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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.
Barbara Oakley, PhD, is a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning at McMaster University. Her research involves bioengineering with an emphasis on neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Alongside legendary neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski, Dr. Oakley teaches two massive open online courses (MOOCs), 'Learning How to Learn,' the world's most popular course, and 'Mindshift,' the companion course to her most recent book of the same title.
Barbara Oakley: It’s hard to know how you can change a person’s mind or opinion. And the reality is you can’t. I mean, a change has to come from within that person. And sometimes that change only comes when you have the experience or that person has the experiences themselves.
So again harking back to my old days of working with the communists. In Communist China there was some really, there were some horrific things taking place with Mao during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But before that time even there were a lot of atrocities that didn’t get heard because if you talked about them they’d kill you. So in more open and western approaches to government, there was a lot of criticism of the bad things going on. And in communist systems there was none. And so it was easy to imagine that they were great systems.
So people who had come from the communist side in China and they were trying to convince others that wait a minute, no. You don’t want this type of totalitarian system in your life. You don’t want to bring it there. They would talk and talk and talk and it made no difference at all because the people couldn’t imagine what kind of experiences there were. It’s the same for the Jews during the Holocaust. I mean people just didn’t believe what was going on. So sometimes it’s just, it’s hard to imagine how you can change a person because you really can’t unless they’re experiencing the kinds of things that you’ve seen and you’ve encountered.
But at the same time it’s important to be aware that your own good intentions can also lead you astray. So what do I mean by that? There was a wonderful study done and published in the 1970s by Joan McCord. And what she did was she went back and looked at an old study in the 1930s of Boston school boys, 500 of them. They split them into two groups. One was the control group, they did nothing to them. The other group was given every possible advantage. They had counseling, summer camps, they got extra tutoring. Just medical assistance, even assistance for the family. It was really about the best you could imagine. Thirty years later Joan McCord followed up on those two groups. One group had significantly higher rates of suicide, alcoholism, drug use. They were in jail more. They ended up in lower class jobs. I mean it was just sort of every sort of bad thing you could imagine. They had significantly higher proportions of people who had this kind of thing happen to them. And which group was that? It was the group that got all the help. And what was interesting was that the people involved in the study were convinced that they were helping that group. But it backfired and it was only when they really went in and looked carefully at the data that they found that this wonderful helping was making the researchers and the participants feel very good. But it was actually harming the boys that they wanted to help.
So some of my research involves pathologies of altruism and that is sort of this road to hell is sometimes paved by good intentions. It’s very important to be aware that sometimes you can be totally convinced that you are helping and that what you’re doing is the right and good thing for others. And unless you’re willing to sort of let that stand up to scientific scrutiny you’d just be surprised at how you are sometimes incorrect and there are other ways to help that are maybe not so obvious and maybe don’t make you feel so good but actually that truly help.
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.
Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?
- From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
- "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
- Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.
A growing body of research suggests COVID-19 can cause serious neurological problems.
- The new study seeks to track the health of 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
- The study aims to explore whether the disease causes cognitive impairment and other conditions.
- Recent research suggests that COVID-19 can, directly or indirectly, cause brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage and other neurological problems.
Brain images of a patient with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis.
COVID-19 and the brain<p>A growing body of research reveals alarming neurological complications among COVID-19 patients. On Wednesday, for example, researchers from University College London published a <a href="https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/doi/10.1093/brain/awaa240/5868408" target="_blank">study</a> in the journal Brain that describes how some patients have suffered temporary brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage, and other neurological problems concurrent with COVID-19.</p><p>Some patients suffered brain inflammation as a result of a rare disease called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, which can cause numbness, seizures, and confusion. One patient in the study even hallucinated monkeys and lions in her home.</p>
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images<p>A separate study published in the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7198407/" target="_blank">Journal of Clinical Neuroscience</a> notes that some COVID-19 patients have also suffered neurological complications like impaired consciousness and acute cerebrovascular disease. The study notes that past viruses like MERS and SARS also seemed to cause neurological problems.</p><p>A troubling finding among this growing body of research is that some patients seem to suffer neurological damage even when respiratory symptoms aren't obvious. Additionally, scientists aren't sure whether damage from the disease will be permanent.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Given that the disease has only been around for a matter of months, we might not yet know what long-term damage COVID-19 can cause," Dr. Ross Paterson, joint first author of the University College London study, said in a <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-07/ucl-iid070620.php" target="_blank">press release</a>. "Doctors needs to be aware of possible neurological effects, as early diagnosis can improve patient outcomes."</p><p>If you've been diagnosed with COVID-19 and want to enroll in the study, visit <a href="https://www.cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study" target="_blank">cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study</a>.</p>
Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
Saudi Arabia Plans Futuristic City, "Neom" (Full Promotional Video)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c646d528d230c1bf66c75422bc4ccf6f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/N53DzL3_BHA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.
- Outplacement is an underperforming $5 billion dollar industry. A new non-profit coalition by SkillUp intends to disrupt it.
- More and more Americans will be laid off in years to come due to automation. Those people need to reorient their career paths and reskill in a way that protects their long-term livelihood.
- SkillUp brings together technology and service providers, education and training providers, hiring employers, worker outreach, and philanthropies to help people land in-demand jobs in high-growth industries.
Source: McKinsey Global Institute analysis [PDF]<p>Work in understanding the skills at the heart of the new digital economy is leading to novel assessments that allow individuals to prove mastery to faithfully represent their abilities—but also to give weight and stackability to the emerging ecosystem of micro-credentials that make education more seamless across time and education providers. And we are seeing the beginnings of a renewal in the liberal arts, focused on building human skills in affordable ways that are accessible to many more individuals and far more effective.</p><p>Amidst these dark times, there is much opportunity to refresh the nation's education and training solutions to support the success of individuals and society writ large.</p>