Can I change your mind?

A Zoom experiment can flip anti-vaxxers, but the approach needs more support than most people will ever get.

Please note that the time codes referenced here are for the web version of the story and will differ slightly if you are listening to the podcast version.

Most of what I read these days about mind-changing relates to Covid-19; someone wants to change someone else from an anti-vaxxer into a vaxxer, for example, or vice versa (though “vaxxer” isn’t really a thing). 

Changing someone’s mind might be framed like flipping a switch, though if I recall times my own mind has changed, it has never happened that way. There is always a period of preparation, usually invisible, before the moment of change occurs. Like heating the water for a long time before the first bubbles appear at the bottom of the pan, and, as the adage goes, sometimes wondering if the pot will ever boil. 

Earlier this year, This American Life sent a journalist inside a Zoom-room experiment during an explicit attempt to change the minds of Trump voters who did not want to get vaccinated against Covid-19. The facilitator and his guests had a couple of hours to see if they could flip the switch. 

I recommend listening to the whole story: “The Herd,” Act Two, “The Elephant in the Zoom.” 

At the 42 minute mark, the moderator, a pollster and pundit named Frank Luntz, best known for developing Republican messaging and for his expertise in swaying opinion, says “I’m done. This is going to fail.” 

Then some of his high profile guests tell emotional stories, most notably Chris Christie who contracted Covid-19 in the Oval Office along with Donald Trump. Next, Tom Frieden, a former head of the CDC, comes back to the Zoom mic with a moment of magic. 

At 44:22, and based on what Frieden has heard during the meeting, he delivers five succinct points targeted to these specific people – what he thinks they really need to hear in order to change their minds. 

To paraphrase (but listen to the audio for the terrific, dead pan delivery and specific language choices): 

  1. the virus is more likely than the vaccine to cause long term problems
  2. the vaccine will do its job in your body and then be gone
  3. 95% of doctors who have been offered the vaccine have taken it
  4. the vaccine is the fastest route back to growing the economy
  5. vaccinating the population will save at least 100,000 lives

After these facts and the cumulative one-two punch of both fact and emotion, minds began to change. You can hear it happening. 

One statement and one question have remained with me since I heard this episode. Remember that this was a small group and the team of mind changers was stacked with famous experts. 

  1. It’s possible. 
  2. Is it scalable? 

The formula is so tantalizing – we can do this! – but if the formula requires an elaborate setup and a bench full of top tier experts, how much impact can it have?

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