The First Steps to Changing Anyone’s Mind
Read time: 6 minutes
There comes a time in our professional lives when we want to change someone’s mind. You may want to persuade an investment committee that a certain course of action is the right one. Perhaps you want to convince your boss to fund a new initiative. You might need to break through to a tough client. Or maybe you simply need to bring a spouse or child to see things the way you do.
But change is hard. Often, we push, pressure, cajole, or try to convince people with more reasons and information, yet they won’t budge. Fortunately, there are strategic ways to change minds, incite action, and encourage people to come around.
Status Quo Bias
Why is change difficult? Why are people reticent to do new things? One reason is status quo bias. People tend to stick with what they’re doing already — they buy the same products, return to the same vacation destinations, and go to the same restaurant again and again (and maybe even order the same thing). Status quo bias explains why we tend to stick with funding or investment decisions and are reticent to engage in new ones.
How do we overcome status quo bias? Usually, when we think about changing minds, we tend to take a particular type of approach: pushing. We tend to give people our reasons, facts, figures, and information, convinced that our incontrovertible data will push them to our point of view. After all, pushing is often a good way to get a chair to move. But while chairs yield to our show of force, people often don’t. They push back. They martial their own set of facts, intellectual or emotional reasons why they won’t budge. When you double down with yet more data, they bristle in defense.
You Can’t Force Change
Good change agents don’t just push harder. They find a different way to create change.
A good way to think about this: imagine a car parked on an incline. You push the gas, but it doesn’t go. The car doesn’t need more gas. The parking brake just needs to be depressed. So how do we find the hidden parking brakes that are getting in the way of change? There are five key barriers to change that come up again and again: reactants, endowment, distance, uncertainty, and corroborating evidence. Taking the first letter of each spells “reduce.” That’s exactly what great catalysts do: they reduce roadblocks.
When you ask people to do something, it can make them less likely to do it. In general, people feel they’re in control of their choices, that they’re in the driver’s seat. When someone else tries to persuade them, it muddies the waters. They can’t be sure whether they prefer an investment strategy because they like it or because someone else told them about it.
Many people have a sort of anti-persuasion radar. When you get a call from a telemarketer or a salesperson, or an ad comes up on television or email, you probably ignore it. We engage in evasive action to avoid persuasion, or even worse, we counterargue. People poke and prod until the greatness of an argument comes tumbling down. How can we avoid this reaction when presenting our own arguments?
One way is to get people to persuade themselves. Rather than selling people, how can we get them to buy in? How can we give them agency? There are a few ways.
One is providing a menu. Smart presenters don’t give people just one option. When you give people one option, they figure out reasons why they don’t like it. Instead, give people multiple options. What this does is subtly shift the role of the listener. Rather than counterarguing, it gives them a different job: choosing which option they prefer. Providing a menu creates guided choices. It gives people freedom and autonomy, but with a limited set of choices.
Another strategy is highlighting a gap. The Thai Health Foundation, for example, wanted to get people to quit smoking. In a video it created, people who were smoking on various street corners or outside office buildings were asked for a light. It’s something most would say yes to. But this time the person asking was a child. Instead of rote acquiescence, the smokers told the child, “Smoking’s bad for you. It rots your teeth and hurts your lungs.” After this interaction, the kid hands that smoker a piece of paper that says, “You worry about me, but not yourself. Call this phone line to quit smoking.” The video got more than 5 million views on social media and led to a 40% increase in calls to the quit line.
The video didn’t try to persuade people. It pointed out a gap between their attitudes and actions. When those don’t line up, cognitive dissonance is created, and people work to resolve that.
Imagine your boss or colleague is wedded to an old project that’s losing money. They don’t want to let it go. Instead of telling them what to do, highlight a gap. Ask them, “If someone at another company was thinking of starting an initiative like this, would you suggest doing it?” Most people would not, and then you can say, “Then why are we still doing it?”
Breaking Through the Status Quo
The main idea of endowments is people are attached to that status quo. So how do we raise the cost of inaction? Distance is how much space there is between where you want someone to go from where they are now — when we ask for too much, they often don’t want to move.
The idea of uncertainty is that people fear new things. Any time you ask people to do something new, there are switching costs. Not just time and money, but also in time and effort. These costs hinder people from doing things, even if benefits will come later. How do we get people to un-pause? Make them feel certain so they can move forward.
Last, but not least, is corroborating evidence. Sometimes people faced with change are either a pebble that is easy to move or a boulder that is difficult to move. For pebbles, sometimes your early strategies work. Boulders need more evidence before they even budge. But the evidence can’t come solely from us; they want to hear it from other people to make sure it’s really true. There’s an old adage that says if one person says that you have a tail, you laugh. But if five people say that you have a tail, you turn around to take a look. That’s exactly this idea of corroborating evidence.
Put these five together and they spell “reduce,” which is exactly what great change agents do. They don’t push harder, try to persuade or convince, or add more facts and reasons. They identify the barriers to change and mitigate them. Most of us have barrier blindness. Whenever we try to change minds, we focus on us and the thing we want to achieve, not our audience. Great change agents focus on their audience and the obstacles that are preventing them from changing their minds.
About Jonah Berger
Jonah Berger is a Marketing Professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of New York Times and Wall Street Journal best seller The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind.
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