Three Ways to Change a Person’s Convictions

Convictions are rooted in the combination of core values and beliefs. We all have convictions not only about how things actually are in the world, but about how things should be. These ideals represent our picture of life at its best. They shape how we engage the world.

Although these ideals may feel universal, they most likely aren’t. Societies around the world amass surprisingly different conglomerates of core values and beliefs, influenced by the history, traditions, and circumstances of their members. People within the same society tend to have many similar core values and beliefs, but even then, there can be sharp disagreements.

So, what’s the big deal? Can’t people hold whatever convictions feel right to them? What’s really at stake?

Well, let’s think about this practically. As long as personal or societal convictions aren’t causing harm to anybody, there doesn’t seem to be a problem. However, when particular convictions—or clashes of convictions—endanger people, we have a motivation to convince someone to change.

The big questions to ask are (A) who should change, and (B) how do we convince them?

Who should change?

Question (A) of who should change remains a puzzle for those who are dedicated moral relativists. For the rest of us, the answer of who should change is pretty simple: the one who’s wrong. But now our question comes down to epistemology. How do we determine who’s wrong?

Well, I only see three ways. Let me know in the comments if you can think of any more. Here they are:

  1. We assume that someone is wrong.
  2. We make an argument that someone is wrong.
  3. We have direct knowledge that someone is wrong.*

[*I would say there are very few cases where 3 applies. We very rarely have direct insight into a person’s thoughts or into the basic truth or falsehood of propositions (at least, regarding the propositions we start wars over). The only case I can really think of where 3 would apply is if you have direct knowledge that you are wrong, because you know that something is true, and yet you endorse the opposite.]

I am sure you will agree with me that 2 is a more noble way than 1. When you take the 2 approach, you can theoretically discover, through exploration of arguments, that you yourself were actually the one who was wrong. We should expect in all probability that we are wrong about something. Thus, way 2 allows for personal growth.

However, 2 requires some effort, and many of us don’t get that far. We take shortcuts. Besides, we’re not always self-aware enough to realize when we are making assumptions. Emotions can get in the way. It can seem like our way is the only way. Don’t be hard on yourself, though. It can all turn out okay, depending on how you go about answering the next question.

How do we convince them?

Question (B) asks how we can convince someone to change when (we think) they are wrong. Again, I only see three ways to go about this. Let me know if you see any more. Here they are:

  1. We threaten them to change.
  2. We model change for them to imitate.
  3. We argue for the benefits of change (or costs of not changing).

Way 1 is the most brutish. Many people can be broken into submission under the threat of violence. The stance of threat is uni-directional. There is no negotiation. It is my way or the high way.

Ways 2 and 3, on the other hand, are bi-directional. They both allow for the disagreeing party to remain opposed to change unless they are themselves convinced they want to change.*

[*Way 2 includes cultural modeling, from previous generations to arising ones, which may be considered more as a passive transfer of values than as an active acceptance of change. That is an acceptable consideration, given our discussion here.]

What is interesting to me is how much I see people using way 1 as their primary persuasive technique. PhDs can sometimes be the worst culprits. I am not talking about conversations over gunpoint.*am talking about bullying, name-calling, threatening disassociation, shaming, and all types of emotional and verbal belittling conceived.

[*I leave it open for discussion whether way 1 is necessary for motivating change in some cases, like, for instance, when a known violent offender is threatening violence. While implementing way 1 for motivating change may be justified in certain cases, I am attempting to point our minds to the cases where the justification for using way 1 to motivate change is not so readily apparent.]

You are a smart person, and you already know what I’m talking about. But let me just point out a few examples (some controversial, nonetheless) to make sure you really see the depth of this.

For example, if a leader publicly questions the current political formulation of “Climate Change”, what response do we hear? Do we enter into a point by point debate over the scientific data? Do we lay out our concerns over how government funds are allocated depending on the government’s stance on this issue? Or is the leader labeled a “science-denier” and otherwise demonized as someone who doesn’t care about the environment?

Here is another example. If a business owner believes that there are, on average, some differences between the genders in terms of their physical, emotional, and mental acuities and interests, and the owner takes those beliefs into account while assessing job candidates, what would happen? Do we see helpful reporters stopping by the business owner’s office to inform him of the latest studies showing that gender differences are a myth? Do we see anyone preparing him a document that outlines how his business and society as a whole would benefit from him adopting different hiring preferences? Or is the business owner labeled a “sexist” and sued at the hint of discrimination?

Or how about this. Your spouse, or your kid, does something that aggravates you. How do you respond? Do you give them a list of considerations for why they would be better off changing their behavior? Do you help them see the reasons you think their behavior undermines them? Or do you resort to labeling them “lazy”, “rebellious”, “uncaring”, (or names I can’t say in public places)? If you don’t do this, I am so happy to hear it! Sadly, I am sure you know someone who does something just like this.

From my imperfect assessment, most people resort to way 1 as their primary tool in attempting to change people’s minds.

Honestly, I don’t know how people could escape using way 1 in their debates across the aisle. It’s everywhere. And it’s pretty hard not to let out a return shout at somebody when they’re shouting at you.

But that’s the key right there. Realize it’s hard to have a reasonable conversation about things that matter. Realize we tend to resort to some method of shaming to get people to either remain silent or to conform to our perspective. Once you are aware, you can intend to change the trend.

The best place to start is with how you engage people across the aisle on a topic you care about. Will you resort to attempting to convince them by threat, shame, or guilt? Or will you become a role model for how to show people respect when you disagree with them? Perhaps you will even discover some pretty persuasive arguments along the way.


Author: Rachel Rasmussen

Rachel Rasmussen, M.S., is an entrepreneur and author of the book, Escaping the Ordinary Life. Her primary research centers on practical theology, spirituality, science, and issues that influence ordinary life. She lives with her husband and three kids in Azusa, CA.

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