Saturday, January 2, 2010

Changing Minds

The main thinker behind the theory of multiple intelligences is cognitivist psychologist Howard Gardner. His recent Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds examines how and why people changed their minds.

There is rather more of Gardner’s personal thoughts about what is plausible and rather less hard empirical data than I am comfortable with. Though, what he judged to be plausible was certainly very much in line with research work I have read – not so surprising, since we are talking about an eminent empirical psychologist.

The book is very clearly written and Howard Gardner comes across as very much a moral grown-up – his politics (social democratic or what Americans would call liberal Democrat) are open but unobtrusive. Thus he cheerfully, and intelligently, uses Margaret Thatcher as an example of a leader who changed minds, George W Bush as a leader whose mind changed spectacularly and Whittaker Chambers as man who charted his own dramatic change of mind. It is a measure of the breadth of the examples in the book that we move from the totalitarianism of the communist movement (pp 180ff) to the similarly monolithic and mind-closing nature of fundamentalist religion (pp188ff). He is also delightfully open about having heroes (such as Gandhi and Mandela).
The book is about significant and conscious changes of mind (p.2) charted across six realms (pp18-19):
large-scale changes across heterogeneous or broad populations (e.g. nation, globe)
large-scale changes across homogeneous or uniform groups (e.g. corporation)
changes brought about by an artistic, scientific or literary work
changes in formal institutional settings (e.g. school)
changes within intimate settings
changes within one’s own mind.
Gardner uses a sleigh of case studies, of both successful and failed mind changing, to examine different aspects of mind changing.

He provides a listing of what he calls "intuitive theories" or theories that the human mind is naturally inclined to develop early in childhood and he examines why these prove resistant to change (pp55ff). Gardner lists significant factors in changes of mind (pp74ff):
resonance (with audience or self)
representational redescriptions
resources and rewards
real world events
Gardner distinguishes between "cool" TV personalities who allow the audience to fill in details of the story (JFK, Reagan) as against "hot" TV personalities who attempt to say everything and leave no role for audience imagination (LBJ, Nixon, Gingrich). "Cool" leaders are likely to have more staying power than "hot" ones (p.83). In Oz politics, Hawke and Howard are "cool" personalities while Whitlam and Keating are "hot" ones.

Mind changing is a difficult business, rarely managed easily (p.102). Gardner makes the point, particularly with Thatcher’s case, that mind changing is likely to be more successful where the content of the message and the carrier of the message reinforce each other. Thatcher’s personal life story and behaviour were very congruent with her message which both made it more powerful and provided a personal representation people could engage with. People’s experience of the world also needs to connect, and continue to connect, to the story being pushed for the message to be effective.

Gardner lists, apropos multiple intelligences, various entry points through which representational redescription can be made to work (pp140-1)
narrative (tell a story)
quantitative (using examples)
logic (identifying key elements and exploring connections)
existential (addressing big questions)
hands-on (working with tangible examples)
cooperative or social (engaging in joint projects).
He finishes with a summarising epilogue that includes a series of check points for engaging in mind changing (pp208ff)
present content and desired content
size of audience
type of audience
directness of change (direct or indirect means)
levers of change and tipping points
ethical dimension.
While Changing Minds is not a book I found intellectually particularly exciting, I did find it an easy, useful and informative read.

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