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Is It Really Possible to Change Someone's Beliefs?

Ideology doesn’t bend to reason, says Professor Barbara Oakley. Here's why we can't really change what other people believe, and why that brand of "helping" others can backfire.

The two things you simply cannot do are probably the two things you most want to: change someone, and help them. Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor who teaches the world's largest online open class, knows this intimately: when she was teaching in China, "working with the communists" as she says, people had tried to warn others about the dangers of communist totalitarianism before the Great Leap Forward. Nobody listened. Ultimately discussion isn't enough to sway people's beliefs — for any slim shot at that, says Oakley, you have to give people new experiences, not just facts. But should you always be trying to change others, anyway? "Your own good intentions can also lead you astray," says Oakley, whose research involves pathologies of altruism. Could altruism be a behavioral disorder? A study from Boston in the 1930s that was followed up in the 1970s imparts an important lesson on why thinking you know best for others can be anything but a help, and that if a good deed feels good, it might be a red flag that you're only helping yourself. Barbara Oakley's most recent book is Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential, and you can find the Mindshift course here.

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