Book Review: Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds

By Paul B. Brown  |  Posted 03-01-2004

Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds
By Howard Gardner
Harvard Business School Press, March 2004
288 pages, $26.95

Harvard education professor Gardner focuses here on two seemingly simple questions: What happens when we change our minds, and what exactly does it take for a person to change her mind and begin to act on the basis of her new opinion?

The implications for providing answers to both questions are huge—for CIOs and for every other executive. By definition, leaders are people who have to change people's minds. And all of us must occasionally talk colleagues around to our point of view, not to mention the need to convince our customers to do business with us.

Given this, is there a proven method of changing someone's mind? Yes, there is, claims Gardner, a MacArthur Award winner whose earlier works have convinced many people that there are multiple kinds of intelligence. His contention, based on 20 years of cognitive research, is that there are seven techniques you can use to change someone's mind. Not surprisingly, they can all work together. The seven?

  • Reason. Presenting logical facts in sequence.
  • Research. Presenting relevant data.
  • Resonance. Making your position "feel right" to your audience.
  • Representational Redescriptions. An academic term for a simple idea. Your argument becomes more convincing if you can present it in a number of ways, each of which proves the same point.
  • Resources and Rewards. Basically, making an offer that your audience finds too good to refuse. State U. offering your child a full scholarship, for example, might suddenly change your desire to have her go to an Ivy League college, where you would have to pay full price. Coercion would also fit into this category.
  • Real-World Events. Wars, hurricanes and economic depressions can cause people to change their views.
  • Resistance. Obviously, the greater the resistance you face, the harder it will be to convince others to change their minds. But you'll be better off keeping resistance in mind.

    To his credit, Gardner is quick to stress that the last is no small point. If someone really means it when they say "Give me liberty, or give me death," then you aren't going to be able to convince them otherwise. Assuming that the resistance you face is not insurmountable, however, you may want to combine any of the first six arguments and present them in whichever way you think best: Straightforward argument, analogy, storytelling—whatever works.

    Gardner is particularly good at explaining which approach, or approaches, will work best in a given situation. Dealing with peers? Reason, resonance, research and representational redescriptions are more likely to succeed. "When one is dealing with an audience that is large and heterogeneous . . . simple stories work best."

    Parts of this will strike some readers as obvious, and the long digression summarizing Gardner's original work on multiple types of intelligence really doesn't belong here. What makes this book worth reading, however, is the clear explanation of what exactly happens when you try to change someone's mind (you will finally get a scientific confirmation for why it is so difficult), as well as the descriptions of the limited number of approaches you might try when you set out to accomplish the task.

    Paul B. Brown is author of Publishing Confidential: The Insider's Guide to What It Really Takes to Land a Nonfiction Book Deal, just published by Amacom.