Thursday, August 25, 2011

What Changes People's Minds?

Most of my friends and lovers are pronatalists, so I know that kind, smart people often hold beliefs that contradict mine. I still have hopes of converting them and others (as they have hopes of converting me, no doubt).

How do we go about changing people's minds? How do real human minds get changed?

Information doesn't seem to do it - being exposed to information contradicting your point of view, if anything, seems to cement your original position, rather than change it. This is a well-documented social phenomenon; you know those cults that predict the end of the world? What happens when the end doesn't come? A few members leave the cult, but generally, those who remain are even more committed to the cult!

So how do we change minds? Is it inextricably connected to status? Self-interest? Social belonging? Are there any methods that reliably work to change core beliefs?

42 comments:

  1. There's no "magic bullet", and it takes some experimentation for each individual, but, yes, there are.

    You could start here: http://changingminds.org/index.htm

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  2. Sister Y, would you change your anti-natalist position in a hypothetical world where it could be guaranteed that...

    a) the overwhelmingly vast majority of children will live lives that are predominably very good, and will self-report great gratitute that they have been born, or
    b) suffering becomes biologically impossible (cf hedweb.com), or
    c) creating new sentient entities happens only through duplication of previously existing ones that claim to be very happy and consent to the process?

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  3. For your lovers: use the Lysistrata method.

    For the rest, two words: OPRAH WINFREY.

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  4. But when the minds you're trying to change have been fortified with the latest in anti-bias research, it should be a lot easier to convince them, especially when you can tell them when they're following their own cognitive biases. Hence my reasons for taking on the Overcoming Bias community :) Of course, I guess if I can't convince you to join the few of us doing this, I probably won't have any luck with the guys and gals at the OB community.

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  5. Hedonic Treader:
    a. No. How is that different from the status quo?
    b. Yes - then reproduction would be neutral.
    c. No - it's not true consent. I'm reminded of Greg Egan's Permutation City, which gives good examples of the copy's interests being extremely divergent from those of the original.

    Re: Lysistrata - that would only work if my lovers' sexual options were limited to me. (Is refusing to interact with/fuck people who have children a moral/effective strategy for reducing breeding? I don't know, but some of my best friends have kids, and some of them are the most sympathetic to the cause. I just don't think deterrence/incentive is the appropriate way to think about one's friends and lovers.)

    estnihil - you are undoubtedly right that to the extent that our position is logically entailed by basic empathy and reason, those most sensitive to reason should be the most susceptible to conversion. But think about the mortality salience experiments with judges: even judges performing their judicial functions demonstrate strong emotional biases of the kind that our beliefs would undoubtedly trigger.

    I'm open to it as an experiment, but . . . do we have, like, a control or hypothesis or anything? I'll gladly participate. (I troll/tilt at OB all the time anyway.)

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  6. It is really difficult to change their minds. Compare it to how many people drink, smoke and overeat even though it is generally accepted that these things are not good.

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  7. "Are there any methods that reliably work to change core beliefs?"

    Not any that are legal.

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  8. I wonder how effective an "If only you weren't born ..." would be when they are in deep crisis. Another thing that could be tried is, "If only s/he wasn't born!" when their child is in deep crisis.

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  9. Pro-natalism and anti-natalism are not strictly logical positions. They're moral positions, or attitudes, or visions, or preferences, or desires, or values. So pure reason isn't going to cut it.

    Probably your best bet is to force upon others the formative experiences that led you to your own moral positions. For instance, if you've suffered a lot of depression and you think that may have had bearing on your attitudes, try ruining other peoples' lives, preferably in covert ways.

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  10. The Lysistrata method sounds, as usual, hilarious, but getting someone to SAY they've changed their mind in order to get what they want isn't the same as actually changing their mind.

    This is a very difficult question. You would think that a harrowing experience such as the death or deformity of one's own child would make people think twice about natalism, but no; many simply try again.

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  11. A lot of smart people (e.g. Richard Posner) have advanced the view that books like Peter Singer's Animal Liberation have succeeded to the extent that they have not because they make great technical arguments, but because they contain graphic imagery that makes the problem of animal suffering vivid in people's minds.

    Perhaps we need more graphic imagery to make the problem of human suffering vivid in people's minds.

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  12. There's only one way

    Lol @ Sagredo! I try to avoid life as much as possible so i don't do drama and games. I did convince my sister but she admitted not having children would ruin her marriage and future life (social standing, family get togethers, feeling "eggy",...). I'm done preaching about it, let them all burn.

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  13. My mind has been changed through exposure to logical (and emotional) arguments, both through interpersonal exchange and through reading. What I have noticed is that the change seldom comes instantly; it usually comes after some personal reflection and reorientation. I'm probably not typical.

