Ep 201: How Minds Change

David McRaney, author of How Minds Change, joins us to explain why it’s so hard to change a teens’ mind! We also talk about the psychology behind persuasion and the power of peer pressure in the teen social world.

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Full show notes

If you’ve ever tried to change your teen’s mind, you know that it’s nearly impossible! No matter how much you try to persuade them to take harder classes, hang out with different friends or pick more lucrative extracurriculars…they tend to stick stubbornly to their own choices. It can start to feel like you’re going crazy, spending hours of your life begging teens to change their minds–especially when it’s over something serious like drug use or toxic relationships.

This disconnect applies not only in our homes, but our society at large. Our world is more divided than ever, and it seems like there’s no way to have productive conversations about what really matters. Online forums and social media have contributed immensely to this polarization, by allowing us to find people who agree with us wholeheartedly, never challenging our opinions or encouraging us to think critically. In some cases, this can lead people down rabbit holes into conspiracy theories or even cults–and it’s not easy to change their minds and bring them back!

So how can we start up  productive discourse and change people’s minds for the better? We’re talking to David McRaney  to find out. David is a science journalist and author of the popular blog, You Are Not So Smart, which ran for years before becoming a successful podcast and bestselling book. Today,  he’s here to talk about his latest book, How Minds Change: The Science of Belief, Opinion and Persuasion,  to help us understand the fascinating psychological process of forming and changing  opinions.

In our interview, we’re discussing why it’s so incredibly difficult to change our teens’ minds about anything! Plus, David explains why we need to consider teens’ perspectives before making decisions, and breaks down the importance of peer groups in the persuasion process.

The Importance of Intention

You’ve asked your teen a hundred times to stop eating junk food, stop vaping, start going to SAT prep. You’ve even laid out all the facts to show them why they should listen to you…but they just don’t seem to care! Why is it so difficult to get anyone, especially teens, to change their viewpoint or lifestyle? David explains that providing facts and logic to try and sway someone doesn’t usually work. Teens are bound to cherry pick the information they want to hear, and conveniently ignore any facts that might disprove their opinion. 

So how can we change teens’ minds? David suggests that we start by revealing our intentions. Oftentimes, we don’t realize that we actually have the same goals as teens–and that we could be working with teens instead of fighting against them. 

For example, say you want your teen to stick to a strict curfew of 10:00 pm….but they haven’t been home before midnight in weeks. Although your main concern is keeping them safe, your teen might interpret this curfew  as an attempt to control them and reject it outright. As David explains in the episode, people tend to resist when they feel their agency is being taken away–especially teenagers!

The result? You continue to nag, and your teen continues to break curfew. If you want to stop the cycle, David recommends communicating your safety concerns to your teen, and help them understand that you just want them home in one piece. Most likely, they want to stay safe as well! Now the two of you have a goal you can work towards together–their safety. They might even agree to a compromise that makes the both of you happy, like texting you every hour or only going out late with certain friends.

Even if you’re being honest about your intentions, however, kids can be pretty stubborn. But how did they get that way? In our interview, David and I are discussing the psychology of forming opinions…and refusing to budge from them!

How Humans Handle the Ambiguous

When we’re confronted with  confusing information, our brains tend to work out some kind of solution or interpretation for the information we’ve just received–a process called disambiguation, as David explains. This process depends highly on our former life experiences, our access to information and our environment. This means that everyone disambiguates differently. When we see a new, trendy clothing style we aren’t used to, our brain might turn it from an ambiguous piece of clothing to something we dislike. Our teens, however, being from a different generation, might disambiguate these clothes in an opposite way..meaning you might be seeing them suddenly wearing something you think is strange or even ugly!

These variations in disambiguation often cause serious conflict in society. People from different backgrounds form remarkably different interpretations of events and issues, and fail to understand how anyone could possibly disagree with their particular viewpoint. David explains that we’re so hyper aware of our own disambiguations that we often can’t see the validity of anyone else’s. Then, especially with the help of the internet, we find others who agree with us until we’ve formed a group of people who reinforce our opinion and rarely encourage us to question it.

This stubborn divide in perspective is common among parents and teens, says David, and can be one of the reasons why teens and parents struggle to resolve conflict. Teens often fail to understand parents’ perspectives, but parents can also be out of touch with what teens feel and believe. We might try over and over again to get teens to study harder when all they want to do is hang out with their friends, forgetting that we were once rebellious teens ourselves. During those years, socializing often feels like life or death…and parents might benefit from remembering that feeling and interpreting situations from their teens’ mindset as best they can, says David.

Social pressures are incredibly significant for teens, and can be a big part of their opinion forming process. In the episode, David breaks down just how influential peer groups are in decision making.

The Power of Peer Influence

We all know that teens can be pretty susceptible to peer influence, but Dave explains just how powerful peers are in our interview. For humans, reputation is incredibly valuable, even more so then we may realize. He explains that humans actually fear “social death” (or being rejected by peers) even more than physical death. When confronted with the need to form an opinion on something, human beings will most reliably choose a conforming  viewpoint that keeps them from being ostracized from the group.

David explains that this is often what keeps people stuck in cults or radical groups. Because members of these groups are encouraged to cut off friends and family who don’t agree with the organization, they no longer have a safe social space where they can express disagreement. Re-establishing that connection to others with different perspectives is typically the only way out of these groups.  Although your teen likely isn’t in a cult, this logic still applies! Peer pressure can feel incredibly real when your teens just want to fit in.

In our interview, David advises parents to understand just how strong this need for peer acceptance is. If we attempt to convince our kids to ignore their friends and listen to us instead…it’s not likely to work. Because of this evolutionary need to stick with the pack, they’ll probably  listen to their friends and simply tune your opinion out. Instead, David encourages parents to prompt teens to think critically about their group of friends and decide for themselves if this is really the pack they want to roll with. This helps teens re-evaluate their own values and have agency over their own social life.

In the Episode….

This episode is jam-packed with fascinating  facts about forming opinions and changing minds! On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about…
  • What you should know about “belief change blindness”
  • How evolution shapes our decision making
  • Why it’s important to reconsider our values
  • How anyone can be more persuasive
If you want to find more of David’s work, you can find him at davidmcraney.com, on Twitter @davidmcraney, and on his podcast, You Are Not So Smart. Thanks for listening! Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week.

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
David McRaney
David McRaney
How Minds Change: https://t.co/uH2s8PG627 | YANSS: https://t.co/ZtYun0GPjn | Exploring Genius: https://t.co/qnkmkQmd5y | Speaking: https://t.co/YHGpsVTDR4
Ep 201: How Minds Change
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