How psychology can help you change someone’s mind

[Source illustration: martinwimmer/Getty Images]

Changing your mind (or someone else’s) is a complex process. But understanding how your brain works can help.

If you’ve ever tried to change someone’s mind but found they were completely unwilling to budge in their thinking, it can help to understand how the brain works. Changing your mind—or someone else’s—is a complex process done through assimilation or accommodation, says David McRaney, author of How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion and host of the science podcast You Are Not So Smart.

“When the brain is confronted with novel information that generates cognitive dissonance, we tend to assuage that conflict by either updating our interpretations information or updating the models of reality that we generated to make sense of it,” he says.

Assimilation is when the brain takes the new information and fits it into an existing model in the brain. Accommodation is when we acknowledge that our existing model is incomplete or incorrect. The brain updates the model so that the novel information is no longer an anomaly but a new layer of understanding.

The easiest way to understand how it happens is to think of a child who is learning how the world works and building complex neural structures. For example, if they see a dog for the first time and are told the word for it, the brain creates a category that defines “nonhumans walking on four legs” as dogs. If later they see a horse, they may say, “dog.” Their brain is going through assimilation. Once corrected, the brain shifts into accommodation.

“To expand your mind, you literally have to create a new category in which horse and dog exists,” says McRaney. “You have to change your mind, keeping what you already know but updating your interpretations.”


Everyone’s mind is filled with beliefs, attitudes, and values, says McRaney. He defines beliefs as an estimation of your confidence in the truth or falsity of a piece of information. Attitudes are positive or negatives evaluations of something. And values are an estimation of what is most important and most worth our time. All these things combined impact how someone thinks.

To better understand how someone can have beliefs and attitudes that are opposite of yours, McRaney likes to give the example of “the dress” debate of 2015. Some people saw the dress as being black and blue and others saw it as white and gold. If you saw the dress one way, you couldn’t see it the other.

“People were getting into arguments,” says McRaney. “They were saying, ‘There must be something wrong with you if you don’t see it how I do.’”

Turns out, the photo was overexposed, and how you saw the dress was related to the amount of time you’ve spent in sunlight versus artificial light. After two years of research with more than 10,000 participants, Pascal Wallisch, a neuroscientist who studies perception, discovered that the more time a person had spent exposed to artificial light, which is predominantly yellow, the more likely they saw the dress as being black and blue. Their brains were unconsciously processing the overexposure as being artificially lit, removing the yellow light, and leaving the bluer shades. For a person who had spent more time exposed to natural light, the opposite was true, and their brains subtracted the blue light and saw the dress as white and gold.

“We are not aware that our brains do this; we are just on the receiving end of the process,” says McRaney. “What is amazing is that your life choices lead to what sort of assumptions you see.”


When you meet people who disagree with you on certain topics, it’s important to realize that you’re unaware of all the forces that took place to create their conclusions. Someone else’s beliefs, attitudes, and values are made up of a culmination of years of experiences and behaviors. People can and do change their minds for a variety of reasons, and one of those is due to persuasion, such as a one-on-one conversation, a learning experience, or media messaging.

McRaney says successful persuasion involves leading a person along in stages, helping them to better understand their own thinking. “You can’t persuade another person to change their mind if that person doesn’t want to do so,” he says. “Persuasion is mostly encouraging people to realize change is possible. All persuasion is self-persuasion. People change or refuse based on their own desires, motivations, and internal counterarguing; and by focusing on these factors, an argument becomes more likely to change minds.”


F. Kaskais Web Guru

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