    With reference to biorealism (or HBD), the blogger Half Sigma contends that no amount of logical data-based argument is sufficient. He says the better tack if you want to change minds is to humbly aver that you used to believe X (what they currently believe) until that day when you tried in earnest to defend your position and realized you were wrong. Being averse to intellectual dishonesty, I personally recoil from this kind of tactic. But it might be there's something to it. I suppose the idea is to signal grudging social acceptance of a seemingly toxic notion, until would-be adversaries are tempted away from their rejectionist default.

    By the way, I received a memo from the future and it turns out that a critical mass of people will become antinatalists after reading a book called "Every Cradle is a Grave."

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    1. lolwut? Who reads Half Sigma anyway? Only proles who don't want to be proles.

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  14. Chip, you mean the book will be featured on the Oprah Book Club? Congratulations!

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  15. What would a critical mass of antinatalists look like? Enough to forcibly sterilize the entire planet? We all know that continued reproduction takes only a subset of the population actually reproducing.

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  16. While general strategies for mind-changing would be nice, doesn't it make sense to focus on the most intuitive and accessible arguments for the position you're advancing?

    For example, I found this site before reading Benatar, and I'm not sure that I would have bought his explanation of the asymmetry without exposure to the Austrian Basement post.

    So we should be asking philanthropic antinatalists how they were convinced, and see if any patterns emerge.

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  17. Pual,

    I agree with you about tactics. It has been said that one benefit of the truth -- or in this case, an "intuitive and accessible" argument -- is that it's easier to remember. It does occur to me that the basic PA argument could be effectively presented to a wider audience in a calmly intoned documentary film (perhaps narrated by Morgan Freeman).

    I suppose I had been nursing inchoate antinatalist nostrums for some time prior, but my profound epiphany came through a critical reading of Murray Rothbard's treatise, "The Ethics of Liberty." In the chapter where Rothbard gamely attempts to outline a theory of children's rights under the strict dicta of libertarian nonaggression (with repugnant conclusions galore), I sensed a gaping blind spot in his insistent logic. The blind spot was simply that he failed to see that procreation could itself be an instance of unprovoked force. Later, when I read Benatar, it became clear that similar problems bedeviled other ethical strategies and systems.

    Where philosophy -- and ordinary human sensibility -- is concerned with the problems of death and harm, it seems that antinatalism eventually and inevitably intrudes upon our thoughts. Perhaps this was always the case, but now the idea comes with a pedigree. I think that much matters. With every iteration, it becomes more difficult to ignore the obvious thing. More difficult not to connect the dots.

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  18. Music and fiction seem pretty effective at covertly developing sympathies for just about any view of the world.

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  19. I'll repeat myself because you've ignored my argument, and continued to juggle the moral memes of antinatalism as if it had any meaningful impact on actual reality on this planet: All it takes for complete repopulation of planet earth is for only a very small minority of people to continue reproducing, even if *billions* of others are magically and unrealistically converted to antinatalism.

    So what's the point of it, other than an academic exercise and personal frustration-venting? From an actual consequentialist perspective, there doesn't seem to be too much value in it.

    Futhermore, the concept of consent-based ethics has problems with personal identity, which is mostly an elaborate memetic and neurological illusion. From a (negative) utilitarian perspective, antinatalist would only make sense if it somehow magically convinced people to do things that acutally prevent large-scale suffering in this world. This seems super unrealistic to me.

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  20. Fewer people is progress. And who knows what the future may bring to our cause?

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  21. Anonymous,

    I presume you are addressing me since I neglected to engage your point about "critical mass." Since I was obviously joking in my initial comment, I assumed you were at least half-joking in reply. But I do understand your point.

    To my mind, a "critical mass" effect would obtain if antinatalism were to become a subject of legitimate popular bioethical debate and discussion (much like abortion or euthanasia or even circumcision now) and if, in such an atmosphere, there were measurable and appreciable negative effects on rates of reproduction. The extinctionist project is at once quixotic (since forcible sterilization isn't going to happen) and inevitable (since all life is doomed in time).

    Anyway, I don't really understand the emphasis on endgame scenarios where this subject is concerned. I think it's a form of special pleading. If the point is that procreation always exacts uninvited harm on those who are created (and that the alternative exacts no such harm) then it is presumably within an individual's control to prevent some measure of this category of harm simply by not having children. The people that you and I do not create are spared the fate of the living, just as the people we do not torture and murder are spared another particular fate. It hardly matters that you and I may not desire to impose suffering on others; my point is simply that nonreproduction, like other forms of nonaggression, appears to be a viable and practicable option for real individual human beings faced with options. The fact that murder and torture have not been (and probably never will be) abolished is not generally construed to render our intuitive opposition to such conduct "academic." It just means that there is only so much we can do.

