How to Change Anyone’s Mind, Even in an Election

Political conventions are the stage upon which Presidential candidates need to employ one skill above all others: the art of persuasion. Jonah Berger, Professor at the Wharton School of Business, is an expert on such matters. His latest book, “The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind,” argues that removing barriers is the key to changing the way people think. He speaks with Hari Sreenivasan.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Our next guest Jonah Berger, professor at the Wharton School of Business, is an expert on such matters. His latest book, “The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind,” argues that if you want to change the way people think, you need to remove the barriers that stand in the way. Sounds obvious, but it’s not. Here he is talking to our Hari Sreenivasan about how his theories can help us better navigate the world we live in.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Christiane, thanks so much. Jonah Berger, thanks for joining us. Here you have this book “Catalyst,” and you’re saying that you can convince almost anyone about almost anything. Why write this book? Why write it now?


JONAH BERGER, AUTHOR, “THE CATALYST: HOW TO CHANGE ANYONE’S MIND”: I am academic at heart. And I have, over the years, had a chance to work with lots of different companies and organizations, everything from big Fortune 500s like the Googles and the Facebooks of the world and small start-ups. And I realized that, in some way, shape or form, everyone had the same issue. They all have something that they wanted to change. When I worked with political candidates, they wanted to change minds about an issue. When I worked with companies, they wanted to change minds about a product or service. And looking out there, just most of the approaches to change are just kind of doing it wrong, right? We’re pushing when, really, we should be getting rid of those barriers. And that’s exactly what a good catalyst does. Catalysts in chemistry, if you remember your old days of high school chemistry, they don’t create change by adding more temperature or more pressure, more energy, just like most chemical reactions do. They create change by removing those sorts of things, by allowing the same amount of change to happen with less energy, not more. And I think we’re in a really fraught political climate at the moment. There’s lots of tension. There’s lots of disagreement. And I think, if we understand the other side a little bit more, we get a sense of where they’re coming from, if we figure out why they’re unwilling to change and remove those barriers, we can really change anything.

SREENIVASAN: So, do we have an inherent resistance to being pushed? I mean, does the act of being pushed towards something set off a red flag for us that says, no, no, no, hold on?

BERGER: Yes, I think anyone who has young kids can easily attest to this. But the same is true with older kids, with bosses, with colleagues. We all have the same thing. It’s something called reactance. And it’s basically this ingrained anti-persuasion radar. Think about almost like an anti-missile defense system, or like a Spidey sense. When we know or we think that someone’s trying to persuade us, our defenses go up. We go, oh, hold on. I hear that ad on the television. I hear that pitch in a meeting. If you have a 3-year-old, you know your 3-year-old goes, oh, dad’s using that voice, you know? And so when people feel like someone is trying to persuade them, they put their defenses up. What does that mean? Well, first of all, they avoid the message or they ignore it. The 3-year-old runs away. We hang up on the salesperson. But, even worse, even if we do listen, we’re sitting there counterarguing. We’re thinking about all the reasons why what someone suggested is not going to work, why it’s a bad idea, why it won’t be effective. And so the problem is, even if we think someone’s listening, even if they seem like they’re listening, they’re not just listening. They’re sitting there like a high school debate team member thinking about all the reasons why our argument is bad, which make it much less likely that we will convince them to do what we want.

SREENIVASAN: So, let’s go from trying to convince a 5-year-old of going to bed to trying to convince grownups to wear a mask right now, right? I mean, the campaign, so to speak, or the thought among scientists and people who care about public health has all been, hey, wearing a mask helps, you should wear a mask. So how do we change that phrasing or that messaging? Instead of trying to push someone to wear a mask, what — how do we remove the resistance that they might have?

BERGER: People like to feel like they have some freedom. I’m the one making my choice. I’m the one in the driver’s seat. And as soon as something comes from us, rather than them, they’re less likely to do it. And so the question really is, how can we reduce reactance? How can we give them back that sense of freedom or control, like they’re in charge? And one great way to do this is to ask questions, rather than make statements, and, in particular, to do what I call highlighting a gap between attitudes and action. There’s a great anti-smoking ad in Thailand where they want to get people to stop smoking. And it’s from the Thai Health Promotion Foundation. They realized telling people not to smoke won’t work. So, instead, what they do is, they go around, and they ask smokers, hey, can I have a light? And this is something smokers would usually say yes to, except, this time, smokers say no. Why do they say no? They say no because the person who asked is an 8-year-old kid. So, 8-year-olds go up to smokers and say, hey, can I have a light? And smokers say, no, of course not. I’m not giving you a light, right? You’re a small kid. Smoking is bad. You shouldn’t smoke. It’s going to — do you want to run and play? It’s going to hurt your lungs. Nobody knows more about the detrimental effects of smoking than smokers to tell little kids. And at the end of that interaction, the kid hands the smoker a piece of paper, and, on it, it says, hey, you worry about me, but not yourself. Think about calling this quit line. And what’s so great about this campaign, first of all, hugely successful, 40 percent increase in calls to the quit line, viral — videos go viral on the web, lots of attention. But what’s great about them is, they don’t tell smokers not to smoke. They never say, don’t smoke. Instead, they say, hey, you told me not to smoke. I’m a little kid. And you’re smoking yourself. And then step back and let the smokers deal with it, right, because we want our attitudes and our actions to match up. We tell people not to smoke, we probably shouldn’t smoke. We tell people to recycle, we should probably recycle. And if they don’t match up, we have cognitive dissonance. We feel badly. We want to do the work to make them line up. And so that’s exactly what the smokers did. We can use that same idea for masks, right? You’re in, let’s say, a workplace, for example, or you’re around a bunch of people not wearing masks. Don’t tell them not to wear masks. Instead, say something like, hey if your parents, your elderly parents or your young children were around, would you want other people to wear masks? The person would probably say, yes, of course, right? If my kid was around, I would want whatever else to wear a mask. OK, well, then why aren’t you wearing one now? And, again, not telling them what to do, but asking the right questions, guiding that journey. Pointing out a gap between their attitudes and what they’re doing at the moment will help them do the work to resolve it.

