People don’t change their minds!

hugh-title-pictureSo a manager stands on a stage and lectures a group of people (or is that ‘thrusts hero opinions upon them’?) about how they should behave at work, and what ‘check box’ traits they should be looking for in others.

Within the bluster is a seemingly bizarre sentence stated as fact: That people don’t actually change their minds.

Is this true? How about some excellent examples of where you might agree:

  • a ‘Boris Johnson-loving’ Brexiteer at loggerheads with a ‘Yes to Europe’ standard bearer;
  • a Trump ‘nut’ arguing with a Hillary ‘supporter’;
  • a French secularist quarrelling with a Burkini wearer;
  • [name any other issue around the world and find people from opposing camps]

…what do you expect will be achieved by holding a ‘debate’ between these two sides?

Well, the best case scenario is that they retain their current views…but the worst case is that their positions will become firmer, their views more militant, and their mindsets become less respectful of (those that have now firmly become) their ‘opponents’1.

(Why) don’t we change our minds?

I recall reading an article that said a similar ‘people don’t change their mind’ thing…so I searched around the inter-web to see what I could find. Now, there are plenty of articles out there with headlines like ‘Why people don’t change their minds – even when faced with the facts’ so, yep, I was getting warm in my search…

…and after digging, reading, and a bit more digging, I find that there are two parts to it:

  1. Why do we form the opinions that we do?; and then
  2. Why do we cling on to them so tenaciously?

Now, many brilliant books have been written on the 1st part, covering all the weird and wonderful irrationality going on inside the human brain so I won’t attempt to summarise them here. If you want to ‘see for yourself’ then pick one of these up2 and have a read – they can be very entertaining!

But let’s go to the 2nd point: why do we cling on to these views once formed?

Here are a couple of explanations given:

Self-affirmation theory: individuals are driven to protect their self-integrity.

Hence, once you’ve decided something (especially if you make this public) then you are into ‘protection’ territory.

Cultural-cognition theory: the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact…to values that define their cultural identities (i.e. with the view of the groups with which we most strongly identify).

The key to this is the presence of doubt in respect of facts. If there’s no real dispute about something (e.g. that it’s currently raining outside) then there’s no challenge of values.

The doubt point is important, and was called out within research conclusions from this field of study3:

“…doubt turns people into stronger advocates…this effect is stronger if someone’s identity is threatened, if the belief is important to them, and if they think that others will listen. It all fits with a pattern of behaviour where people evangelise to strengthen their own faltering beliefs.”

…and the following is worth reading a couple of times and pondering:

 “The present research also offers a warning to anyone on the receiving end of an advocacy attempt. Although it is natural to assume that a persistent and enthusiastic advocate of a belief is brimming with confidence, the advocacy might in fact signal that the individual is boiling over with doubt.”

So back to that lecture:

What struck me about being told the ‘we don’t change our minds’ statement is that it questioned the whole basis of the lecture being dealt out to the group of people listening. If people don’t change their minds then why lecture them on your opinions? (i.e. attempting power/coercive or rational change)…you’ve just implied that there’s no point!

Now, I’d like to suggest an obvious flaw in the presenter’s logic about change.

Yes, people may be devoted to their (currently held) beliefs but they (including you and I) demonstrably do sometimes change their minds…and perhaps it is worth considering the massively important question: What was it that got them to change their minds?

Enter that lovely idea of normative change – true change arising through experiential learning.

I’ll describe a rather nice example:

I was watching a TV programme recently presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (River Cottage chef).

Hugh is a favourite eco-warrior of mine and his programme was all about the amount of waste within our daily lives…and a call to action to do something about it.

hugh-binsHugh picked an ‘average’ street in a Manchester suburb and joined the bin (garbage) men and their truck, on the weekly rubbish collection. He then ‘went through their bins’ back at the waste processing plant, gathering together what he found – mounds of discarded clothes, wasted food, unwanted electrical goods….and so on.

Now, Hugh looked into lots of different waste angles during his programme…but I want to focus on one of these, which makes the relevant point for this post:

Of particular note was the amount of metal, plastic and glass that had been thrown into the general rubbish bin – i.e. unsorted and therefore due for landfill or incineration – even though everyone in the street had been provided with recycling bins and instructions on what should and shouldn’t be put in them.