    One other point I would make is that the legitimization of antinatalist reasoning might have other positive real-world implications that would pass any consequentialist test, and this seems especially likely where law is concerned. Two realistic possibilities come to mind. The first is that wrongful life litigation could be more broadly applied. The second is that prevailing legal restrictions on suicide could be repealed. It isn't necessary to end the world (all of our worlds end when we die) to recognize the difference between better and worse.

    I don't really have anything to say with reference to your final point regarding such "memetic and neurological" illusions that might undermine consent-based ethics. The ideas behind your conclusion are years of study beyond my grasp and would seem, in any event, to apply just as forcefully to arguments against murder and torture.

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  22. "The ideas behind your conclusion are years of study beyond my grasp"

    Indeed. But fear not, I still do respect you as a person.

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  23. "Futhermore, the concept of consent-based ethics has problems with personal identity, which is mostly an elaborate memetic and neurological illusion."

    I really find it so tiresome when people trot this out. Like it or not, one is obliged to act as an "I", one is obliged to take responsibility for one's choices and one is obliged to be an ethical agent. Saying that science "disproves" the self strikes me more and more as an excuse for apathy and irresponsibility.

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  24. "Like it or not, one is obliged to act as an "I", one is obliged to take responsibility for one's choices and one is obliged to be an ethical agent."

    Independent from the question of personal identity, I cannot see such an obligation. As far as I can tell, the only obligation that "I" ever had was to obey the laws of physics.

    "Saying that science "disproves" the self strikes me more and more as an excuse for apathy and irresponsibility."

    Why would we need an excuse for that? We can already do whatever we want, as long as we're ready to accept the consequences.

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  25. "We can already do whatever we want, as long as we're ready to accept the consequences."

    Well if you're prepared to go down the nihilist line, antinatalism isn't for you. AN is a moral position, based on the reasonable projection of unnecessary future suffering that can be averted through individual choice. This demonstrates yet again how a position of total determinism is completely irreconcilable with ethics.

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  26. "We can already do whatever we want, as long as we're ready to accept the consequences."
    What? You mean only the consequences for us (as in the action's doer)?!

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  27. "What? You mean only the consequences for us (as in the action's doer)?!"
    No, I mean consequences.

    "AN is a moral position, based on the reasonable projection of unnecessary future suffering that can be averted through individual choice."
    If the goal is to reduce preventable future suffering, then it seems AN is just an instrumental subset of negative utilitarianism, which doesn't emphasize the requirement of consent except for its instrumental value. "A child cannot consent to being born" is not the relevant then. What about the non-consensual killing of people who might suffer in the future? Surely, that too qualifies as "the reasonable projection of unnecessary future suffering that can be averted through individual choice", and it does not require the illusion of individuality or deontological focus on consent.

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  28. Antinatalism focuses on the initial decision to eschew procreation. It has nothing hard or fast to say about abortion and has absolutely nothing to do with "the non-consensual killing of people who might suffer in the future".

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  29. I know. That's why it's at least incomplete. Judging from the proclaimed terminal goal of preventing unnecessary future suffering that can be averted through individual choice, it makes no sense to be anti-procreation, but not pro-abortion. Or pro-suicide. Rather than just pro-choice. Unless you add a deontological consent principle for pre-existing people, and then you're basing your limitations on the illusion of personal identity again. I'm not saying that you can't. It just doesn't follow from the goal you've stated.

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  30. First, yes, you can be an antinatalist on purely negative utilitarian grounds without caring about consent, and that's, in a way, what Benatar does, avoiding the non-identity problem.

    Second, you can also be an antinatalist if you find consent so great that you care about it even outside the person-affecting conception of harm, which is usually taken to be relevant by consent people.

    And third, I think there will be hardly any antinatalist that doesn't think abortion is actually morally obligatory. The reason is, if you're sensible and compassionate enough to be of antinatalist conviction, you're very unlikely to be the kind of person who has weird conceptions about fetuses.

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  31. Oh, I forgot, fourth: yes, it does make sense to be pro-choice and not pro-suicide for an antinatalist. If you think you can't do this by just assigning death a large enough harm value, then you still can by switching to preference utilitarianism.

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  32. I'm surprised no one's mentioned the "kids make you less happy, and pregnancy sucks big time" strategy. While AN is of course a moral position rather than a prudential position, people care about themselves more than others, so why not appeal to their egoism?

    Perhaps perversely, having a visibly awesome childless life may be more effective than attempts to verbally persuade. So even though there's probably a moderate-to-strong correlation between AN and depression/melancholy/dysthymia, we should do our best to be good ambassadors and make it harder for people to say, "oh, you're just saying that because you're depressed" (you'd think that the existence of depressed people would be evidence *for* AN rather than against it, but logic is obviously not behind this common response).