SREENIVASAN: Let’s talk a little bit in the context of the political season, the election cycle. You don’t have to point out at any party or tactic, per se, but you see both parties doing this right now. They’re both making their case to their supporters that they need their help in November, right, one way or another. So how do you get to a point where, in such a polarized country, you can have a conversation even with a member of your family who is not voting the way that you are? Even approaching this topic is so fraught with tension right now. What’s the way to persuade people to even speak about it?

BERGER: Yes, I would say a couple things. First, building on what we already talked about, thinking about asking questions, rather than making statements. It’s an old — an oldie, but goody a number of decades ago, but I think it’s from the Reagan-Carter election. Reagan asked people, hey, are you better off than you were four years ago?


RONALD REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Next Tuesday, all of you will go to the polls. You will stand there in the polling place and make a decision. I think, when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?


BERGER: And notice what that cleverly does, right? It doesn’t say, hey, you’re not better off than you were four years ago, you should vote for me. It doesn’t tell people to do anything. It doesn’t tell them anything. It asks them, hey, reflect on this question. And notice, by the way, you could have had people reflect on a lot of different questions. So it’s not just asking a question. It’s asking the right question. It’s encouraging people to go, huh, to pull to mind facts and information and things in their own mind that go along with what you want. But what it nicely then does is, it encourages them to commit to the conclusion, because, if I say to myself, wow, I’m not better off than I was four years ago, then, hold on, let me take that to that logical conclusion. Well, then maybe I shouldn’t vote for the same person that I did four years ago. By asking them a question, instead, they have got a different job. They’re sitting there going, huh, well, am I better off than I was four years ago? Do I think this candidate has done a great job doing XYZ? And so because they’re recruiting information, they’re not spending as much time counterarguing. And they’re much more likely to get to the conclusion you want in the first place, so questions, rather than statements, also asking for less. I think, sometimes, we hope, hey, right away, I’ll make one statement, I’ll say one thing, and this person will immediately cross over, oh, those boneheaded conservatives or, oh, those whatever liberals, they think XYZ, but they’re wrong. If I just say the right thing, they will come around. Well, first of all, they won’t. One thing is not going to do it. But, second of all, let’s start with a smaller ask. If we ask for such a big thing, they will ignore us. We ask for a little thing first of all, I’ll listen to them. They’re not — that’s not that far away from where I am currently. They will move a little bit towards us. And then we can ask for more. And so by chunking the change, by breaking down a big ask into smaller chunks, we are much more likely move people in the right direction.

SREENIVASAN: Look, if I’m watching TV in the past couple of weeks now, you see the candidates doing almost the opposite of everything you’re talking about, right? You see them talking to their base. You see them highlighting the differences. You don’t see them reaching for an unsticking point. Is it a different type of communication? Are they — if the goal is, let’s get my supporters to the polls and make sure they pull the lever for me, vs. trying to find some sort of American common ground, I mean, you see sort of rhetorical flourishes, when the candidates are up on stage and accepting the nomination and so forth. But most of the campaign ads are not trying to build a bridge. They’re just trying to make sure that you’re happy on the side that you’re on.

BERGER: Yes, and this is the power of segmentation, right? Just like you may see an ad for brand if you’re watching ESPN that looks very different than the ad for the same brand if you’re watching, let’s say, Lifetime, for example, when candidates are speaking to different audiences, they should use different messages, right? When I’m trying to get my base to come out to the polls, they’re — I’m not trying to change their mind about who to vote for, right? Most Democrats are going to vote for Biden. They have already made their minds up. I don’t need to change their mind about who to vote for. I just need to get them to turn out. And so talking about all the problems with Trump and pointing out whether you want four more years of the same thing, that’s going to be a great way to light that emotional fire and really get them to turn out. On the other hand, if I’m doing online targeting, I’m reaching out to people, whether it’s on Facebook or through other digital messages, that I know are conservatives, if I’m not using a different message, I’m not going to be very effective. In those situations, I need to say, OK, well, hey, you are on the other side of the aisle. I can’t move you right away to the other side. Let me take some small steps. Let me find issues where you might be less satisfied with the status quo, chunk the change, and slowly move you in the right direction. And I think that’s what smart campaigns do as well. They start with a segmentation. They find out, well, who are these different audiences? What do they need? Let me target the right messages to the right audiences, so they move in the right direction.

