Last week, Matthew Inman of the Oatmeal released a comic called "You're not going to believe what I'm about to tell you," on how our brains can reject information that conflicts with our worldview. People kept sharing it, and I saw it enough times to finally check it out. It's a great look at why, contrary to our expectations, we can cling to our beliefs, even when they're proven wrong.
Near the end, Inman confides that there's no easy solution to the backfire effect, going so far as to say "there are ways of changing people's minds that are more effective than others, but ultimately they all fall short." Reading that line made my heart sink. But (maybe in a mini-backfire effect of my own?) I realized I didn't believe this.
Why? Because, as a queer man of color, I've watched how people can and have changed their minds in permanent ways. Americans have gone from overwhelmingly rejecting same-sex marriage to accepting it, which is astounding, regardless of how you view the institution of marriage.
The macabre joke is that much of this change came from the older, more conservative generation dying out. But while that could be partly true, change happened across every single generation. Core values can and do change in sustainable ways. This post, however, isn't about invalidating the central concept of the Oatmeal comic; instead, it's about asking how change happens and why that ability to change might be under threat.
Let's start with the personal: I saw how our core beliefs can accommodate new information when I came out to my mother. An immigrant to Canada, navigating poverty, xenophobia, and sexism, my mum turned to religion and found comfort in Christianity. As a child, I went to church, which at first mostly meant singing songs and eating snacks. But as I got older, it slowly dawned on me that the people I saw on Sundays believed that people like me would burn in hell. For many years I wrestled over whether or not my mom was one of them.
Uncertain of what my life would look like post-coming out, I waited until I graduated from university to come out to my parents. I needed to have a degree in hand, fearing the worst. When I felt safe enough to risk the life I knew, I came out, first to my mother then to my father. To their credit, they took the news incredibly well, albeit after taking a few months to digest the news.
Since then, their acceptance has grown, especially as they've seen how happy, how light, how engaged I was being out. (I acknowledge this isn't how it goes for everyone, which is why we have to continue fighting so vigilantly for LGBTQ rights.) They became protective of me, as they realized how ugly the world could be to queer people. My mum regularly joins me to watch the Toronto Pride parade. She hasn't set aside her religious beliefs, but amended them to allow the existence of both God and a queer son.
Robin Dunbar is best known for the Dunbar number, which suggests that human brains can only optimally handle a certain number of social connections, colloquially set at 150 but actually a range between 100 to 200. Less known, but recently shared by Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker, is an addendum to the number: a rule of three.
"[F]ifty is the number of people we call close friends—perhaps the people you’d invite to a group dinner. You see them often, but not so much that you consider them to be true intimates. Then there’s the circle of fifteen: the friends that you can turn to for sympathy when you need it, the ones you can confide in about most things. The most intimate Dunbar number, five, is your close support group. These are your best friends (and often family members)."
I'd consider my mum in that Dunbar number of five, and I believe it goes the other way as well. With that level of trust, I bet we are more open to new information that allows for amendments to core values. Our core values form our identity, and maybe the only people we allow to shape those values are the people whom we trust to see us most for who we truly are.
I don't think it's as simple as saying the more intimate the circle the more likely you'll change your values. Everyone knows of families or close friendships torn apart from conflicting points of view. But as we unravel how core values change, I believe trust plays a huge role.
The importance of trust cannot be understated. Google spent many years and millions of dollars to figure out why some teams work and others don't, and the most critical factor was psychological safety, defined in the workplace as ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.’’
Many people misinterpreted this as "being nice," but that's incorrect: you can be nice to someone and still have them feel ignored or unable to speak up. Niceness is social courtesy, but doesn't actively build a culture of free and open dialogue. You can't build a healthy, productive culture if you can't differentiate between asking people for surface-level agreement versus deep-level understanding.
Psychological safety and relationships are tightly bound: "The behaviors that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond," notes writer Charles Duhigg. "And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else."
Returning to the Dunbar number, it's not a leap to see the more intimate a circle is the more psychological safety it affords. When our brains build a worldview, we can imagine it as Inman does as a house. As renovators put up supporting beams and pillars when they augment a structure, so might psychological safety act with that function too. Maybe, the more psychological safety we provide, the easier it is for our brains to allow for changes to happen.