    Proselytizers convert only a tiny fraction of the people they preach to. If I can get ten people to go from each having a 90% chance of having children to each having an 80% chance, that's as good as one forcible sterilzation (better, in fact, since, despite recent discussions, I'm still not cool with that).

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  33. I recently had some discussions with co-workers about morality, and managed to convince them that their total-utility ethics required them to have children just as strongly as it required them to save a baby tied to the train tracks. They provisionally bit the bullet and admitted selfishness, but at least they recognized some problems with total utility.

    If we think that reason leads people at least *closer* to AN, then just getting them thinking can be on average good. There are also roads to AN that, to someone not familiar with AN, don't lead immediately there and so are less likely to be rejected out of hand. Various optimism and cheery-history biases, the disutility of desire, hedonic treadmilling, and freedom from being evolution's bitch, for example.

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  34. But the baby on the train tracks suffers fear and pain, while unborn babies do not; and there are probably parents/relatives or at least the public who are horrified by the babies gruesome death, the train driver might feel bad about it, and we had better find out who's out there tying babies to train tracks because who knows what else they're up to...

    Also, there may be non-AN intervention modes that convince people more easily and that reduce more suffering in future generations more quickly. In this case AN is a distraction.

    Also, evolution doesn't stop because a minority of people has fewer children, it might mean that other people will have more because there are now more free resources (unless Bryan Caplan is right and population is magic), and they may predominantly be religious fundamentalists [1]. Now surely, THAT will make the world a better place...

    [1] http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/out-of-mouths-of-babes--religious-will-rise-as-secular-birth-rates-fall-20100919-15hsc.html

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  35. Anonymous,

    Absent the baby suffering fear and pain, everything else is a second-order effect. With a modicum of effort, I could update the thought experiment to equalize those effects, but it's 3:45am, so I won't expend it.

    Do neonates fear death? I doubt it. Why should they, any more than pre-natal fetuses do?

    Getting run over by a train, especially when it crushes your skull, basically doesn't hurt. And in any case, pain itself isn't what causes suffering (capsaicin, anal sex, emotional suffering, etc.).

    You may be right than AN is a distraction. This is, however, an empirical question. I see AN as a natural outgrowth of what I believe to be moral -- it is a conclusion rather than a premise. Since what I care about is improving the well-being of sentient (has subjective experiences) beings and preventing the creating of on-balance-negative-utility-enjoying beings, I'm open to arguments that promoting AN explicitly is counterproductive toward that goal. And in fact, I don't try to promote AN explicitly -- rather I try to problematize natalism, raise doubts about the positive utility of most lives, and have an enviable life even though I'm way past the median child-having age.

    If you convince me fish are sentient, I'd have a real problem.

    We can make differences on the margin. Natalism may have a genetic component, but it's not entirely controlling. We can also play the odds: we may influence someone who will become civilizationally influential and institute policies that are marginally more antinatalist. Or, more importantly, marginally more minipassial.

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  36. As a 19th century lawyer put it, "beliefs are like nails-- the harder you strike at them, the deeper they will go." In the ideal world, we would have the capacity and determination to lead by example. In practice, this must mean having the status and the goodies that would normally make it "desirable" for a person to seek to reproduce. From my point of view, acquiring status and material wealth in which one has no real interest for the sake of proving a major point is balls-achingly boring... But it's the only thing that's likely to work. People try to do what "the successful people" do.

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    1. It seems people find reasons to discount AN either way. If you're open about your high-status traits/achievements, people accuse you of whining, first world problems, etc. If you're open about low-status traits, people blame those for your pessimistic worldview. Convenient Catch-22!

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    2. I agree that low status and low income are, well, unconvincing, whatever it is you try to propound. And I can't say that a "successful" voice will always be effective. I do think, however, that it will be *more* effective, for what that's worth, and therefore preferable.

      As an unrelated point: how do I send you a personal message? I did see the image of a gmail address, but have trouble making it out. (Nothing serious, just fan mail. Not even that :))))

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    3. sister.eee@gmail.com

      Agree that high status/beauty/etc. is more persuasive than low status, as far as attracting on-the-fence converts or sympathizers. <3

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  37. As a 19th century lawyer put it, "beliefs are like nails-- the harder you strike at them, the deeper they will go." In the ideal world, we would have the capacity and determination to lead by example. In practice, this must mean having the status and the goodies that would normally make it "desirable" for a person to seek to reproduce. From my point of view, acquiring status and material wealth in which one has no real interest for the sake of proving a major point is balls-achingly boring... But it's the only thing that's likely to work. People try to do what "the successful people" do.

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