SREENIVASAN: You write about a process called deep canvassing that worked in the California area about LGBTQ and trans issues. Tell me that story.

BERGER: There’s this guy named Dave Fleischer, who sort of started something that became what today we think of as deep canvassing. And he talks about the problem of usually going to door to door, of regular canvassing. Basically, people come in, and they drop off a message. They have already decided what they want to say. They wait until someone else opens up their door, and then they spew out facts and figures, hoping it’ll be enough to convince someone. Deep canvassing works a little bit differently. Dave and his colleagues tried many times, different approaches, sort of honed this over numerous — numerous campaigns and different issues. And he realized, we need to have a conversation with people, right? If we don’t start where they are, if we start where we are, it’s never going to work. And so, instead, how deep canvassing works is, rather than starting with the contentious issue, hey, LGBT rights, hey, something that conservatives may not be willing to consider, it starts with what I will call an unsticking point. It starts with a place of common ground or point of agreement. People knock on a door, for example, and try to find a place where they and the person opening that door might have a place of agreement. In one case, for example, one LGBT member talked about what it’s like to be ostracized, right? They were talking to an Army vet, for example, who may not know what it’s like to be a member of the LGBT community, so, instead, said, hey, what’s a time you have been discriminated against? And he talked about — at length about, man, they wouldn’t hire me because I was an Army veteran. That was terrible. This is how it made me feel. And they said, wow, that’s terrible. That’s kind of how I feel when I don’t have access to these rights as members of the community. And so what it cleverly does is, rather than asking someone to take your viewpoint, which is really hard, right, think about a time when you were discriminated against in your own life, it can help them understand what that might be like and be more likely to change as a result.

SREENIVASAN: So, it’s not really exposure, then, to the alternative viewpoint or the idea that’s likely to change someone’s mind. I mean, is it going to have the opposite effect?

BERGER: I think exposure by itself is not enough. We need to think about exposing people in the right format or the right way. A colleague of mine did this great study on Twitter where he went out and he tried to expose people to information from the other side. If we just try to give conservatives information about liberals or liberals information about conservatives, they will come around. The problem is that information is so far away from where people are currently, they’re just unwilling to even consider that information in the first place. And he found that, actually, exposing people to arguments or even information from the other side backfired. Conservatives get even more conservative when they’re exposed to liberal information on Twitter. And liberals also became a little more liberal after seeing conservative information. The challenge is, it just encouraged us to dig our heels in, right, to reaffirm what we already believe. And so, instead, we need to break down that change into smaller amounts, make it easier for people to say, well, that’s not so far away from where I am currently, at least consider what that person has to say. Maybe it’ll move me in the right direction. And then, if they expose me to new information, they can move me even further.

SREENIVASAN: Is there a difference in the subject matter whether you’re trying to convince someone to buy a new product, a new politician, or, let’s say, it’s more emotionally fraught, right? It’s a personal matter or it’s about race in the workplace, I mean, things that really trigger people at their core. Are there tactics that you can use to approach things more effectively?

BERGER: Let’s say we’re trying to get someone to, I don’t know, put in solar panels on their roof. And I say, man, I love my solar panels. They’re great. You should really use them. You’re sitting there going, OK, well, Jonah is one person. Sure, he likes solar panels, but how do I know if they’re going to work out for me? How do I know they’re going to be easy to put in? And how do I know I’m going to save money in the long term? He’s got one opinion. How do I know it’s right? And there’s an old adage that goes something along the lines of, if one person says you have a tail, you laugh, but if five people say you have a tail, you turn around to take a look. And that’s exactly what this idea is, right? If one person says, try solar, you say, OK, that’s one person’s opinion. But if five people say, hey, check this out, it’s a lot harder not to listen, right, because now multiple independent sources are all providing information that something is a good idea. And so whether we’re trying to change someone’s mind about a product or a service or a candidate, sometimes, hearing from us more times isn’t going to do it, right? Someone says, says OK, well that’s their opinion, but I need to see more proof. And that’s the part where having multiple people sort of speaking in chorus at a similar time point can have a much bigger impact.

SREENIVASAN: Jonah Berger. The book is called “The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind,” Thanks so much for joining us.

BERGER: Thanks so much for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin puts this week’s Democratic National Convention into context tonight. Assault survivor Chanel Miller discusses her new art exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. CNN correspondent Phil Black gives a special report on the suspected poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny. Wharton professor Jonah Berger explains how to change anyone’s mind.