Why weren’t people separating their recyclable waste from the rest?

recyclingA great question!

So, where would be a good place to investigate?

Well, with someone who utterly refuses to separate their waste because they “don’t believe in it”. Can you see where this is going…

You may be able to influence those already on the cusp of change but if you want to appreciate the real problem then, however uncomfortable this might be, you need to find and work with a ‘true disbeliever’.

Hugh asked around the street and found the perfect person to ask: A young women, perhaps in her 20s, with (what us old farts might think as) an ‘attitude’ on life and what it owes her (I’m sure she’s a great person 🙂 ).

…and so Hugh sat down for a cup of tea and a chat with her about recycling…BUT, the important bit, here’s how he did it:

He observed her environment and then, from asking some non-judgemental questions about her behaviours, he listened to what she believed….and when she said something of particular note, rather than pointing out the counter-logic he simply checked that he had fully understood her belief – perhaps with a further clarifying question and/or repeating it back to her to confirm.

Importantly, he never sneered or scoffed at her responses (which would have been a direct challenge to her self-integrity) – he politely listened and showed a genuine interest in what she thought.

…and she came out with the classics:

  • “Why should I be wasting my time separating stuff, it’s not my problem – it’s ‘theirs’ to sort out”;
  • “There’s no point in separating the plastic, metal and glass from the rest because they all go straight to the landfill anyway”;
  • “Even if they don’t go straight to landfill [i.e. they go somewhere to be processed], nothing actually of worth is done with the materials that they separate out”; and
  • “It’s just a waste of time.”

I hope you can see that, if this is what someone believes, you can tell them till you are ‘blue in the face’ that this isn’t the case, and even tell them why…but where would this get you?

Even more interesting is that if ‘I’ believe the opposite of her recycling statements, how do I know that I’m right? Perhaps she’s right!

…and so we can see that we have arrived at that point – two people holding opposing views. Arguing about it (even by producing supposed ‘facts’) isn’t going to be productive. This is no different to telling a Trump ‘nut’ why they should be a Hilary ‘supporter’.

So, given the ‘people don’t change their mind’ narrative, is this the end? Should Hugh ‘pack up and go home’? Of course not…

Hugh has nicely set up a potential dose of normative learning. He’s found out what she believes, so he now knows what experiences to provide her with…and given his genuine interest in what she has to say, he has established the necessary level of trust to take things further.

He therefore gets her acceptance to go along (with a whole group from her neighbourhood – spot the cultural identity bit!) to see the recycling plant. Importantly, he goes with them to show that he, just as much as they, needs to experience it – he could be wrong too!4

The visit

hugh-waste-visitSo they start at the beginning: a manual sorting line with workers at a conveyor belt removing all the things that the recycling plant can’t (currently) process. Eeeew – no one said it was going to be pretty!

Learning number 1: Seeing what waste the current process can and can’t cope with.

They move on to see an awesome magnet sucking the iron-containing metal off the moving line. Cool!

Next, the line goes over big crushing teeth – gravity bounces the glass over them and smashes it into little bits which fall through the gaps…but the plastic and aluminium glides over the teeth. Glass separated – Awesome!

After that, another magnet gets to work on the aluminium – but this is different than earlier because it repels it off the line. Groovy!

And the impressive finale: the remaining plastic goes over a conveyor belt ‘cliff’ containing sophisticated cameras. These cameras can ‘see’ the types of plastic, which then rapidly trigger lasers to shoot certain plastics in differing directions.  Amazing!

And so to the end, to see big cubes of metal, glass, aluminium and different plastics stacked to the ceiling.

Learning number 2: Our waste can be, and is, separated into types.

Hugh’s group of observers are really impressed. What a ride!

Except for that young women – our disbeliever. Yes, she thought it was really cool technology and all that…but “I still don’t believe anything gets done with it.”

But Hugh’s not done – he takes them to a display where he has gathered together examples of what each recycled material goes on to become, from clothes through to bike frames. She picks out a really cool branded jacket, puts it on…and it fits. She loves it…she wants it…Hugh tells her that it was made from a bundle of recycled plastic…and, yes, she can have it.

