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What’s the evidence on using rational argument to change people’s minds?

Psychology, information, rationality

Are we, the human species, unreasonable? Do rational arguments have any power to sway us, or is it all intuition, hidden motivations, and various other forms of prejudice?

The question has been hanging over me because of my profession. I work as a cognitive psychologist, researching and teaching how people think. My job is based on rational inquiry, yet the picture of human rationality painted by our profession can seem pretty bleak. Every week I hear about a new piece of research which shows up some quirk of our minds, like the one about people given a heavy clip board judge public issues as more important than people given a light clip board. Or that more attractive people are judged as more trustworthy, or they arguments they give as more intelligent.

Commentators and popularisers of this work have been quick to pick up on these findings. Dan Ariely has a book calling us “Predictably Irrational”, and the introduction tells us “we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually think of ourselves [with] ultimate control over the decisions we make [but] this perception has more to do with our desires…than reality”. Cordelia Fine’s book “[A mind of its own]( )” has the subtitle “how your brain distorts and deceives”, whilst David McRaney doesn’t pull any punches with the title of his “You are not so smart”.

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