On Changing Minds That Aren't Mine, and The Instinct to Surrender.

by Anomal35 min read13th Mar 202113 comments

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I am not a frequent poster on lesswrong. I’ve been part of the rationality community for a few years now, but I’ve fallen victim to the classic lurker mentality of looking at the most upvoted posts and believing that in comparison to them I haven’t got much to say. This post is, in part, an excuse to start posting anything at all- and in equal parts, an excuse to think about a problem that has been on my mind but not adequately articulated or considered.

I do not believe (or I at least do not behave like someone who believes) that people can change their minds- or, to me more accurate, that I can make people change their minds. This started with reasonable assessments and concessions to social realities; thoughts of the form, “While I might enjoy religious debates in the abstract, there is a very small chance that any conversation I have will convince anyone to convert to atheism. So, if I care about someone or consider them useful, it’s best not to talk about religion, because I’m unlikely to change their view but very likely to get them upset with me.” That is, I think, a sort of rational conclusion- Perhaps not one made for the right reasons, because my personality tends towards avoiding conflict anyway and this is a convenient way to do it, but it is at least defensible as an idea on its own merits.

I’ve always enjoyed arguing. I didn’t get to do it much as a kid, but the fun of debate was something that appealed to me. In college, I got on an ethics debate team that travelled across the state delving into the ethical dimensions of the issues of the day. With a few exceptions (I like to imagine they’re the sort of people who went on to become bioethicists), everyone was very friendly and polite. Due to the format of the competition, you didn’t need to disagree with your opponent; it was perfectly fine to say “Your conclusion seems right, however we’d like to refine a few points you made/examine it through another potential lens.” And many people did so! There was a feeling that the competition rounds were an exercise in trying to refine arguments and understandings into better versions of themselves by exposing them to criticism; it was all pleasantly idealistic.

When I started talking more in the rationality community (mostly in a public discord that I’ll keep unnamed due to a perhaps pointless paranoia regarding my veneer of anonymity), I loved arguing with people. Sure, sometimes an argument would get heated or rude, from time to time I’d get genuinely mad at a person, and sometimes it would be a slow and agonizing road to realizing that I and someone else are looking at the same map of reality but with truly different core values guiding our judgements. But on the whole, I really enjoyed being able to disagree with people under the mutual belief and understanding that we were both willing to change our views and eager to get better. That belief in the back of my head, that some debates just weren’t worth having, was still there- but that was for friends, family, coworkers, these were rationalists. There should be nothing we can’t discuss and understand given time, honesty, effort, and politeness. 

Politics was where things started to break down, at first. I considered myself, in broad terms, a leftist. I’m an American, and I grew up learning a million reasons that the Republican party is dreadful, corrupt, malicious, ill-informed, and hypocritical- whereas the Democrats were responsible, it seemed, mostly for their failure to exercise their power to execute their good ideas while in power, which would seem to imply that as a nice politically active citizen I ought to support them moving further left and being more active. I learned a bit more about economics on the Discord, heard compelling arguments from libertarians about the ineffectiveness of government being something that you can generally predict to happen regardless of who’s in charge, and economic leftist success being a somewhat suspect and speculative venture. And yet, Republicans still deny climate change, culturally align themselves with religion, and encourage greater militarism (slightly)- plus, at least Democrats are closer to sensible solutions like UBI, and frankly certain liberterian skepticisms of things like single payer healthcare seem like speculative whining about how any system will at some point fail. But regardless, with this new context it… Hardly seemed appropriate to be happy about anything when it came to politics. Everyone is dreadfully underinformed, and those with the greatest instincts towards kindness and systemic changes may nevertheless cause great harm. 

And when it came to the actual elections, well… With Trump in office, I struggled to imagine how anyone could possibly change their view. If you like him, any argument against him seems motivated by hatred and partisanship to the point of being easily dismissed. If you don’t, then how could you possibly credit any idea or statement of himself or his party as worthwhile in the face of his monumental evils. And based on the election results, those two groups ended up seeming very very close to the same size. How could I ever hope to convince anyone of anything when I have the full weight of all their convictions weighed against my attempt to go against the party line? Perhaps on some matter where the facts leave little doubt, but even then it seems so unlikely- unlikely enough that the old cached thought, “There are some arguments not worth having,” started to rear its head and apply itself to more and more. What’s the point of getting people mad? Better to stay silent and let the ignorant stay ignorant- after all, it’s not like I’m some authority anyway, my beliefs are based on whatever random expert opinions, acquired cultural baggage, and arguments I’ve picked up over the years. On matters where there is doubt, what’s the point in listening to someone who might be scarcely better than noise.

