Best lessons come from life itself
Sydney Morning Herald May 19, 2012
The only way to change someone's mind is to let them draw their own conclusions from personal experience, writes Hugh Mackay.
If you read this essay backwards, starting at the end, you'll unlock the secret code that reveals how Malcolm Turnbull will replace Tony Abbott as Liberal leader and how Julia Gillard will claw back popular support.
Sceptical? Of course you are. (Well, most of you.) We tend to be sceptical in the face of propositions that seem ludicrous, or that come from someone we have learnt not to trust, or that simply do not accord with our experience of how the world works.
Back in the late 1960s, many thousands of people fell for a worldwide rumour that Paul McCartney was dead and that the words ‘turn me on, dead man’ were embedded in the words of the Beatles song Revolution No.9 when played backwards. (Not sure how we were supposed play a record backwards, but never mind. Conspiracy theories do not always come with the details fully worked out.)
Most of us assumed the rumour was nuts and got on with enjoying the song, right way around. If only it were always so easy to dismiss things that sound crazy, but just might not be. Heavier-than-air flying machines, for instance.
Gullibility is an ever-present danger for us. We are obliged to take so much information on trust that we regularly have to place our faith in experts - doctors, airline pilots, nuclear physicists, plumbers, auto electricians, economists and climate scientists.
A recent ABC television program, I Can Change Your Mind About … Climate, pitted former senator and climate-change sceptic Nick Minchin against Anna Rose, co-founder and chair of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. They were carted around the world to meet a variety of people with a variety of barrows to push on the subject of climate change.
The protagonists set out with such strong views that anyone who knew anything about the process of attitude change naturally assumed the program would end as it began, with Nick and Anna as confident as ever of their own positions. They would not budge an inch, we thought, because all they were being subjected to was verbal attacks on their existing beliefs.
The program was brilliantly produced and directed. The location shots were magnificent. The experts wheeled up to confront our heroes were unfailingly interesting - eccentric, charming, deeply wise or patently mad, depending on your point of view.
Nothing happened, of course. Nick was Nick - urbane, avuncular, charming, plausible and utterly unflinching in his commitment to the proposition that all this so-called ''science'' was unproven and that, in any case, politics and economics would determine the ultimate outcome. Anna - passionate, earnest and offended by any signs of scepticism on this topic - was equally impressive in her immovability.
Desperate to show this had not all been a waste of everybody's time and money, the producers finally got Nick and Anna together on a deserted beach back home in Australia to determine whether either might have shifted one iota in any direction. Could there perhaps be some chink of compromise, some glimmer of possible agreement on anything?
Well, now … let's see. Of course there could! They were perfectly happy to agree on the proposition that clean and renewable energy is conceptually preferable to the burning of dirty fossil fuels that will eventually run out. They had both clearly thought this all along; it's just that no one had raised it until the end, when the camera could fade on a romanticised picture of smiling agreement.
The program was immediately followed by an episode of Q&A, with Nick and Anna both on the panel. All Nick's hardline positions were intact, as were Anna's. When someone in the audience claimed to have been impressed by the protagonists' willingness to compromise, their own looks of astonishment were eloquent.
Neither had budged at all, and each was clearly puzzled by the suggestion that they might have. Their point of agreement was just that - a point of agreement, not a matter of compromise. Along the way, each of them had learnt a great deal about the other's position, but that was merely useful intelligence to be filed under ''E'' for enemy, ready for future battles.
In other words, they did what we all do. They used the contest to shore up their defences. Argument almost always does that: if you attack someone's existing attitudes head on, they will not crumple or compromise. They will defend their position and, in the process, reinforce it.
You can see that happening every day in politics, religion, in the culture wars, and even in the petty disputes that create family friction. Argument is not about change, it's about the reinforcement of prejudice. Indeed, if you really want to convince someone to stick to their guns, attack them.
Look what happens when religious or ethnic minorities are persecuted. Do they shrug and say: ‘We're annoying people with these beliefs and practices - let's give the whole thing up.’ No, the history of persecution says that minorities thrive on it. Their religious faith or sense of ethnicity is strongly reinforced by having to be defended against persecution.
