Friends!! If you read only one thing today, stop here and click on this link to James Clear’s essay on why facts do not change minds. It’s very similar to Ozan Varol’s post of a similar title from last year. That piece prompted a prolonged conversation on my Facebook page two months ago, which I described and shared here.
I’m thinking hard again about facts and changing minds now, as the number of new measles cases skyrockets not just in the US but around the world. I’m so angry that we have to fight his war again—a war we had won as of 2000. I’m so frustrated that because of the actions of a relative few, the health and safety of the very many and vulnerable are once again at risk. I know my colleagues and many in the general public share my sentiments, and we often end up shaming and deriding our ‘anti-vaxxer’ peers. We hurl facts and statistics at them, incredulous at their intransigence to the truth of science.
In the end everybody digs in, feelings get hurt, relationships suffer, and the outbreaks progress.
There is a better way.
James and Ozan (I imagine them as friends and so refer to them by first name) explain it eloquently in the posts I share here, and I really encourage you to click on those links.
Personally, I return often to Jonathan Haidt’s analogy of our mind as an elephant (the emotional, limbic brain) and its rider (cognitive, rational brain). We think, as rational beings, that our riders steer our elephants. But psychology research and evidence tells us that the elephant goes where it wants; the rider rationalizes the path. That is why facts do not change people’s minds—they are the rider’s domain.
Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Switch, take Haidt’s idea further in their formula for behavior change:
- Direct the rider (provide the facts, rationale, and method),
- Motivate the elephant (make the message meaningful on a personal, emotional level), and
- Shape the path (shorten the distance, remove obstacles).
It occurred to me recently that when I flood you with facts about measles and vaccines, I speak only through my rider. You listen (or not) as both rider and elephant. But as Simon Sinek describes eloquently in Start With Why, the elephant limbic brain has no capacity for language. And facts, conveyed in words, have no emotional meaning or context. So unless your rider is somehow really driving in this moment, my rider’s appeal will not move you. Your elephant does not understand my rider, thus I cannot steer you where I want you to go.
So how can I motivate your elephant? If I’m using words, I can tell a story. But the words of any story matter far less than the emotions the story evokes. If I can relate with your own past experience, point you to a loss, a gratitude, or some shared connecting experience between us, then your elephant may hear me. If I tell my story with honesty, authenticity, and humility, then my rider serves as translator for my elephant, communicating directly with your elephant.
But the most important connection between our elephants, if I really want to change your mind, is my presence. Researchers agree that a vast majority of communication, up to 90%, occurs non-verbally. Even if my rider interpreter tells a great story, my attitude carries the real message. This manifests in my tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, stance, and all kinds of other subtle, nonverbal, subconscious cues—all seen and understood by your elephant, because they emanate from mine. Even if my story tugs at your heart strings, you will defend your position if you feel me to be righteous, shaming, condescending, etc. Elephants are smart; they know not to come out if it’s not safe. And if my elephant is at all on the attack (see anger and frustration above), your elephant knows full well not to show itself.
It’s not the words we say or the things we do—it’s not the method that counts. It’s how we are, how we make people feel—the approach—that gains us access to people’s consciousness and allows us to influence their thinking (which is really their feeling).
So I calm my rider and elephant first. Deep breaths. Then instead of my rider jumping off my elephant and charging at you with a wad of sharp verbal sticks, she sits back in her seat. My elephant humbly ambles alongside yours on the savannah of community and (humanity), shares some sweet grass, points to the water hole where we both want to go. I invite your inner pachyderm lovingly on a shared adventure toward optimal health for us all. Rather than rush, berate, or agitate you, I wait. I encourage. I welcome.
James Clear writes, “Facts don’t change minds. Friendship does,” and “Be kind first, be right later.”
My elephant fully concurs.
Some Facts, because I’m a doctor after all:
- As of last Friday, May 3, 2019, there were 764 known cases of measles in the United States. According to the CDC, “This is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1994 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000.”
- About 2/3 of patients are unvaccinated; 1/10 have been vaccinated, and the vaccination status of the rest is unknown.
- 44% of patients are children under 4 years of age.
See this article in the Washington Post from today for more statistics.
For answers to frequently asked questions about Measles, please refer to the CDC measles FAQ webpage.
Please talk to your doctor if you are unsure about your risk.