Of course, rationalists ought to be in another category. We have methods we’re meant to use to defuse such arguments in a way that’s supposed to leave us more right than before. But at a certain point, enough time in the same place made me concerned. There were communists, libertarians, laid back incrementalist leftists, centrists dubious of most claims made by anyone, religious authoritarians (only a couple), extropians (a far larger majority which overlapped with most of these other groups)- and in principle, such ideological diversity is lovely and potentially useful. But as time went on, it started to seem disconcerting how little anyone wavered from their core ideology. All these words exchanged, but the libertarians still won’t ever trust a government policy, the religious types won’t give up the holy ghost, the communists won’t give up hope in the face of numbers that don’t look suggestive of anything working out in their favor. If people can be so consistently opposed after so much argument, what are we getting at?

Originally, I had earned a reputation on the server for my patience, my ability to defuse heated disagreements and give everyone every single chance to offer a good reason for why they held their positions. That slowed and stopped. I got angrier, ruder, more sarcastic, less willing to listen to people. Why should I, in the face of a dozen arguments that ended without any change? Eventually I was growing frustrated with people for what seemed to be hypocritical standards of evidence or an overweighting of their unjustified intuitions, and doing little else. The community is still one full of people that I enjoy talking to and enjoy the company of, it’s still one I engage with a lot, but I have lost something that I cared about in becoming unable to have civil arguments.

But identifying problems is the first step in finding solutions. What has happened seems to be basically this: I have lost my faith in people being able to change their minds, and that has made me worse at arguing. I know this is the case, I was far more able to change people’s minds on matters of substance when I started out and was willing to patiently explain myself and generously interpret those who disagreed with me. And yet, my psychology remains a fact about the universe that I only have limited control over: I do get frustrated with people now, in a way I didn’t before. What can I do to stop this?

Well, one idea that comes to mind is to be more exclusive about the community I interact with; create a space with people whose views are similar enough to mine that it doesn’t create this dissonance that leaves me frustrated. There are varying levels of this I could try- blocking the users that frustrate me most, going to a whole new community and starting over (or starting a splinter community with the people I most enjoy the company of), or trying to push for the people I don’t like to get banned. That doesn’t strike me as right- they have just as much of a right to be there as I do, and I still like most of the people in the Discord. 

There is, of course, the classic solution: Get stronger. If I could convince them I was right or get convinced that they’re right, that would nicely remove the dissonance. However given the range of opinions and the strength with which they’re held, that seems unlikely.

A change in my habits might help; perhaps if I deliberately limit my interaction with the community and am not always thinking about it, I’ll be less inclined to get this frustration with how invariant people are, and be more inclined towards the charity I hope to have.

And, of course, there is the psychological option- just get over it. People aren’t always going to agree with me, it’s unrealistic to expect that they will. I simply ought to hold myself to higher standards and stay silent or actively leave the conversation rather than venting my frustration onto others.

As ever, I do not know. I can only hope I make some change for the better.

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13 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:31 AM
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Heh, I feel your frustration. But consider this: maybe internet is a stupidity amplifier. Crazy people can type faster, because they think less, and because they don't waste their time researching. The craziest ones probably prioritize their internet duty over real life. So, a reasonable person writes maybe 1 comment a day, but a crazy person can write 1000, quite literally.

A corollary is that the world is less crazy than internet would make us believe. Though there is this scary thing that many people get their beliefs from internet, so the crazies of one generation become the teachers of the next generation.

In reality you probably actively filter out stupid people. On internet, you sometimes can't. You like some website, the stupid people like the same website; if you continue to hang out there, you will continue seeing them.

People who actively identify as X are probably the least likely ones to change their mind. (Unless they are the subtype that identifies as X but spends lot of time arguing against X.)

To some degree, this is also a function of age. More time to collect evidence, more time to evaluate it... those who were able to change their opinion, probably already did. Though you can find new evidence at any age.

those with the greatest instincts towards kindness and systemic changes may nevertheless cause great harm

There is a difference between actually being kind, and having "kindness" as an applause light. Genuinely kind people may also unknowingly cause harm, but they stop when they get feedback. People who just have "kindness" as a part of their identity, will treat the complaining victim as an enemy.

(The typical first step of the "kindness" tribe, after they get power, is making feedback a crime. Anyone who opposes them, by definition opposes kindness itself, and needs to be silenced for greater good.)

I do get frustrated with people now, in a way I didn’t before. What can I do to stop this?

If that is possible, spend more time talking to young people, individually or in small groups, offline. I am not saying that is the only way, but it is the easier way.

