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on changing people's minds....

Anne Dalke's picture

I’ve finally gotten around to the last of the tasks I’d set myself during the ENVS Faculty Workshop in May—reading a couple of social psychology books that Benjamin Le recommended to me re: changing people’s attitudes. Neither one taught me too much, but here (for the record) is a brief summary of each--

Haddock, Geoffrey and Gregory Maio, Eds, Contemporary Perspectives on the Psychology of Attitudes. Psychology Press, 2004: (pretty useless, from my p.o.v) collection of essays by different authors, concluding with Haddock and Maio’s overview of the research: that there are “three witches” in this brew—attitude content, structure, and function--that need to be better integrated.

Petty, Richard and John Cacioppo, Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches. Westview Press, 1981, 1996: traces seven different approaches to persuasion, each emphasizing different variables and processes, before concluding that there are really only two fundamentally different “routes” to changing people’s attitudes-> the “central route” emphasizes the information under consideration, and the “peripheral” route emphasizes just about anything else (information about the communicator, for ex, or consequences of adopting an attitude). The “central route” is the more difficult one, but those changes tend to be more permanent; the “peripheral route” (which they say emphasizes the important of “issue-irrelevant cues”) is more easily traveled, but those changes “tend to decay unless the new attitude is subsequently bolstered by “issue-relevant thought”).

In the language we’ve been using this week, I’d re-state their oppositional claims about “central” and “peripheral” routes to something more nested, like “claims within contexts.” And actually the most interesting thing for me happened in the first few pages, when they distinguished education from propaganda—“much of what we call persuasion comes closer to qualifying as propaganda than education”; “one person’s propaganda may be another person’s education.” They settle on “persuasion” as their “relatively neutral” term for any active attempt to change a person’s mind….

…which gives me another way to think about our much-vexed desire to host “difficult conversations.” Was/is the goal just seeing into others’ minds? Or seeing into them, in order to change them? Was/is the goal changing others’ minds? In order to arrive @ a shared understanding? Or was/is the goal actually understanding why-and-that we don’t/can’t arrive @ one??