So how do people ever change their minds?
Argument is not about change, it’s about the reinforcement of prejudice.
Strangely enough, we have another TV documentary to thank for a demonstration of how you do actually change someone's mind - not by aggressive or even seductive words designed to persuade them, but by exposure to new experiences from which they can draw their own conclusions.
SBS's Go Back To Where You Came From took a group of people with openly declared hostility towards asylum seekers and subjected them to experiences (not arguments) that showed them, first hand, what it must be like to be a refugee so desperate for asylum that you would cross an ocean in a small boat, only to be imprisoned like a criminal, dehumanised and offered no prospect of early relief.
Not surprisingly, the participants were deeply moved by the experience. Their attitudes were softened and their compassion aroused. The things that had actually happened to them - not simply what someone had said to them - became part of them. And, yes, their attitudes were changed as a result.
That's the way it works for most of us, most of the time. Experience is the great mind changer, the great teacher. Our most significant attitudes and beliefs - as opposed to the top-of-the-head opinions we spout daily - are based on lessons from life itself.
That's why attitudes are so resistant to change. We know this stuff from our own experience: why should we change our minds just because someone asks us to? Another person's experience might have taught them something different from mine, but so what?
Smart advertisers know this. There's no point trying to change someone's purchasing behaviour by simply trying to change their attitudes and dispositions via advertising. You need to work directly on their experience - offer them a free sample, drop the price, change the way you distribute or display the product, run a promotion with inbuilt inducements to buy.
Advertising is still powerful, of course, or so many billions would not have been spent on it. But its power lies mainly in preaching to the converted, reinforcing the favourable attitudes of loyal customers and supporting all the marketplace measures being taken to win new customers.
So what might Julia Gillard do about the negative attitudes towards her and her government that have now taken root in the community? One thing is certain, it's a not an attitude-change challenge. Gillard herself knows, from her bruising ‘no carbon tax’ experience, how circumstances change our declared attitudes.
No doubt she meant it when she declared there would be no carbon tax under a government she led. That was her attitude. It wasn't a lie, any more than ‘I will love you forever’ is a lie when it is said by people who subsequently fall out of love.
Gillard's attitude was changed by the change in her experience: being the leader of a minority government in a hung parliament forced her (as it would have forced any leader) to modify some positions so as to achieve a workable compromise with the Greens.
It's the classic pattern: changed circumstances produce changed behaviour, and changed behaviour produces changed attitudes.
What about dramatic religious conversions that look like the product of pure persuasion? In most cases, they turn out to be the result of significant, even traumatic, changes in people's lives that have led them to seek comfort, relief or resolution. Religion's offer of salvation came at just the right time.
So back to Gillard's problem. What she must be hoping - and perhaps it's her only hope - is that, come July 1, we will respond more warmly to the government because of the change in our circumstances, courtesy of tax cuts, pension increases and other measures designed to compensate us for carbon tax-related price rises.
Whether that will be enough to shift such deeply entrenched attitudes remains to be seen, but it could happen. At the very least, our experience of the new carbon-price regime might convince us that our fears (if any) were unfounded and that the dire predictions of harsh economic consequences were mere hysteria.
And perhaps, like Nick Minchin, we'll be encouraged in our belief that, all other considerations aside, clean and renewable energy is a good idea. Higher energy prices might also lead us to the conclusion that, regardless of compensation measures on offer, we could actually reduce our energy bills if we used less energy.
‘Turn the light off when you leave the room,’ my abstemious mother used to say, but there was no behavioural incentive to back up her message so, like most kids, I regarded it as irrelevant nagging. As the price of electricity rises, perhaps turning unused lights off will seem a good idea. If we start behaving differently to save money, even our attitudes will change.
We didn't take drink-driving messages seriously until random breath testing made a direct impact on our behaviour. Then our behaviour changed and, in turn, our attitudes. It's not ‘all in the mind’, after all.
(gnihtyna eveileb ll'uoy edoc terces a si siht eveileb uoy fI)