Do you have a reason to believe you have a comparative advantage at convincing people? If you don't, maybe sharing a convincing document written by someone else is much less work, and hurts less on rejection. The problem is finding a document that is convicing to the other party, not you. But even then, expect that 99.9% will not care. Such is life. People are stupid and irrational.

From more meta perspective, is convincing other people the best course of action for you? The time you spend arguing, is the time you could have spent working on your goals. Maybe doing X yourself is better than trying to convince other people to do X. Maybe the online crowd is mostly unimportant, but actual changes come from small groups of dedicated people; in that case the winning strategy would be to go to a bubble and find/found such group. (There probably already exists someone with similar goals, try finding them.) Heck, maybe you just need to get more rich, or more fit, or dress better, or write better, and then people will start taking your opinions more seriously - it's crazy, but it probably works! Or make your opinions more viral: leaving a 100th comment in a long debate where nobody listens is less impactful than making a YouTube video.

And of course, the ancient art of not giving a fuck is also a powerful road to the peace of mind.

I am reminded of the phenomenon where people get promoted to the job they are incompetent at and whether a prinple of "people update until they hit a position they are unreasonable about" shares the same kind of mechanics.

Thank you for the wonderfully detailed reply :) 
 

It's certainly worth considering that the internet may have a greater volume of content produced by crazy people. That doesn't ease my worries about a world full of people who are at least crazy at some low level sufficient to make them wrong about quite major stuff, but it does at least put my 'people are wrong on the internet?!' worries in better context.

If age alone is a heuristic of sanity, then things are looking quite bad because I think I'm one of the younger people who actively chats on the discord. But in general, I see what you mean and people are liable to change over time.

Regarding those who see their goal of kindness as an excuse to hate and persecute, that is certainly an issue. Binary two-party politics does tend to lead to a belief that anything you do is justified if it allows you to triumph over the truly evil, and that leads to no end of unpleasantness.

Regarding linking people essays and papers, unfortunately this doesn't tend to be received all too well. Norms-wise (in that community), it's generally seen as a bit rude to link people lengthy documents that the other person needs to read rather than providing a summary or argument as to why you personally believe the thing. That said, perhaps it would be worthwhile to do so anyway when I become frustrated with a conversation, rather than saying something rude or excusing myself and leaving without further debate.

On the meta perspective, changing the minds of these people is of course not going to change much about the real world. It's just something I enjoy doing, really. And perhaps if I cannot make myself enjoy doing it, then the solution is what I'm already in the process of doing: Not arguing with them.

I will consider this, at least, but it would sadden me to lose what I had once enjoyed.

it's generally seen as a bit rude to link people lengthy documents that the other person needs to read rather than providing a summary

Let me guess -- if you provide a summary instead, you will receive dozen additional questions about details (which may actually be explained in the article). In worst case, they will not be framed as questions ("but what about the special case X?") but as assertions ("lol, you completely ignore X").

Possible solution: The article has a summary on the top; you copy the summary and add "more info here".

Originally, I had earned a reputation on the server for my patience, my ability to defuse heated disagreements and give everyone every single chance to offer a good reason for why they held their positions. That slowed and stopped. I got angrier, ruder, more sarcastic, less willing to listen to people. Why should I, in the face of a dozen arguments that ended without any change?  [...] What’s the point of getting people mad? [...] what’s the point in listening to someone who might be scarcely better than noise


This seems like the core of it right here.

You started out decently enough when you had patience and were willing to listen, but your willingness to listen was built on expectations of how easily people would change their minds or offer up compelling reason to change your own, and those expectations aren't panning out. You don't want to have to give up on people -- especially those who set out to become rational -- being able to change their minds, or on your own ability to be effective in this way. Yet you can't help but notice that your expectations aren't being fulfilled, and this brings up some important questions on what you're doing and whether it's even worth it. You don't want to "just give up", yet you're struggling to find room for optimism, and so you're finding yourself just frustrated and doing neither "optimism" nor "giving up" well.

Sound like a fair enough summary?

There is, of course, the classic solution: Get stronger. If I could convince them I was right or get convinced that they’re right, that would nicely remove the dissonance.

The answer is in part this, yes.

It is definitely possible to intentionally steer things such that people either change your mind or change their own. It is not easy.

It is not easy in two different ways. One is that people's beliefs generally aren't built on the small set of "facts" that they give to support them. They're built on a whole lot more than that, a lot of it isn't very legible, and a lot of the time people aren't very aware of or honest about what their beliefs are actually built on. This means that even when you're doing things perfectly* and making steady progress towards converging on beliefs, it will probably take longer than you'd think, and this can be discouraging if you don't know to expect it.

