How Minds Change Discussion Questions

Who is the ideal reader of this book? What might McRaney want readers to take from reading it?

Early on (p. 29) McRaney writes “I couldn’t shake the idea that I, too, was probably one conversation away from changing my own mind about something, maybe a lot of things.” After reading this book, does this statement resonate with you? What are some of the positive and negative implications of persuasion?

On page 11, McRaney says that the post-truth society “has led to a sort of moral panic” because “independent websites, then social media, then podcasts, then YouTube began to speak for the facts and undermine the authority of fact-based professionals like journalists, doctors, and documentary filmmakers.” Have you observed this phenomenon in your own life? 

McRaney writes “when the truth is uncertain, our brains resolve that uncertainty without our knowledge by creating the most likely reality they can imagine based on our prior experiences” (p. 72). In other words, our perception of reality is influenced by a collection of our experiences and assumptions, and when others with different experiences and assumptions form their own version of reality, it leads to disagreement. How would you describe the current culture of disagreement? How might asking ourselves and/or others about our prior knowledge and assumptions influence the way we disagree with others? How can knowing about others’ prior knowledge and assumptions lead to understanding and empathy rather than disagreement?

In Chapter 2, McRaney explores deep canvassing, a technique used to change minds and opinions where individuals are prompted to “think about their own thinking” (p. 30) and offered the opportunity to stop and think (p. 49). Why is the opportunity for introspection so crucial to how minds change? What do you think, if any, are the dangers of consuming information without any introspection and self-reflection?

Throughout the book, McRaney positions people as inherently social beings and frequently links identity to cultural or community values. McRaney introduces the concept of the assumptive world, which he describes as “a set of knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes,” internalized from cultural context, “that guides our actions, helps us understand the causes and reasons for what happens, and forms the self that gives a sense of belonging, meaning, and purpose“ (p. 112). How might this concept of an assumptive world help us understand the connections between personal identity and closely held beliefs? How might it help us better understand how we and others respond when those beliefs are challenged?

McRaney introduces the idea of “Cognitive Empathy” (p. 87) as a way to explain differences in how we disambiguate information. In what ways does technology, such as social media and digital communication, impact cognitive empathy? How does the online environment enhance or hinder our ability to understand others’ perspectives?

In Chapter 4, McRaney writes that “surprises encourage us to update our behaviors. They change our minds without us noticing that the brain quietly updates our predictive schemas, hopefully eliminating the surprise by making it more predictable in the future” (p. 95). How do people arrive at the “affective tipping point” between holding firm to prior ideas and accepting new ones (p. 119)? What types of circumstances lead people to significantly change their minds?

McRaney cites a study from psychologist Dan Kahan where participants’ opinions on the credibility of an expert change depending on whether or not they agreed with his stance on politicized issues. On page 168, Kahan cites that this behavior is rational because “the average person will never be in a position where beliefs on gun control or climate change or the death penalty will affect their daily lives”. What do you think about the claim that most people are not directly impacted by politicized issues?

McRaney writes about religion numerous times throughout the book, from his own upbringing (p. 149), to conversations with others (p. 219-220, p. 252-256), to the extreme example of the Westboro Baptist Church (Chapter 2), as an example of the socialized nature of opinion and belief. Of religion, Caitlyn Cameron says that “when you grow up believing certain things, and the people you love and trust tell you those things, and you’re a kid, you are helpless to internalize it” (p. 136). What other group identities might play a similar role in people’s lives? Is the protective nature of group identity still useful to society today?

Throughout the book, McRaney links individual identity to larger social identities that are governed by the community at large. One such concept is referred to as Cascades or Percolating Vulnerable Cluster (p. 280-284), which talks about the way in which information and ideas spread between groups. What are some historical and contemporary examples of social cascades? What are some factors that contribute to the rapid spread of information and behaviors in a social cascade? 

McRaney subverts common misconceptions about the way we process information, including the statement: “The more intelligent you are, and the more educated, the more data at your disposal, the better you become at rationalizing and justifying your existing beliefs and attitudes, regardless of their accuracy or harmfulness” (185). After reading this book, how do you think about your own thinking differently? Do you believe it is important to question your beliefs?

McRaney writes about a powerful exchange with Nathan Fischer (p. 251-258) which led him to propose a “step zero” for all persuasion techniques: “Always start by asking yourself why you want to change the other person’s mind” (256). What are the ethical implications of using the persuasive techniques discussed in this book? Does it make an ethical difference if the goal of the technique is to change how a person thinks, not what they believe?

Additional discussion questions are available from the author’s website.