Changing Minds: A book review by Bob Morris

Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds
Howard Gardner
Harvard Business Review Press (Paperbound Edition, 2006)

Note: I re-read this book curious to know to what extent — if any — Gardner’s insights have lost relevance in light of revelations within recent neuroscience research. My conclusion? If anything, his insights are more relevant — and more valuable — now than they were when theHardbound Edition was published in 2004.

Unless and until we understand how and why to change our own minds, it is possible but unlikely that we will be able to change anyone else’s.

Although many of Gardner’s core concepts were first introduced and developed in earlier works, notably in Multiple Intelligences and Frames of Mind (1993) and then Intelligence Reframed (2000), he breaks important new ground when examining the process by which we can change others’ minds (assumptions, premises, mindsets, convictions, opinions, etc.) and, of even greater importance, how we can change our own minds wherein resistance to such change can be especially formidable. This is precisely what Jim O’Toole has in mind when discussing “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom” in his brilliant book Leading Change. As Gardner advocates, “One can — and must — go through an exercise of deep and pervasive mental surgery with respect to every entrenched view: Define it, understand the reasons for its provenance, point out its weaknesses, and then develop multiple ways of undermining that view and bolstering a more constructive one. In other words, search for the resonance and stamp out the resistance.

Gardner identifies seven factors (“sometimes I’ll call them levers”), most or all of which may influence a mind change: research (relevant data), resonance (the affective component), redescriptions (mutually reinforcing images of what will result from the change), resources and rewards (perceived cost-benefit relationship), real world events (wars, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, depressions, etc.), and resistances (motivation stimulated by opposition). When we attempt to change our own minds or others’ minds, or when they attempt to change theirs or ours, the process of persuasion usually involves concepts, stories, theories, and skills.

How we (or others) use logic and/or evidence, for example, is determined by our (or their) age, intelligence, education and training, and experience. Young children who fully understand various fables and fairy tales will probably not understand concepts of gravity, democracy, photosynthesis, and pride. How parents attempt to convince their children to take proper care of their toys is obviously quite different from how the same parents attempt to persuade each other when disagreeing about financial issues. Gardner asserts (and I agree) that over time, people become more resistant to change. Set in their ways, determined to protect their “comfort” and “custom.”

From my own perspective, entrenched views tend to fall within one of three categories: Those which remain unchanged by any of the seven factors (or levers), those which are improved (i.e. made “more constructive”) by it, and finally, those beyond remediation. Moreover, all entrenched views (like nuggets of cheese) have an unsettling tendency to move around — or be relocated — by external forces. Therefore, presumably Gardner agrees with me that what he calls the process of “deep and pervasive mental surgery” should be continuous.

Unless and until we understand how and why to change our own minds, it is possible but unlikely that we will be able to change anyone else’s.


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