Changing Minds by Changing Situations

You surely can’t have missed news on the current (and worsening) outbreak of measles in the US. Apart from providing us with an opportunity to mull over the self-interested inconsistencies in our coverage of, and responses to, various health crises that affect others throughout the world (as so nicely evidenced by the Tweet above) and while also allowing us an insight into how individualism can function (whereby it is made clear by some that their right to protect their own kids trumps any interest they might be expected to have in protecting your child’s health; see this news story as an example, notably the Arizona Dr. who is interviewed a little later), it also affords us a chance to think again about what that word “belief” designates and how those things we call beliefs originate and change.

Consider this recent radio story in which Shankar Vadantam, whose stories I’ve cited before on this blog, discusses the beliefs some people have concerning the dangers of vaccinating their children (e.g., the supposed link to autism) and how their beliefs might be changed, given how widely agreed the science is on the role vaccinations play in stimulating our immune systems in order to prevent many diseases.

It’s worth listening to in full.

Folk wisdom (the thing that we draw upon in daily life, that tells us history moves from left to right or that we each have a stable enduring identity that never changes, allowing us to say “That’s me!” when we see a childhood photo of ourselves) tells us that beliefs are not just private and thus internal but that they’re also primary and causal, whereby they animate subsequent actions — not an insignificant verb to use.

animate (v.) 1530s, “to fill with boldness or courage,” from Latin animatus, the past participle of animare, “to give breath to,” also “to endow with a particular spirit, to give courage to,” from anima “life, breath.”

So interior beliefs give life to public actions. Commonsense, right?

But what’s significant in this radio story is the manner in which this folk wisdom is suspended, even turned on its head; for if you listen carefully you’ll hear that belief is represented as a function of social networks. This is a point made on this blog before, of course, but here we find yet another example to complicate that taken for granted view that beliefs are pre-social sentiments (residing in our head? in our heart?) that we only secondarily express into the world.

For instance, early on in the radio story we hear:

our beliefs on all manner of issues are shaped by our pre-existing views. You know, that doesn’t mean that we’re completely deaf to the evidence; it just means that we filter how we interpret the evidence through our pre-existing beliefs and our loyalties to various groups and tribes….

Sure, the correspondents merely talk about beliefs being “shaped” and portray them as the effect of so-called pre-existing views (beliefs produce beliefs?), but it at least suggests that the way we read evidence has something to do with prior social allegiance and thus social interests, and not how inherently persuasive the facts are. But this point then gets pressed even further as the story goes on, for it becomes clear that it is more productive to understand belief as caused by, as an effect of, social networks than seeing it as some disembodied disposition.

For after all, we’re told that the way to change someone’s beliefs is to change the social networks in which he or she moves.

So, while coercing people to vaccinate their kids or using public pressure to shame them into doing it is one way to proceed, we learn that an even more productive route might be

… to build relationships and build trust…. So what we know for sure is the parents who are not vaccinating their kids are afraid, so the place to start might be to acknowledge that fear is real and deal with it.

The point?

If we instead understand belief as an internalization of a prior social situation, then we’ll understand that cold-calling on someone’s door to convert them likely won’t work so well, no matter how much literature you leave or how persuasively you talk. Instead, you’ll go the route of all those campus ministries that you find associated with universities in the US: you’ll put chalk art all over the sidewalks inviting people to supper or volleyball night. You see, those planning these events accurately understand that building increasingly intimate social relationships that result in ever more overlapping networks, comes first and, if successfully done, will result in people eventually (to riff off of a quote from Slavoj Žižek that I’ve often used in the past to make this very point) coming to believe that they joined the group because of what they believed — failing to see that the thing they call belief came later and is actually the residue or evidence of their membership in Group A and thus their alienation from Group B.

So if you want to change people’s minds don’t give them reams of peer reviewed scientific studies to read (a point also missed by all those advocates of science over religion who just keep repeating the facts more loudly, expecting anti-evolution advocates to finally succumb); instead, understand that you need to change people’s social situations — build new relationships and build trust, as our correspondent told us. Teachers in classrooms intent on persuading students of things that, at first, might strike newcomers to an academic discipline as counter-intuitive or even controversial have long known this — that’s why courses slowly work into a topic, first advancing and then retreating and reviewing before advancing again, all of which takes place while an instructor slowly works to build a rapport with the students (something that might explain why large enrollment lectures of impersonal, online courses seem to work far better in non-controversial, quantitative subject areas). And peace or even crisis negotiators have also long know this as well — you don’t just show up and inform someone they’re wrong and expect that to bring about a happy ending.

No, changing minds means changing situations first.

How ironic, then, that the radio story is entitled “The Psychology Behind Why Some Kids Go Unvaccinated,” when, it turns out, it is actually a study in sociology and politics; our penchant to talk of the individual as a disembodied, pre-social spirit is just that strong, I guess, that even when critiquing it we end up reproducing it.