The other way it's hard is that you have to regulate yourself in tricky ways. If you're getting frustrated, you're doing something wrong. If you're getting frustrated and not instantly pivoting to the direction that alleviates the frustration, you're doing that wrong too. It's hard to even know what direction to pivot sometimes. Getting this right takes a lot of self-observation and correction so as to train yourself to balance the considerations better and better. Think of it as a skill to be trained.

* "Perfectly" as in "Not wasting motion". Not slipping the clutch and putting energy into heat rather than motion. You might still be in the wrong gear. Even big illegible messes can be fast when you can use "high gear" effectively. In that case it's Aumann agreement about whose understanding to trust how far, rather than conveying the object level understanding itself.

And, of course, there is the psychological option- just get over it.

The answer is partly this too, though perhaps not in the way you'd think.

It's (usually) not about just dropping things altogether, but rather integrating the unfortunate information into your worldview so that it stops feeling like an alarm and more like a known-issue to be solved.

Hardly seemed appropriate to be happy about anything when it came to politics. Everyone is dreadfully underinformed, and those with the greatest instincts towards kindness and systemic changes may nevertheless cause great harm

This, for example, isn't an "Oh, whatever, NBD". You know how well things could go if people could be not-stupid about things. If people could listen to each other, and could say things worth listening to. If people who were about "kindness" knew they had to do their homework and ensure good outcomes before they could feel good about themselves for being "kind". And you see a lot of not that. It sucks.

It's definitely a problem to be solved rather than one to be accepted as "just how things are". However, it is also currently how things are, and it's not the kind of problem that can be solved by flinching at it until it no longer exists to bother us -- the way we might be able to flinch away from a hot stove and prevent "I'm burning" from being a true thing we need to deal with.

We have to mourn the loss of what we thought we had, just as we have to to when someone we cared about doesn't get the rest of the life we were hoping for. There's lots of little "Aw, and that means this won't get to happen either", and a lot of "But WHY?" until we've updated our maps and we're happy that we're no longer neglecting to learn lessons that might come back to bite us again.

Some people aren't worth convincing, and aren't worth trying to learn from. It's easier to let those slide when you know exactly what you're aiming for, and what exact cues you'd need to see before it'd be worth your time to pivot.


With Trump in office, I struggled to imagine how anyone could possibly change their view. If you like him, any argument against him seems motivated by hatred and partisanship to the point of being easily dismissed. If you don’t, then how could you possibly credit any idea or statement of himself or his party as worthwhile in the face of his monumental evils.

Let's use this for an example.

Say I disagreed with your take on Trump because I thought you liked him too much. I don't know you and you don't know me, so I can't rest on having built a reputation on not being a hateful partisan and instead thinking things through. With that in mind, I'd probably do my best to pace where you're coming from. I'll show you exactly how cool all of the cool thing Trump has done are (or on the other side, exactly how uncool all the uncool things are), and when I'm done, I'll ask you if I'm missing anything. And I'll listen. Maybe I'm actually missing something about how (un)cool Trump is, even if I think it's quite unlikely. Maybe you'll teach me something about how you (and people like you) think, and maybe I care about that -- I am choosing to engage with you, after all.

After I have proven to your satisfaction that not only do I get where you're coming from, I don't downplay the importance of what you see at all, do you really believe that you'd still see me as "a hateful partisan" -- or on the other side, "too easily looking past Trump's monumental evils"? If you do slip into that mode of operation and I notice and stop to address it with an actual openness to seeing why you might see me that way, do you think you'd be able to continue holding the "he's just a hater" frame without kinda noticing to yourself that you're wrong about this and weakening your ability to keep hold of this pretense if it keeps happening?

Or do you see it as likely that you might be curious about how I can get everything you do, not dismiss any of it, and still think you're missing something important? Might you even consider it meaningful that I don't come to the same conclusion before you understand what my reasoning is well enough that I'd sign off on it?

You still probably aren't going to flip your vote in a twenty minute conversation, but what if it were more? Do you think you could hang out with someone like that for a week without weakening some holds on things you were holding onto for less than fully-informed-and-rational reasons? Do you think that maybe, if the things you were missing turned out to be important and surprising enough, you might even change your vote despite still hating all the things about the other guy that you hated going in?


The question is just whether the person is worth the effort. Or perhaps, worth practicing your skills with.

The more people identify themselves as members of a political tribe and see their political beliefs as one or two dimensional the less they are going to be able to rationally reason about them. It reminds me of Vassar saying "People were worried about nuclear war, instead there was a memetic war and now most people are zombies who don't really think"

I'm living in Berlin and Germany is generally more left then the US. Besides voting for the AntiAging party which isn't either left or right I voted for center-left/left parties all my life and never center-right or farther right. At the same time I get into facebook debates where someone messaged me to thank me afterwards for defending the right. 