Learning’s number 3 and 4: Something is done with the recycled materials…and I like the result, so it’s not a waste of time!

People don’t change – really?

Well, you’ve guessed it, through the power of television Hugh goes back to see our disbeliever in her daily life some time later and she is happily sorting her rubbish into what can and can’t be recycled.

Let’s go back to the top: if Hugh had ‘given her a lecture’, then she wouldn’t have changed. Worse, her efforts at arguing back would have made her more militant – she would have justified herself!


I accept that there is likely to be a small percentage of people who, even after what might appear to be compelling experiential evidence, might not change their mind…but I believe that there are far fewer people like this than we might imagine.

The experiences required to alter our thinking will likely differ for each of us…and this comes back to the need to understand each of our underlying beliefs and behaviours if we are to effect meaningful change.

Further, some people might need several doses and a longer time period for the normative medicine to take effect on them. We each process our thoughts in some quite bizarre ways. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ operation….but that’s because we are all different…which is a great thing.


And, of course, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.” (Upton Sinclair)

So, back to the world of work

lecture“But that normative stuff will take far too long! We’ve only got time for a lecture.”

Hahaha…and look where all those lectures are getting you!

Such a response reminds me of a wonderful quote:

“Managers will try anything easy that doesn’t work before they will try anything hard that does” (Womack)

And to those of us trying to move our organisations from ‘command and control’ to a better place, we can ‘tell them’ about the effects of cascaded objectives, targets, ratings, rewards etc…but don’t expect change from this.

We need them to see reality for themselves.

You may find that you can’t just take managers ‘to the gemba’ (the place where the work is done) BUT:

  • you can talk with, and observe, them to find out what they believe; and
  • you can look for learning opportunities as and when situations arise

i.e. bide your time, look for the instance…and then engineer a chance for experiential learning…and keep doing this until they start to question their own beliefs.

A nice quote that fits with this: “Only describe, don’t explain” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

i.e. show them what is actually happening, but let them ponder and explain it for themselves….but provide them with help along the way.

To close:

So, do people change their mind? Of course they do…but not because you told them to!

And therefore, given all of the above, have I changed your mind? Of course not! I’ve merely explained something to you. You would need to go out and discover normative change for yourself….but I might have made you curious to do so 🙂


1. Debates: This is why the media just love the debate format. It does little for humanity, but a lot for ratings.

2. Irrationality: The first such book I read was called ‘Irrationality’, written by the late Stuart Sutherland (Professor of Psychology) – a good read. The last one I read was ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman.

3. Research: David Gal and Derek Rucker, North-western University referred to within this 2010 MINNPOST article

4. Could Hugh have been wrong? I realise that this is ‘Television’ and Hugh will have done his homework first (i.e. been to the recycling plant and seen for himself).

5. Note to councils around the world: If you really want people to recycle, and do so really well, then you need to show them (including me!) what happens….and every time that you make a step-change improvement in the capability of your process, you need to inform us of this and show us.

6 thoughts on “People don’t change their minds!

  1. Thank you for a very thought provoking post as always.

    I do wonder how often I have been swayed by a ‘debate’ and how more likely I am to entrench my position.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The other day I saw this quote from TS Elliot. Thought you might like it:

    “Nothing pleases people more than to go on thinking what they have always thought, and at the same time imagine that they are thinking something new and daring: it combines the advantage of security and the delight of adventure.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that the following* fits nicely with your quote…

      The Power of Limiting Beliefs:

      A man is in a psychiatric hospital because he genuinely believes he is a corpse. Staff and doctors point out the error in his thinking but it is no use – he believes he is a corpse.

      His doctor has an idea and asks his patient if corpses bled. “Of course corpses don’t bleed” the patient replied.

      The doctor then took out a pin and jabbed the patient on his finger. Both men watched closely as blood started to form on the pin prick.

      “Well I’ll be damned” the patient exclaimed, “Corpses DO bleed!”

      (* Thanks to Julie for passing this on to me after reading the post above 🙂 )

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post. Its a good point to observe what your intended target believes and wait for opportunities for them to experience these things for themselves. Thanks for this insight. I’ll be using this as well.


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