How to open someone’s mind

COVID19 has resurfaced more than a discussion about pandemics and vaccines. As many admit, fear of the vaccines may be the greatest barrier to stopping COVID19. It stretches far beyond the so-called anti-vaxxer community: about 50% of Americans harbour questions about the safety of the COVID19 vaccines; 40% say they definitely or probably won’t get one.

COVID19 opened a discussion of open/close minds and stereotypes.

How can we open people’s minds (to using vaccines and in general) and get them to see what science, facts and reality are?

When we try to change a person’s mind, our first impulse is to preach about why we’re right and prosecute them for being wrong. Yet experiments show that preaching and prosecuting typically  backfire — and what doesn’t sway people may strengthen their beliefs. Much as a vaccine inoculates the physical immune system against a virus, the act of resistance fortifies the psychological immune system. Refuting a point of view produces antibodies against future attempts at influence, making people more certain of their own opinions and more ready to rebut alternatives.

In 1980s, when treating substance abuse problems, psychologists (William Miller and Stephen Rollnick) developed a technique called motivational interviewing. The central premise: instead of trying to force other people to change, you’re better off helping them find their own intrinsic motivation to change. You do that by interviewing them — asking open-ended questions and listening carefully — and holding up a mirror so they can see their own thoughts more clearly. If they express a desire to change, you guide them toward a plan. This technique works well only when there is a genuine desire to understand people’s motivations and help them reach their goals.

Why is motivational interviewing effective in opening and changing minds? Studies showed that when we listen carefully and call attention to the nuances in people’s own thinking, they become less extreme and more open in their views. For example, when asking people how their preferred political policies might work in practice, rather than asking why they favour those policies, was more effective in opening their minds. As people struggle to explain their ideal tax legislation or healthcare plan, they grasp the complexity of the problem and recognise gaps in their own knowledge. In motivational interviewing, there’s a distinction between sustain talk and change talk. Sustain talk is about maintaining the status quo. Change talk is about a desire, ability or commitment to making a change. A skilled motivational interviewer listens for change talk and asks people to elaborate on it: the how questions that lead to thinking things through, introspection and opening of their minds. 

In controlled trials, motivational interviewing has helped people to stop smoking, abusing drugs and alcohol, and gambling; to improve their diets and exercise; to overcome eating disorders; and to lose weight. The approach has also motivated students to get a good night’s sleep; voters to reconsider their prejudices; and divorcing parents to reach settlements.

So how can we conduct a motivational interview with intention of getting someone to become more open-minded or open to change? Below is one framework:

  1. Start by assessing the importance of change to a relevant matter.
  2. Reflect on answer (s) provided to the question above.
  3. Elicit change talk about values, hopes, goals, or relevant matters.
  4. Elicit discrepancy by placing the current behaviour in the context of current values or desired future.
  5. Assess the person’s lack of self-efficacy. A person who has a high level of self-efficacy generally believes he/she can carry out what is necessary to realise his or her goals. Motivational Interviewing is particularly useful with people that lack self-efficacy and believe they may be unable to change.
  6. Use Motivational Interviewing to build/improve self-efficacy.