How to change people's minds

What research says about how to get people to do something different

Published on 2nd November, 2020

Sometime in 2015, I came out of Sainsbury’s with a bottle of milk, and was set upon by vegan activists shouting abuse. That was unpleasant. I remember wanting to go back in, buy a steak, and rub it in their faces. I didn’t, but it certainly didn’t make me want to go vegan.

In 2018, I decided veganism was good. Whilst I haven't fully committed, I've hugely reduced meat. Many around the world have done the same, or gone further. After decades of campaigning, vegan activists are getting their way.

The reason so many changed their mind is because the tone changed. Irrespective of the merits of the argument, I didn’t like being told I was a horrible person for drinking milk. But – in 2018 - I did like being told I could help save the planet. I liked that I could do this gradually and manageably. I liked being empowered with delicious recipes rather than being told to sacrifice things I love. I liked the new mentality of the tribe – positive, caring, inclusive.

Effective campaigns make people feel good about the new decision

Veganism is an exception. Few seem to get this – from causes that bully anyone who questions their orthodoxy, to technology vendors and marketers writing articles declaring customer's current approaches 'dead'.

Too many are like the vegans outside Sainsbury's. They have genuine convictions and passion. They are often right. But if they want to win people over to their way of thinking, they need to communicate differently.

Let’s look at how.

Raising awareness vs moving minds?

A quick distinction. This is about getting people to think differently. If you just want people to take an action where they have no emotional investment (eg buy an off-the-shelf product), or are already on your side, then awareness-raising is fine.

But if your audience is pursuing a course of action or thinking, and you’d like them to take a different one, then read on.

1. Make people feel good about change, not bad about staying the same

If you tell people they are stupid or wrong because of something they have already done (buying milk, choosing a competitor's technology), the natural response is ‘well I’m not stupid, so I must be right, and you must be wrong’.

Instead, make people feel good about the new decision. Ann Christiano & Annie Neimand, from the University of Florida, point out “People seek information that makes them feel good about themselves and allows them to be a better version of themselves. If you start with this understanding…you can design campaigns that help people see where your values intersect and how the issues you are working on matter to them.”

Show how your offer will help them get what they want (not what you want them to want): improve the world, grow their company, earn the respect of their peers, get a promotion.

You can still address problems. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman notes that people are more likely to act to avoid a loss than achieve a gain. So if your audience faces a risk (being outcompeted, skills becoming obsolete), you should absolutely acknowledge this and help them avoid it. The point is that you are helping them realise a better future, not criticising current thinking.

2. Use calm, conciliatory language

Researchers at Cornell University looked at the tone of sucessful arguments on ChangeMyView, a Reddit community where users invite others to contest their opinions. Their findings included:

*Persuasive arguments used calm words rather than emotional or controlling words (such as terrorist).

*Persuasive arguments tended to be longer. One-liners and rants rarely persuade.

*Words that are emotionally neutral are more persuasive than upbeat, happy words. Hedging language (such as "it could be the case") were also more persuasive.

This may be surprising, since we’re always told confidence is persuasive. But researchers suggest such language "make an argument easier to accept by softening its tone."

My own view is that people are attracted to confidence when they agree or haven't formed an opinion, but repelled by it when they disagree. Equally, it's hard to completely disagree with someone who is really nice and understanding.

3. Use examples and visual language

Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker writes “To go from ‘I think I understand’ to ‘I understand,’ we need to see the sights and feel the motions. Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images.”

Thinking Fast and Slow notes that people make judgments about the probability of events on the basis of how easy it is to think of examples. The Cornel research also found that specific examples were a powerful persuasion technique.

Paint a visual picture of your proposed better future.

4. Back up your case with evidence and expert opinion

The Cornell research found persuasive cases often contained links to external sites. So evidence plays a role in changing minds.

People feel more confident holding views if they are supported by people they trust and respect. 

Perception of evidence can matter as much as accuracy. People reject evidence from people they don't trust or which contradicts their existing view. So present evidence from people your audience are likely to trust and with a level of rigour suited to them - scientists will want different evidence to voters.

5. Get them to try it

Research finds that once people are presented with a situation, they are more willing to accept it.

We’ve all been there. We agonise over a decision, but once its taken, we are happy with it.

This is why companies give away free trials, it's easier to stick with a decision than make a change. Veganuary gives people a no commitment way to try veganism without a big emotional commitment. Some research even found that many fierce opponents of Trump and Brexit found their opposition waned once the decision was in the past.

It’s not always possible, but getting people to try something in a low risk way, is a good way to get them on board long term.


Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman:

The Science of What makes people Care, Ann Christiano & Annie Neimand (University of Florida): 

Stop Raising Awareness Already Ann Christiano & Annie Neimand (University of Florida): 

How to Get People to Change their Minds, Psychology Today 

The surprising reason people change their minds, BBC:

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