Tali Sharot

The Influential Mind

What the Brain Reveals About Out Power to Change Others


When I first heard about The Influential Mind, both the comparative politics and peacebuildings sides of my own mind knew I had to read it.

Many peacebuilders use the meme that you can’t change someone else’s mind because they have to do it themselves. Nonetheless, we proceed to try to change minds anyway.

Sharot brings together a vast array of evidence from neuroscience, economics, complexity science, and more that deals with how minds change and how people like you or me can best help convince people to adopt a new point of view.

I actually read the book while I was trying to help my team find ways to reach out to Trump supporters and others we disagree with. My friends and I had also recently seen people we know, respect, and agree with deal with their political opponents in a way that drove even deeper ideological and–especially–emotional wedges between them.

Instead of deepening divides, it seems to me that we should be seeking ways that makes our point(s) of view more appealing to those we disagree with. In fact, I had one old friend in mind while I was reading the book and writing this. This friend had always been more conservative than I am, had voted for Trump, and was interested in opening a discussion with people like me as part of the planning for our fiftieth college reunion. So, I kept asking myself what lessons Sharot had learned that I could apply in my own work as an advocate.

While she covers lots of other issues, I came away from her book thinking more deeply about the following seven points that it would be well worth your while if part of your mission in life is to convince other people to adopt your point of view, let alone follow you:

  1. It’s all context specific. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula. Your personality, values, level of information, and the like all matter; so do those of the person you are trying to convince.
  2. Don’t count on evidence. Especially when the topic is emotionally charged, “the facts” will almost never convince someone. If anything, their prior beliefs and what psychologists call the confirmation bias often leads people to tune out evidence they don’t agree with and/or fit into their pre-existing mental frameworks. In my terminology more than hers, paradigm shifts can only occur once people have an “aha” moment that leads them to (re)consider those pre-existing values and assumptions.
  3. Get inside the other person’s head. You can rarely convince someone that you are right if you approach things on your terms. You have to try to see things from their perspective and begin to sense what kinds of information might lead them to have one of those “aha” moments.
  4. Reframe the issues or find other ways of giving them an attract reason for taking your point of view seriously. This is an idea that we peacebuilders stress a lot but that often gets short shrift in the political science and advocacy literatures. Help your interlocutor find ways of agreeing with you given the values he or she already has. If she or he is going to adopt a wholly new personal or political paradigm, that will only come with time (see point 6 below).
  5. Give them what psychologists and others call a sense of agency. As Shalot says at a number of points, people like to be in control. So, give the person you disagree with the space to reach their own conclusions, In other words, don’t browbeat them. As I said in beginning this review, people have to convince themselves anyway.
  6. It’s all about trust, stupid. Shalot talks about trust, per se, less than I would ave liked. However, building trust the common denominator that holds all the threads of  the influential mind together. Whatever the context you find yourself in, your challenge is to help people have more trust in what you say, which also means having more trust in you as a person.
  7. Walk your own talk. If you could boil the last third of Shalot’s book into a four word imperative, this would be it. Influential people are people others want to follow because they give them good arguments, good evidence, and, above all, respect.

So, let me end by returning to my friend the Trump voter. If I approached him using the critical and debating skills I honed in my early years as an activist, I’d probably make the situation worse. But, if I followed some or all of these seven points, he might just come around.

So, thanks Tali Shalot.