How to change people's minds when they refuse to listen

Research into climate change deniers shows how behavioural science can break down intransigence.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 16 Jan 2020
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Food for thought

There is a beautiful quality to mathematics that isn’t found in any other form of human enquiry: it teaches you how to be wrong. So when Stephen Hawking admitting his decades-long errors on the non-existence of the Higgs Boson or the destruction of information in a black hole, there was no shame or stubbornness because there can be no arguing against proof. 

Business is a long way from mathematics. Whether your view prevails at work is as much a consequence of how relatively convincing or credible you are as it is about how right your argument is. This means that, sadly, no matter how irrefutable your case ought to be, there is no guarantee that it will overcome sheer bloody-mindedness.  

Research by behavioural scientist Gabrielle Wong-Parodi and others points to an intriguing way of overcoming intransigence from bosses, colleagues or even subordinates, in an article recently published in the journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability on overcoming climate change denial.

Refusal to accept the scientific consensus on climate change is rooted, Wong-Parodi argues, in "motivated denial" - essentially that reasons to want to hold a belief can cause someone to interpret away evidence that undermines the belief. 

For example, to accept that humans are causing climate change would require a West Virginia coal miner to accept the uncomfortable propositions that their job isn’t sustainable and that they are in some way culpable for floods or bushfires halfway across the world.

The study identified four ways of overcoming motivated denial in a systematic review of the scientific literature: 

1) reframing sustainability as preserving social systems rather than ecosystems 

2) finding common ground ideologically by talking about the Earth’s purity as opposed to the harm we’re doing 

3) identifying trusted individuals to discuss the scientific consensus 

4) encouraging people to talk about their values generally before talking about the specifics of the issue

The same principles of reframing an issue, finding common ground and trusted third parties and resetting to fundamental beliefs can all be applied in a business context, whether that's disagreement on strategy between departments or the reaction of an established team to a new boss.

However, while behavioural science can be useful in overcoming workplace intransigence, as a general rule it would be unwise to default to considering someone else's opinion or judgement as a mere obstacle to be overcome. After all, how do you know you're not guilty of the same problem? Instead, the real benefit comes from unblocking the conversation, which inevitably starts with a willingness to show empathy.  

Image credit: Francesco Ungaro/Pexels

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How to change people's minds when they refuse to listen

Research into climate change deniers shows how behavioural science can break down intransigence.