How to Change the World

Maarten van Doorn
Jun 30 · 10 min read

People hardly ever change their minds.

In perhaps psychology’s coolest study that wasn’t rigged bullshit (i.e. Milgram and the Stanford Prison don’t count), Leon Festinger infiltrated a sect whose members believed aliens from a planet called ‘Clarion’ would destroy the earth December 21st, 1954. However, as true believers, the cult-members would be saved and transported to their new home planet in UFOs (they were “instructed” to wait in parked cars in a Chicago suburb).

Of course, when time came, nothing happened. The earth went on existing just fine and the parking lot remained unvisited by aliens.

Now what?

In light of their forthcoming deportation, and the annihilation of their former home planet, some of them had cut ties with loved ones, quit their jobs, et cetera.

How do people deal with an undeniable refutation of a belief in which they’ve invested so much?

Festinger found that, rather than concluding that the prophecy was wrong, the cult went on to deduce that, since the prophecy could not have been false, the fact that they believed in it and acted upon it, saved the earth. Thanks to them, the aliens showed mercy. And they weren’t mistaken. They could hold on to their beliefs.

According to the theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’, when reality falsifies our deepest beliefs, we rather fiddle with reality than update our worldview.

This raises the question: can new ideas actually change the world?

How not to yield an idea

I think ideas can change the world, but that such change comes about in a way that’s completely different than commonly assumed.

Since that infamous December night in 1954, numerous studies have confirmed Festinger’s discovery. If the facts don’t fit our worldview, that’s too bad for the facts (nerdy aside: Hegel would have been proud). Festinger presented his findings in a paper titled When Prophecy Fails, and his words ring prophetic for our era of fake news and echo chambers:

A [person] with a conviction is a hard [person] to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. …

Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable
evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view. — Leon Festinger, When Prophecy Fails (1956)

Crucially, though, Festinger’s cult members’ cognitive dissonance arose because the belief was so important for them — they had abandoned their loved ones for it.

This reluctance to change our mind, then, doesn’t concern mundane ideas (How do I get a stain out of my pants? What is the best way to cut a cucumber?). In these cases, we are more than happy to update our set of beliefs if it turns out that angry cook on TV shows us a faster way to slice the veggies.

We only become stubborn when it comes to our political, ideological or religious beliefs. When it comes to such ideas, there is much more at stake than those ideas alone.

Take the following views:

  • “God exists.”
  • “Very harsh punishment for criminals makes no sense.”
  • “Sex before marriage is a sin.”
  • “Citizens have the right to carry guns.”

These are ideas that people cannot simply give up. They have usually invested too much in it. Saying goodbye to them could affect the identity and position in a social group (like a church, town or family).

The irrelevance of truth

As the development from anti-intellectualism to fact-free bliss illustrates, for most people, in most tribes, the desire to hold on to the stories we deep down want to be true is just as deeply entrenched — to say the least — as the wish to get things right.

Pleas for positivistic service to facts will not help in a world dominated by a species that is unable to tolerate much truth.

What’s more, for many of us, loyalty to people is usually more important than loyalty to the truth. Life is hard and tribes and shared myths are more pleasant bedfellows than cold facts.

Add this up, and you start to see why seeing the evidence doesn’t mean you change your mind.

Ideas, then, will not change the world by being more ‘right’ or ‘accurate’ or ‘rational’ or ‘having the best arguments’.

No, changing people’s minds — their opinions and their behavior — requires leveraging a different mechanism.

It’s not about facts. It’s about other people.

What a worldview consists in

A worldview is not a box of blocks where every now and then a block is added and removed, and so forth. A worldview is a castle that is defended with all one has.

For the ideological/political/religious subjects we’re considering, in areas where what you regard as true is deeply intertwined with your identity and social environment, changing your mind is an all-or-nothing affair.

It is not about winning a single discussion; it is about shifting an entire agenda.

How do castle walls fall down?

How does the unthinkable become conceivable?

The answer is social through and through.

If our worldview is not based on hard facts and arguments then ideas might just have to be encountered frequently enough to have a chance. To ‘feel true’. To influence the unconscious. To become part of the normal cultural conversation.

Ideas do not change the world by convincing people what’s more accurate, truthful, or rational. They change the world by showing people what is possible, and changing their views about what is socially acceptable.

Ideas change the world by upgrading people’s ‘normal’.

“We all find it so difficult to imagine…”

People now doubt that “human ideas and beliefs are the main movers of history,” as the acclaimed liberal Friedrich Hayek argued back when neoliberalism was still in its infancy. “We all find it so difficult to imagine that our beliefs might be different from what they in fact are.”

“Indeed,” the also-famous John Maynard Keynes wrote in an oft-quoted passage, “the world is ruled by little else [than ideas of economists and philosophers]”.

Keynes’ next lines, which are a lot less well-known, provide a glimpse into how this might work:

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

But how can “practical men” be the slave of some idea-scribbling academic?

Here’s how:

These ideas determine the Zeitgeist, constrain imagination, and control what “men in authority” consider as (i) possible and (ii) normal in the first place when it comes to (a) what society can be and (b) how we can make it so.

Consider the rise of philosophers and economists who called themselves “neo-liberal”. The once-unthinkable ideas of Milton Friedman and his buddies about the blessings of free trade, the importance of bankers and the privatization of state-owned enterprises have become policies that even politicians on the left passionately defend. Or think of the words of the English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who was asked in 2002 what she considered her biggest achievement. “Tony Blair and New Labor,” she answered. “We forced our opponents to change their mind.” Even the Social Democrats had adopted her ideas.

Let’s try to get a better understanding of this mechanism.

Overton’s window

To do so, allow me to introduce one final piece of machinery. It comes from the work of the American thinker Joseph Overton who was interested in the tendency for great ideas to go unacknowledged or under-appreciated.

