How do you change someone’s mind? It doesn’t matter how many facts you present to them, or how much evidence you give to show that they’re wrong, most of the time you’ll be unsuccessful.
It’s a phenomenon that has long baffled psychologists because it makes no sense. Our great intellectual capabilities are supposed to give us the capacity to assess and evaluate evidence and come up with a rational conclusion. Yet, time and again, this is shown to be not the case.
For those working in public health, this has important consequences.
The idea that the MMR vaccine can contribute to autism still persists in some parents’ minds – despite the fact it has been categorically disproved
Take the MMR vaccine scandal. Although the link between the vaccine and autism has been categorically disproved – and despite the fact that the doctor who undertook the research that suggested it was struck off in 2010, and the journal that published his research also retracted it – the idea that the MMR vaccine can be dangerous persists in some people’s minds.
It is NOT racist to highlight this abuse
We might have hoped something was learned from the sickening scandal of abuse and depravity in Rotherham, but the Telford story shows nothing has changed.
Indeed, many still avoid the issue of paedophile gangs preying on young girls. People would much rather post a #MeToo tweet and congratulate themselves for sharing a story of how their boss once touched their knee than tackle the thorny issue of what’s happening up and down the country to working-class white girls. Far easier to wear a black dress on the red carpet than use your celebrity to speak out for these voiceless girls being raped.
If we want to send a message that we won’t tolerate child sex abuse, we must crack down with unimaginable force on the likes of those abusing girls in Telford and condemn them with one loud, unified voice. Yet I worry the questions raised by this are too challenging.
Children are abused by people from all sorts of walks of life, but it would be foolish not to understand there’s a cohort of men from certain ethnic minorities, in particular of Pakistani heritage, who view women in a different way from the rest of us.
Clearly, these men’s behaviour is not representative of their culture.
But these scandals emerge from social mores that endorse or turn a blind eye to female genital mutilation, forced marriage and honour killings; a culture that believes because white women wear revealing clothes, they must be prostitutes; a culture that forbids women leading independent lives – or even learning English.
Like many doctors in inner-city hospitals, I’ve seen countless women able to communicate only through a relative who translates for them, subservient to their husbands, living lives of quiet desperation.
This is what provides the fertile grounds for these rape-gangs.
Talking about these cultural differences – and accepting that it is not racist to point them out – is the first step in sending a clear message to the wicked minority in those communities who refuse to alter their behaviour or beliefs.
They simply refuse to believe the overwhelming evidence and still think the vaccine is risky. The impact of this is serious, even life threatening. Just this week, Public Health England warned parents to have their children vaccinated as an outbreak of measles has swept through Europe. And measles, let me remind you, can kill.
Those who refuse to have their children vaccinated have formulated a belief that vaccines are bad – and changing this idea would be a fundamental threat to their sense of identity.
For psychologists now think that what we call ‘reason’ has nothing to do with facts and rational thought, but is a mechanism to help humans better exploit their uniquely rich social environment.
Reason evolved to help us justify ourselves and to convince others, which is essential for cooperation and communication. It makes us feel part of a group – and the group needs to be defended against whatever threatens it: in this case, facts.
We maintain this by ‘confirmation bias’, embracing information that supports our position and rejecting any which challenges it.
The problem is rife. Take, for example, Brexit – a topic that immediately polarises people and is ripe for confirmation bias.
One such claim about Brexit is that since the 2016 vote, the NHS has suffered a recruitment crisis as EU staff have left in droves. This is repeated ad nauseam.
Now Brexit may or may not be good for the NHS, only time will tell. But on this point we can check, because it’s a clear fact. And, indeed, the NHS’s statistics show the overall number of EU citizens working in the health service has actually grown since the Brexit vote.
While it’s true about 10,000 have left, over the same period 13,000 have come here to work, meaning there’s a net increase of 3,000.
Yet will these clear facts change people’s minds? Absolutely not. On a radio chat show, I heard a doctor arguing against Brexit, saying that EU staff were leaving.
The presenter explained this wasn’t the case and quoted the figures. Yet the doctor refused to concede. ‘It’s what people have told me,’ came the recalcitrant reply. You could hear the doctor becoming more entrenched.
So what’s the answer? Well, studies have identified a technique that increases the likelihood of someone changing their mind.
If we remember that refusing to do so is based on unconsciously not wanting to feel apart from a group, and the anxiety about being isolated, then to change someone’s mind they have to feel relaxed to counter these feelings.
Researchers found that asking someone to recall in detail an event when they felt happy, and then presenting facts that challenged their current view, helped change their mind.
Arguing is only going to make them batten down the hatches, even when they’re clearly wrong. So to change someone’s mind, you need to help them feel happy.
A harsh lesson from my check-up with an online GP
Earlier this week, I was struck by an excruciating pain. After a similar attack two years ago, I recognised it as kidney stones. The next day, I was still in pain and, thinking it might be an infection, decided to see a doctor.
But instead of trying to see my own GP, I thought it would be quicker and easier to use a private online GP service – the sort where you pay a fee (typically, £25-£65) for a one-off appointment via an app on your mobile phone.
Although the GP I spoke to was perfectly nice, as the consultation was through my phone (effectively a ‘video’ consultation), she was unable to examine me or do tests. ‘I’ll just prescribe antibiotics anyway,’ she said with a shrug.
Research published that very day showed that global antibiotics use has increased, sparking fears of worldwide resistance – yet here was a doctor dishing them out despite no evidence they were needed. When I queried this, she suggested I drop a urine sample off to my NHS GP. ‘In what?’ I asked.
In the end, I called my NHS surgery and in under a minute I was speaking to a lovely GP called Dr Plag who listened to my story, agreed that taking antibiotics wasn’t right without knowing what was actually going on, and arranged for me to see her the
re and then.
I popped along, she did a urine test, blood test and a full examination. I didn’t have an infection. I was worried about how much of the GP’s time I’d taken up, but she reassured me this dedicated emergency service was set up specifically to deal with problems such as mine.
This was the NHS at its best – yet those high up in the health service seem obsessed that technology holds the key to solving its problems.
This week, there were protests at the launch of an online GP service that is effectively replacing face-to-face consultations with a GP in a standard practice. One concern is that patients will receive inferior care.
After my experience, I’m inclined to agree. I’m no Luddite, but it seems to me that while we’re always told that technology is the answer, sometimes in medicine there is no substitute for seeing patients in the flesh.