I hold many of my political thoughts based on first-principle thinking and in the wide field of possible political options that doesn't get me into an existing tribe. That doesn't mean I'm always right but I'm not just following tribal forces. 

I think the same is true for Scott Siskind. He manages to both vote Warren and then Biden while at the same time getting the New York Times trying to present him as right-wing. That's happening because instead of being primarily driven by tribal instincts Scott does a lot of deep thinking about the positions that he holds. 

Unfortunately, we don't have a good way to teach people to get rid of their tribal politics identification that works well enough to simply give it to any aspiring rationalist. 

It has been my experience that it's impossible to convince someone of something. However, it is sometimes possible to help them convince themselves. What is needed for that is a genuine interest in their position. Why do they believe what they believe? And through asking questions (not by giving arguments!) It sometimes happens that they think about something that they never considered before, which loosens their firmly held belief by a bit.

The "risk" of this is that you might get answers that you weren't expecting, ones that actually make sense and you'll find yourself taking a step in their direction.

When that happens however the conversation tends to open up even more, the other person will feel that you really are interested in learning and not convincing. When you try to convince people become defensive. When you try to learn they own up.

This mentality is a good one. It's perhaps the high-level thing that used to guide me towards the behavior I'm looking to emulate but that I forgot to actively keep in my mind. A focus on understanding why people believe what they believe and a willingness to change my own mind may well have been the underlying positive trait that I have not been emulating in my present conversations. I will try to focus on this virtue and see if that improves things. Thank you.

There are individuals that will play truth-seeking games with you, which will enable both you to improve your beliefs (change your mind) and them theirs.  Neither of these are "one person changing the other's mind", it's more like "both seeking to understand the truth, and to change their own minds to model reality better".

This gets less likely in larger groups, and less likely on far-mode topics of values and signaling.  Chatting with individuals to find and resolve very specific disagreements on near-mode choices (what to eat tonight or what's important about this book we're co-studying or whatnot) is often very successful.  And some of those techniques can apply in small groups on medium-term topics (who to support on city council among 3-5 close friends).  

The majority of humans are unreachable as a group, and very very difficult as individuals.  This is true even of fairly elite, high-IQ groups.  Unless you have some reason to believe you have a comparative advantage in politics (and are willing to work your ass off for things that are dressed as rationality, but are more often about negotiation and compromise than about actual intellectual agreement and changing minds), I'd stay away from such things.

My take is that no, you can't change someone else's mind. Only they can. And a debate won't do it except maybe in exceptional circumstances, like where they're already very close to doing so and choose to initiate a debate hoping to be convinced. Also, as the adage says, you can't argue someone out of a position they weren't argued into.

That said, in my experience, if you choose the right people, with whom you have the right kind of relationships, you can plant seeds that occasionally grow into mind changes over time. You can help people who want to learn more to become the kind of person that can think more effectively.

I would consider that most people aren't really in the market to have their mind changed. Especially about politics. They aren't talking do open a discussion. They are talking to let you know how smart or 'good' they are. (or how dumb or 'bad' the people who disagree with them are)

If you want to change people's mind, start with people who accept the concept of 'mind changing'.

 

Shameless plug for my idea for a new internet forum :)

If you want to get back your feeling that you can convince people in general, try easier topics. Arguing political worldview stuff is extreme hard mode. There are easier pickings; arguing why the FDA is bad, or something, is of substance but also not core-worldview, so you’ll have an easier time.

If you want to get back your feeling that made you so invested in this Discord political space, I don’t have good advice, because arguing politics at that level is, like, my worst nightmare. So I’d say: ask people in that server how they got over this feeling! If no one is changing their mind on that server despite all this argument, other people probably feel it too. They’d know better than people like me, who avoid this stuff like the plague, would.

I agree to some degree. What has been hardwired into people’s minds since they were small is difficult. For example, a man born a Christian is likely to be a Christian his whole life. I will live my life thinking that Starbucks coffee is the best because it’s the one I’ve been drinking every morning. But this is the way that you have anticipated it.

There are many people that turn from a theist to an atheist after several debates. There are subreddits dedicated to this. My friend may introduce coffee from a place different from Starbucks and I may begin to prefer coffee from the new place.

People who only believe that it is righteous to believe in their belief will soon change their beliefs overtime. The hardest to deal with are those that believe in anything unconditionally, without any regard to sensory experience.

Everyone experiences a change of opinion forwards many things as they grow older. Everyone can relate to this. This itself is another example that people can be subject to change.