His answer to this question was a simple scheme, that became known as “the Overton window” after he died in 2003. Here’s how it looks:

By Hydrargyrum — his work, based on discussion here and diagram here, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Overton realized that if a politician wants to be re-elected, he can’t be too extreme. His ideas must fall in the middle of the Overton window, somewhere between “acceptable” to “policy.” Anyone who steps outside the Overton window immediately makes re-election a lot harder. He will quickly be dismissed as “unrealistic” and “unreasonable”.

[For example,] a journalist thinks that a candidate who talks about ending the War on Drugs isn’t a “serious candidate.” … [More generally,] if an existing politician talks about a policy outside of what journalists think is appealing to voters, the journalists think the politician has committed a gaffe, and they write about this sports blunder by the politician, and the actual voters take their cue from that. So no politician talks about things that a journalist believes it would be a blunder for politicians to talk about. — Eliezer Yudkowsky, Inadequate Equilbria

The space of what it isn’t a “blunder” for a politician to talk about is designated by Overton’s Window.

Collective consciousness

Overton concluded: many ideas didn’t work, then, because “the time wasn’t right”. The window wasn’t in the required position. So the proposals, though good, were rejected. Not for rational reasons, but for social reasons. The collective consciousness wasn’t open to it.

Ideas fall flat when they’re not within the space that serious politicians can talk about and get away with endorsing without making a “blunder”.

If journalists, for instance, think it’s a political blunder to talk about gay marriage, it will be costly for you to do so. Their coverage will describe you as an incompetent politician. As long as the media think the people who believe gay marriage is okay are few, journalists will model gay marriage endorsement as ‘unelectable’. But then, in the US, the support level went over a threshold where somebody tested the waters and got away with it and journalists began to suspect that their beliefs about what voters would take seriously were out of tune. This let more politicians speak and get away with it, and the change of belief of what was inside the Overton window took off.

Another example: if people think it is, or ought to be, normal to work 40 hours a week, and that’s how people should behave, a democratic society will mold itself to these ideas and elect politicians that advocate them. You can cite countless statistics about the rise of meaningless work and so-called ‘bullshit jobs’, how shortening the work week doesn’t reduce productivity and GDP, mitigates expensive stress-related illnesses, and so forth — if the “shorter workweek” idea isn’t within the window of Overton, political reality is such that it’s not going to happen.

The invisible hand of our environment

We shouldn’t be surprised our social environment plays significantly affets the kinds of beliefs we are willing to accept and that, therefore, to change people’s minds we have to alter their social environments.

To continue the Keynes references, as James Clear observed, environment is “the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.” While many of us overestimate our psychological independence, environment is one of the most important factors influencing us. It’s an invisible presence — subtle but incredibly powerful. If we don’t control it, it controls us.

Remember Keynes: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Where do your ideas about what is normal, attainable, electable — what’s possible and what’s socially acceptable — come from?

Politics is the art of the impossible

It’s time to wrap up and harvest the two main lessons from these considerations: to change the world, move Overton’s window. And to move the window, change people’s social reality.

I’ve been playing around with the idea that ideas matter because they determine what people see as normal and acceptable. What they take to fall within the range of (i) possible and (ii) socially acceptable when it comes to (a) visions of future society and (b) means to change a society.

This already suggests one recommendation: people can be willing to give up their reality, but that usually starts with stimulating their imagination.
If we want to change not just high school textbooks but the reality people experience and live, then it is good to realize the first step might start with an image or a myth rather than with a fact.

There’s an “equilibrium of silence about policies that aren’t [considered] “serious,”” as Eliezer Yudkowsky put it. The success of an idea corresponds to its location within Overton’s range. For an idea to have impact, first do the groundwork — move the equilibrium — and make it fall within the Overton window.

Bismarck famously said that politics is the art of the possible. Nonetheless, that art of making deals and winning votes — takes place within a playing field delineated by the art of the impossible. Therefore, the interesting and most important changes are of the window, rather than happening in the window.

If you think politics is only the art of the possible, you aren’t playing politics. Politics is playing you.

You’ve likely encountered this George Bernard Shaw quote before, but I’ll bet you’ll see it in an entirely new light now:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Upgrade people’s ‘normal’

Getting people to ask “What if?” is only half the battle, however. More than anything, changing people’s minds is hard, because most (important) beliefs are about social values than about anything else.

It is not so much the truth of an assertion or the wisdom of a proposal that is likely to win for a policy the support of public opinion, as is the feeling that injustice is being done which can and must be rectified. — Karl Popper

All ideas fall somewhere on the spectrum from ‘unthinkable’ to ‘popular’, and because acceptance of an idea is in large part a function of where it falls on the spectrum, the right way to change the world is to move the window. To change voters’ convictions about which policies to take seriously, and make reporters’ beliefs about those attitudes of voters follow suit.

If you want to have influence, your mission should be to change what others consider ‘normal’. You have to make the unthinkable, popular, and the radical sensible and the apparently impossible possible.

The second advice: you can do this by breaking the common belief about what it would be “gaffe” for a serious politician to endorse. By altering the public atmosphere.

I still think it sounds weird: the most effective way to change the world is to work on what’s considered socially acceptable.


There’s more to that

If you’re looking for more mind-changing windows, please subscribe to my personal blog. You’ll get a weekly dose of similarly mind-expanding ideas.

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Thanks to Danny Forest

Maarten van Doorn

Written by

PhD candidate in philosophy. Reconsidering the obvious. Chasing interestingness. Get good ideas that make you think: maartenvandoorn.com

The Understanding Project

Do you believe that we can do better at playing the game of life? If you engage with us, you’ll get answers.

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