Does everything change when you touch it? Yes for spaghetti: spaghetti changes when you touch it. But what about people? Do people change when you try to move them? Sometimes. Only sometimes.
One of my sub-skills is my ability to give one-on-one tutorials to colleagues to bring them to a higher level proficiency in Microsoft Excel. Results vary, not because of talent, but more because of the person’s interest-level and their opportunity to apply the learning. I have done these tutorials enough times to know that there is a major concept that everyone needs to “get.” So I offer the spaghetti metaphor.
When you move cooked spaghetti from the colander to the dining table, there are two ways that it gets there. First, you move spaghetti out of the colander and onto the plate, changing the layout of the noodles in the process. Then, after putting on the sauce, you move the entire plate to the dining table. Transporting the plate does not change the layout of the noodles. You can move the noodles or move the entire plate. The distinction is that in some cases you change the configuration of the contents and in other cases you change their location but with the configuration left intact.
For those struggling with Excel, the issue is that if a rectangular cell has formulas in it, you must cut-and-paste the cell, drag-and-move the entire cell, or copy the formula inside the formula prompt to move a formula without altering it. By contrast, if you copy-and-paste a cell or you use the autofill feature, your formula will automatically change so that all the cell references move accordingly. You don’t have to worry about this if you’re not manipulating Excel right now. As I mentioned, your ability to grasp this depends on your opportunity to apply the learning.
Enough math, let’s extend the concept to people’s opinions. Are there cases where we attempt to move the logic in the minds of others? Yes indeed. Sometimes when you attempt to compel others to think of things differently, you get to change the configuration of their spaghetti-scramble of ideas. But other times, you simply move the plate. You get a person with the exact same opinions as before, they’re just in a different place, possibly more entrenched.
On Ozan Varol’s website, the rocket-scientist-turned-contrarian-author has some advice on how to change people’s minds. Varol explains that people’s beliefs have an outsized impact on their grasp of the facts. This role of beliefs drives a cognitive fallacy known as confirmation bias, the tendency for us to select facts that strengthen our beliefs and gloss-over those facts that are disruptive and uncomfortable. The challenge is that we cannot use facts to drive changes-of-opinion, because it’s almost impossible to get into peoples’ grasp of “the facts” without attacking their intelligence. So their defenses go up and they tell you where to go. You know how this goes.
Varol recommends re-framing either-or debates around an alternate frame of reference. His best example is when Columbians in the 1950s were grappling with the collapse of the Rojas dictatorship. An entrenched mindset would blame the military for complicity in the Rojas regime, but that’s not what happened. Instead, citizens offered an alternative narrative that “…it was the ‘presidential family’ and a few corrupt civilians close to Rojas – not military officers – who were responsible for the regime’s success.” This narrative significantly reduced the risk of Columbia slipping into a military dictatorship.
As an academic, Varol presents papers at conferences with a subtle verbal shift. He presents opinions somewhat detached from himself (“This paper argues…”) so that his ideas are lobbed into the public sphere to be thrashed about until others come to a more meaningful conclusion. When he made this shift his ideas “took a life of their own” allowing him to view his own arguments with some objectivity.
You can do this too. Varol encourages you to befriend those who disagree with you, expose yourself to environments where your opinions can be challenged, and presume that you will experience some discomfort.
Personally, I think the big deal is to get over yourself. Or to be precise, that I need to get over myself. (See what I did there?) If everyone other than me has opinions that are a random configuration of noodles, what are the odds that my own ideas are configured perfectly?
When it’s my turn to make spaghetti, I get the noodles into the plate, even them up, pour the sauce, and just get it all onto the table. I have one kid that hates parmesan, and another that hates pepper. Neither of them uses a spoon. They handle the noodles as they see fit. I let everyone enjoy what’s in front of them, while we talk about our day and our lives. Hands off the noodles, because now’s the time to enjoy people.