Changing Minds: Algorithms or Heuristics?

For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.
Tell a FriendBenjamin Franklin

Yesterday afternoon we concluded the most recent mediation class at ICM.  A great group of professionals gathered at Lipscomb for two weekends of intense training in the skills of facilitating other people’s negotiations.  33 very accomplished former judges, human resource executives, lawyers, educators, a financial planner and a soon to be drafted Major League Baseball player trusted Tracy Allen and me with 40 hours of their precious time to learn or enhance their mediation skills.  I think Tracy and I can agree that we learned as much as any of our students and were thrilled to gain 33 new “best friends”.

Every time I am fortunate enough to “teach” one of these classes, I am reminded of how critically valuable the skills that lead to changing people’s minds can be in our culture.  Educators attempt to do it with their students.  Lawyers attempt to do it with their adversaries, the judge or the jury.  Financial planners do it with their clients and executives do it with their employees, their stockholders, their board of directors and their market.  Parents try it with their children.

Influencing others to change their mind is no easy task.  It may be the most difficult of all.  We know what we know (never what we don’t) and we believe what we have come to believe for very good reasons.  The “world view” we have chosen is not easily discarded and replaced with another.

The only time someone is willing to change her mind is when she determines it is in her best interest to do so.  I don’t change my mind because you think I should despite how strongly you insist on it.  I only change my mind when the “pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same.”  In Dr. Phil’s words, our change readiness is measured by the answer to the question, “How’s it working for you?”  Status quo is a far more powerful motivator than the thrill of exploring new shores.  The grass really has to be much greener if I am going to climb the fence to taste it.

What motivates us to change?  Words are usually insufficient.  Threats might move us to the other side . . . only as long as the threat remains real to us.  After we have grown accustomed to the threat or it has lost its imminent character, we make our way back to the grass we know best.  Truly changing my mind is unlikely unless I have been motivated to change and decide for myself to do so.

What’s that got to do with algorithms and heuristics?  A great deal.  Sometimes we change our mind by the sheer force of logic which challenges our current thinking (algorithms).  This happens only when the change is consistent with our experience and belief system.

More often we change our mind because a story is told or a metaphor is shared which “connects the dots” in our thinking (heuristics).  These “ah-ha” moments are the ones which lead us to see the world in a new light (like the proverbial light bulb flash).

Neuroscience has mapped these ah-ha moments to occur in the right hemisphere of your brain: the realm of story and metaphor.  Light bulbs don’t go off in the left hemisphere, it’s too logical, too linear and too blind to new perspectives.  Our less than helpful expertise in confirmatory bias and categorical error is formulaic, analytical and logical.  The stereotypical thinking that locks us into unchanging ruts is due to the power of algorithms (“a set of rules for solving a problem in a finite number of steps, as for finding the greatest common divisor”) The left hemisphere knows what it knows.  It cannot know what it doesn’t know.

That’s the work of the right brain.  Big picture thinking results from matching a story, a metaphor, with our experiences that aren’t explained by the formulas we have come to trust. This amazing capacity of the mind to “fill in the blanks” is the power of heuristic analysis (“serving to indicate or point out; stimulating interest as a means of furthering investigation”).  Heuristic thinking expands our horizons and opens us to new ideas which can lead to new beliefs about people and the world around us.  The narrative account, the story or the metaphor all challenge us to explore new shores.  Algorithms help us navigate the shores we know.

If we are gong to succeed in helping people “change their minds” we will become great story tellers.

Jesus explained why he told stories to help people change their minds, “This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”  Matthew 13:13.  The legalists relied on formulas to influence people’s thinking, and only got more of the same.  Jesus blew apart the world of what we know by using metaphors and stories to illustrate the value of what we don’t know.

The work of mediators is to help people explore what they don’t think they know so the light bulbs of discovery will illuminate the benefits of the pain of change over the pain of staying the same.  The story tellers will inherit the earth.

For more on the power of heuristic thought as motivation technique, see Daniel Pink, Drive

a set of rules for solving a problem in a finite number of steps, as for finding the greatest common divisor
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