After I read Konnikova's piece on the Dunbar number, I took out a pen and notepad, writing on the left column the numbers five, 15, and 50. To the right, I began trying to fill the names in my circles. Before you attempt this exercise, let me warn you it can be depressing, realizing how many spots end up empty.
Even though I know social media numbers are about as close to reality as the stats men on dating apps share, I couldn't help doing the comparison. I have nearly 5,000 followers on Twitter and about 400 friends on Facebook: surely, 15 shouldn't be hard to name?
Turns out I'm not alone, and actually many people are in situations more dire than mine. Time reports that, "according to data from the General Social Survey (GSS), the number of Americans who say they have no close friends has roughly tripled in recent decades." The news gets worse: "'Zero' is also the most common response when people are asked how many confidants they have, the GSS data show."
Loneliness, or social isolation, is becoming such a problem that it's being labelled an "epidemic." The New York Times notes that "since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent." Lonely people pull away from others socially, exacerbating the situation: "when one person becomes lonely, he withdraws from his social circle and causes others to do the same."
What if we are facing a time of massive loneliness, when, unable to fill their Dunbar number circles, people can't build the psychological safety to absorb new ideas? And who is most affected by this? The Times piece again offers insights: "About one-third of Americans older than 65 now live alone, and half of those over 85 do. People in poorer health — especially those with mood disorders like anxiety and depression — are more likely to feel lonely. Those without a college education are the least likely to have someone they can talk to about important personal matters."
What are they potentially turning to? Having entered a self-preservation mindset, they now try to find solace in anything that can scaffold their worldview. Much of that will come from the media, traditional and social. But while online interactions can act as a temporary balm they can only complement rather than replace face-to-face interactions. How much of the everyday friction we encounter, I wonder, is an offshoot of the frustration, pain, and entrenching of loneliness?
Is everything hopeless then? I don't believe so. Why? Because, amazingly, change doesn't only comes from the people closest to us. Last year, a study validated the approach known as "deep canvassing." Researchers found that "door-to-door political canvassers can soften the attitudes of some voters who are resistant to transgender rights by prompting them to reflect on their own experiences of being treated differently."
Complete strangers were able to shift "the views of about one in 10 of the voters canvassed on transgender issues... in favor of equal rights — by an average of about 10 points on one measure, called the 'feelings thermometer.'" The article notes that that amount of swing was about the same as the change in views on gay rights between 1998 to 2012. And the results stuck around, even after participants were shown anti-trans rights ads.
The key lay in the empathetic approach: rather than lecturing people, the canvassers helped them step into someone else's shoes and relate their feelings and experiences to those of others. In demonstrating interest in people and allowing them to make the connections personal, dare I say that the canvassers were crafting the psychological safety to entertain new information?
When we look at our own experiences, we are taking a deeper look at our worldviews— we are inspecting the bones of our house. Rather than focusing energy on keeping out intruders, we are weighing whether or not we can improve the house. The study reminds me of a conversation I had with the activist Carolann Wright-Parks.
On diversity, she said: “The way that we had been approaching it, people become really defensive and it shuts down the whole conversation. People want to protect what they have, and it becomes me-versus-you, us-versus-them type of scenario. I can paint a picture for you all day in terms of how racism affects my life but I want it to change so how do I create that opportunity for you to do that self-examination and to realize the impact of that? It flips the conversation a bit."
“How you begin is not trying to change their worldview, but to ask the proper questions so that people begin to examine it for themselves, and to challenge themselves around how they see the world and why particular worldviews hold other people hostage."
I was struck by the idea of giving people the power to reject or accept their biases. But in handing over that power we release them from that fight-or-flight mode. Not everyone will change their mind, but you're giving yourself a better shot they might. Wright-Parks suggested asking questions like: “How did you derive that? What do you believe? Questioning beliefs and values: how did you arrive here so that you believe this is true?”
The world can seem pretty bleak if you accept people can't change their core beliefs. I don't believe it's easy, but I believe it's possible. I think, in fact, that doing the hard work of understanding and bonding with people that leads to change is the most gratifying part of life: we are social creatures and influencing each other for the better is the meaning of life.
As Maya Angelou famously said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." And the brilliant thing about the Oatmeal comic is that now more people than ever are reflecting on how they make themselves and other people feel.