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Right Now | The Minds, They Are A-Changin'

Pliable Paradigms

March-April 2004

If ever someone understood the challenges of changing people's minds, it was Charles Darwin. After doing his research in the Galápagos Islands in the 1830s, Darwin spent the next 20 years developing his theory of evolution. He was slow to publish his ideas. Because they contradicted the prevailing creationist view, Darwin realized just how much they would offend fellow scientists and the general public, including his own devoutly Christian wife. In fact, when On the Origin of Species eventually appeared in 1859, the backlash was immediate. Scientific colleagues, the clergy, and the public all initially rejected his theory. But over time, thanks to the efforts of vocal defenders like Thomas Huxley, scientists began to change their minds and accept Darwin's ideas.

What tipped the balance in Darwin's favor? For that matter, how does a CEO get his employees to adopt new quality standards, or a wife convince her husband to quit smoking? How did modernists like Stravinsky, Picasso, and T.S. Eliot overthrow the romanticism of the nineteenth century? Cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner, Hobbs professor of cognition and education at the Graduate School of Education, says the ability to change someone's mind (including your own) depends on seven factors, which he calls "levers." "The more you understand about the levers," he says, "the more you ought to be able to bring about mind-change."

Gardner describes these levers in a forthcoming book, Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds (Harvard Business School Press). They are reason; research (collection of data to support an argument); resonance (the ability of a person's story to strike a chord with listeners); representational redescription ("a highfalutin term that means taking the key idea and presenting it in lots of different ways," Gardner explains); real world events; resistance (the process of understanding an audience's opposition); and resources and rewards (the financial means to make a change happen or provide incentives to those who adopt a change). If you have only a brief window in which to sway someone, choose the most effective levers for your situation, Gardner says. In the case of "people who deal with ideas," including artists and scientists like Darwin, understanding the nature of an audience's resistance to a new idea — say, their devotion to a creation story — is particularly important.

Presidential candidates take note: the lever of resonance plays an important role for national leaders. Gardner believes Margaret Thatcher excelled at this. She convinced British voters in 1979 to elect her and accept her plans to reinvigorate Britain because she had a compelling message that echoed her own life history. The daughter of grocers, Thatcher earned a spot at Oxford and later worked her way up the ranks of the Conservative Party leadership. The story not only resonated with the public, but reinforced her message that Britain had lost its way and required hard work and vision to get back on track.

Drawing on decades of research in cognitive psychology, Gardner develops a framework that taps into his previous thinking about leadership and creativity, and his well-known theory of multiple intelligences. For example, he says teachers change minds most effectively when they convey ideas in multiple ways — like telling stories, showing charts, and leading hands-on activities — to engage different intelligences.

Gardner admits that he's most excited by "the intimate aspects of mind-changing" in one-on-one relationships, such as that between a therapist and patient, an employer and employee, or two old friends. Here again, resonance — the ability to create a bond with another person and take the temperature of that connection — plays a key role. Gardner had been wondering if resonance could be built across a deep divide when he came upon the case of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who were bitter political rivals in the decades after the American Revolution. In their seventies, the two men famously changed their minds and reconciled, largely, he notes, by emphasizing their shared experiences.

The most intimate mind-changes may be those that occur in our own heads. Here Gardner focused on monumental shifts, as when a government leader announces a major policy alteration. "People get emotionally attached to certain ideas, or publicly committed to certain ideas, and that makes self-mind-change especially difficult," he notes. He was particularly fascinated by the case of anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl, who argued when he was young that the minds of primitive humans differed substantially from those of modern humans. During the next 50 years, however, Levy-Bruhl examined his arguments and in his private journals made an honest accounting of his errors and shifts in opinion — significant changes that occurred thanks to the lever Gardner calls reason.

He notes one additional factor — birth order — that may play a role in the ability to change one's mind. Some research suggests that, throughout history, first-born children have been slow to accept new ideas, Gardner says (see "Born to Rebel," July-August 1995, page 10). "You find that later-borns are much more likely to embrace radically new ideas in science like Darwinism, radically new ideas in religion, like Protestantism, or radically new ideas in politics, like communism."

If you're stuck trying to win over a group of first-borns, you have all the more reason to think about which levers will be most convincing. Even in the best circumstances, Gardner reiterates, mind-change isn't a simple, or swift, proposition. He summons up the example of the New Testament figure who converted to Christianity only after a sudden bout of blindness. "For every Saul on the way to Damascus who has a real change of mind," he says, "there are hundreds of people who don't."

~Erin O'Donnell


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