with or why do you want to change their mind? And there can be a good answer to that, there are plenty of places where people are doing harm. 

If it's an attitude, or a belief, it's a slightly different mode of operation, but it still has the same first step, which is establish rapport. We are a social primates and we're very concerned about whether or not we're going to be in a trustworthy environment with the other person. And you don't communicate anything that could be interpreted by the other person as “you should be ashamed for thinking what you think, for believing what you believe.”

I tell you what, let's do it here. You with me? Right? We can do it on something very neutral. What's the last movie you watched?

BH: I watched The Last Dance, the documentary about Michael Jordan on Netflix. 

DM: That’s perfect. Okay. I would love to talk to you about that if you're cool with that. I'd like to talk to you about a little bit and kind of like explore how you feel about it and see where you're coming from with it. The first question I'd like to ask is, did you like it? 

BH: I thought it was terrific. 

DM: You thought it was terrific. Okay, great. Now, if you were like a movie reviewer, on a scale from like, one to 10, what would you give it? 

BH: Eight 

DM: Eight, right. So you said it was terrific. And you gave it an eight, an eight is not a 10. And it's not a nine. It's also not a one. But why an eight

BH: Terrific behind the scenes stories that I hadn't heard before, very well made. Maybe it was a little long…

DM: Little long. Are there any documentaries like that, that are longer than that, that you'd give a higher than an eight to?

BH: Sure, sure of lots of great documentaries that that I would give a higher mark to. 

DM: So it’s not necessarily the length that got in the way of it. Was there's something else there was a knock against it. 

BH: Maybe some of the interviews were a little bit preconceived.

DM: Now, I'm gonna stop here, because I don't have a lot of time. But you can see where I'm going here. Like, first of all, when I asked anybody how they feel, we could have said gun control. For example, if I asked you, are you in favor of it or against you, people can very quickly go, I'm in favor of it or I'm against it. If I ask you about a fact-based thing that you think the earth is flat or round, you can very quickly tell me it's round, you know. So whether it's fact based or attitude based people can very quickly sample their emotional state in regards to the thing and give you a reaction that communicates their certain their level of certainty. Or they're sort of evaluative, emotional state, as far as attitude.

When I then ask, "Could you give it to me on a scale," this is the great power of these techniques is they're all based on. Can I help you enter a metacognitive state so that you can introspect. I'll hold space, and I'm not going to judge you during this. But I'll help you go in there and try to figure out, "Why did I answer it this way?" And you'll notice that you did this- that thing where people go, "hmm," that moment. It's really revelatory. It was so easy to tell me you liked it Terrific. It's great. Like, what numbers you would you give it the start to slow down, and then why that number? Hmm. And you have to introspect, and we almost never do this for anything. It's hard to believe how much autopilot we're on for the things that we actually care about.

And sometimes that's all it takes - giving a person a chance to introspect. Oftentimes people will move up and down a scale, or their certainty will go up and down just because they've never done it before. So they're having their first real opinion about the matter

I was then helping you discover what are the values that are giving me this number. And the first thing that people put out usually is not the right thing, because we're scrambling and oftentimes your first answer is going to be something that you're anticipating the other person will be okay with, it's a justification more than anything. So, like the length seemed to be a problem. But when I asked you are there other things you'd like that are out there have are longer than that? Well, yeah. Well, then maybe that's not it. So I'm helping you discover what is the actual thing that's bringing it down from 10. 

If we were talking about like transgender bathrooms or something, or anything that involves, you know, actual human interaction, you would ask a person about experiences they've had with the issue. So there's one side of things you might discover, I have never had any actual experience with the issue that I feel so strongly about - which is a revelation for many people - or I have had experiences with this. And they don't seem to match the answer I gave you in the beginning. And either way, cognitive dissonance will bubble up, and you'll feel a great desire to resolve the dissonance. 

And here I am another person who is going to be very okay with helping you resolve that cognitive dissonance. And people more often than not, will resolve it in a way that shows them, maybe I didn't have a really great grasp on where I was on this issue.

BH: So I want to talk about the book as a journey for you. And I'm curious, did your mind change about anything and those techniques that you just shared with us? Are you using those every day with your co workers and friends and family? And they say, David, I don't want to do the scale anymore.

DM: I've been like anyone else, this is like knowing that you need to eat less and exercise more. But it doesn't mean you're going to do that every day, right? We're still struggling to do what we ought to do. With these techniques, it's definitely changed the way I interact with people. It's definitely changed the way I think about these issues. I changed my mind a lot. 

I mean, the thing that got the book going in the beginning was I gave a lecture and someone came up to me afterwards, and said, “I have a family member who's fallen into a conspiracy theory, what do I do about it?” And at that time, that kind of stuff that I've been writing, I said, "I don't think there's anything you can do about it. You know, that's just the power of all these things.” And I didn't like my answer at the moment,

At the same time, the norms around same sex marriage, the United States had flipped. And it was like from 60 per cent, against to 60 per cent in favor over the course of a few years. So clearly, people can change their minds is one thing I was seeing. 

And the other was, I don't really understand, like, what is the nature of this resistance, especially in something like that, where if you could take all those people, the majority of people in the United States and put them in a time machine, it's in the back 10 years they would disagree with themselves. So what happened in the interim, and why did they resist it so much that they were eventually going to change their minds anyway.

So that sent me on this journey, especially with things like the interactions model and treatment scenario in other domains, I was astonished to see people as not so much flawed or irrational, but deeply motivated, deeply social. And I arrived at this conclusion of this thesis that I'd never would have imagined going in, which is I don't think anybody's unreachable anymore. I don't think there's anyone who couldn't change their mind or will not change their mind. 

BH: Ok David, it sounds like it's been an incredible and eye-opening journey for you. And we really appreciate you sharing your insights with us. The book, which I really loved reading, and the big congratulations about it, is How Minds Change: the Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion and Persuasion, available from your favorite bookseller. Where can people go to find you, David?

DM: I have a website, with all my stuff. And then I have a podcast and a whole world of stuff around that podcast – “You are not so smart”. The website is and on Twitter just @DavidMcRaney.

BH: Thanks so much for joining us here at Rotman today, David.

DM: Thank you so much for having me. This has been the best. 

BH: This has been Rotman Visiting Experts, backstage discussions with world class thinkers and researchers from our acclaimed speaker series. To find out about upcoming speakers and events visiting us here at Canada's leading business school, visit 

This episode was produced by Megan Haynes recorded by Dan Mazzotta and edited by Damian Kearns. For more innovative thinking, head over to the Rotman Insights Hub, and subscribe to this podcast on Spotify, Apple podcasts or Google podcasts. Thanks for tuning in.