What are the implications of believing it’s impossible to alter other people’s beliefs?

By Alex Fradera

What makes us stand up and advocate for what we believe? Whether denouncing the tyranny of taxation or making a plea for the necessity of universal health care, we’re surely driven by our conviction and the urgency of the situation. But how about what we believe about belief itself, whether it is fixed or malleable? Work in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology untangles the previously invisible effect of our belief in human certainty.

This is tricky topic to study. People who believe attitudes are set in stone are more likely be more motivated to stand up for their own, thanks to a heightened certainty and faith in their own position. But at the same time, believing attitudes are fixed means the views of your adversaries will be hard to shift, making it less worthwhile to try to change them. In other words, if there’s an effect of people’s beliefs about human certainty on their willingness to advocate (to attempt to persuade others), it’s likely to play out in opposing directions, making it difficult to uncover.

Undaunted, Omair Akhtar, who works for Apple, and S. Christian Wheeler of Stanford University recruited 82 participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk and asked half to read a scientific article that reported that attitudes are fixed, and the others to read a different version that stated they are easily changeable. Next, the researchers surveyed the participants’ opinions about the death penalty.

Those in the “attitudes are fixed” condition expressed both more certainty in their own attitude (whether pro or anti), and a stronger sense that others were unlikely to be persuadable. But they were no more or less likely to say they would try to persuade someone else about the death penalty – an apparently null effect on willingness to advocate, just as we suspected might happen.

This might seem to imply that our beliefs about human certainty are irrelevant to our willingness to advocate. But that’s not the case. Akhtar and Wheeler were able to penetrate the fog using powerful advances in statistical analysis, showing that believing in the fixed nature of attitudes both tips us toward convincing others, thanks to increasing the certainty of our own attitudes, and also deters us from trying to convince them, thanks to increasing our belief in the non-persuadability of others. The two contrasting effects, normally invisible, were now apparent.

With evidence that the two effects were real, the researchers set about trying to pull them apart. In another online experiment, the researchers asked 284 participants to read either the “attitudes are fixed” or “attitudes are changeable” articles, and then to spend time thinking about a particular purpose of trying to persuade people who disagree with you – either as an opportunity to stand up for one’s views or as a chance to exchange views. Participants in the fixed attitude group who thought about persuasion as a chance to stand up for their views were subsequently more willing to try and engage with death penalty opponents. In contrast, those in the fixed attitude condition who thought about persuasion as a chance exchange views, were less likely to say they would try to alter other people’s opinions (although this effect was statistically non-significant).

This matters: it suggests that whether we are motivated to engage in advocacy depends on a combination of how we view the purpose of advocacy, and our beliefs about human certainty. People who naturally subscribe to the fixed attitude theory are more likely to be animated by the chance to be heard; it’s worth noting that data from a preliminary study suggests conservatives and Republicans tend to fall in this category.

In the run-up to a heated US election, this work helps us understand what motivates people to speak out about their beliefs. “Being heard” is a recipe for galvanising those who are pessimistic about the minds of their opponents, but who also have an appetite for self-expression. It’s the principle that allows partisans to expend energy yelling (or FURIOUSLY TYPING) at each other – no Trump supporter expects Clinton supporters to be swayed by “lock her up!” but that’s not why they are saying it. A hardcore develops, ever ready to share their belief and connect with other true believers.

Meanwhile, the preferred situations for those of us who believe attitudes aren’t fixed are those that appear to be a chance to consider, evolve, and alter opinions. If you’re in this “attitudes are malleable” group, and find conversation repeatedly stymied by intractable opponents, consider that they may be coming into the conversation with not only a different opinion, but a different mindset. To reduce frustration, we may want to begin conversations by clearly framing advocacy the way we want it framed: for me, that might mean stating early on that a discussion is only really productive if those involved are willing to change their mind. This way, we can give people the chance to opt out of activities that, from their own perspective, can only end in failure.

Belief in the immutability of attitudes both increases and decreases advocacy

Image via Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

7 thoughts on “What are the implications of believing it’s impossible to alter other people’s beliefs?”

  1. Alex Fradera says “To reduce frustration, we may want to begin conversations by clearly framing advocacy the way we want it framed: for me, that might mean stating early on that I believe a discussion is a waste of time if no-one is willing to change their mind. This way, we can give people the chance to opt out of activities that, from their own perspective, can only end in failure.”

    I empathize with the author’s hope that properly framing a discussion to reflect the implications of this research will reduce conflict. Unfortunately, if we combine the results of this study with those showing that strongly held beliefs tend to become more firmly entrenched when presented with facts countering them, it seems to me that starting a conversation by implying that the other side is entrenched and won’t change their minds might confirm their beliefs and make things worse. This seems like the operational definition of polarization. And just because a person *believes* they won’t change their strongly held beliefs doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t. I might instead start by attempting to shift the listeners frame a bit closer to the one I prefer: I might say “I believe we can and do change our minds about the things we believe when we take the time to listen. I will listen to your positions with an open mind if you will do to the same for me. If either of us feels the other has stopped listening, we can choose to end the conversation.” I may be naive to think this wording would make a difference, but it might be worth a try.

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  2. Thanks for your comment and for raising how an adversarial tone in the frame might simply lead to polarisation. I was aiming to compress a sentiment very close to what you have nicely described, but the use of a negative frame ‘waste of time’ may have been misleading. What might be better (while still retaining brevity) is

    ” that might mean stating early on that a discussion is only really productive if those involved are willing to change their mind.”

    I also agree about the possibility of shifting the speaker towards me, but I wanted to avoid bringing that into this post as it’s not directly indicated by this research and I didn’t want to cloud the findings.

    Thanks for homing in on this!

    Liked by 1 person

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