Tali Sharot (@affectivebrain) is an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience, the founder and director of the Affective Brain Lab at University College London, and author of The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others.

What We Discuss with Tali Sharot:

  • When hope is a better motivator than fear — and vice versa.
  • Facts and figures don’t tend to change minds already aligned to a certain opinion — in fact, they can have a backfire effect that further entrenches people in their beliefs.
  • The four factors that determine whether or not we’re likely to change our beliefs.
  • What happens when new evidence doesn’t fit our beliefs, but it fits what we want to believe.
  • When trying to persuade, it’s better to seed a new belief than to contradict the old one.
  • And much more…

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No matter how open minded we consider ourselves to be, we all hold strong beliefs that are sometimes difficult to recognize — and more difficult to change even when we’re presented with evidence that contradicts them. So what does it take to change such beliefs, whether it’s in ourselves or others?

Tali Sharot, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience, founder and director of the Affective Brain Lab at University College London, and author of The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others, joins us to explain why the human brain can be so resistant to change and how we can reframe our approach if we want facts to prevail over misinformation in spite of this innate resistance. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

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More About This Show

Hope vs. Fear

Promises of reward and punishment have been used as motivators for as long as there have been civilizations, but how effective are they in influencing a desired result?

According to Tali Sharot, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience, founder and director of the Affective Brain Lab at University College London, and author of The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others, it really depends on the situation.

Research has shown that, under normal circumstances, inducing hope is more likely to result in action; inducing fear is more likely to result in inaction.

To get something good in life — whether it’s a chocolate cake or a promotion — we usually need to take action and do something to earn it.

Our brain has adapted to understand that action is related to some kind of reward. So when we expect something good, a “go” signal is activated, which makes us more likely to act — and act fast.

On the other hand, to avoid the bad stuff in life, whether it’s poison or deep water or untrustworthy people, we usually need to do nothing — just stay in place.

When we expect punishment, a “no go” signal is activated in our brain and it inhibits action.

In one experiment, subjects were asked to press a button in order to get a dollar, or press a button in order to avoid losing a dollar. Those pressing a button to get a dollar did so faster than those who had to press a button to avoid losing a dollar.

“You need to pair the action with a reward,” says Tali.

When subjects were asked not to press a button in order to get a dollar or not press a button to avoid losing a dollar, inaction was more closely associated with those who were trying to avoid losing a dollar.

“Often the best approach for avoiding the bad stuff is staying where you are,” Tali says.

Stress Changes Everything

When we introduce stress into the equation, fear is empowered with greater sway over our decisions.

Under stress, people become hyper vigilant to any kind of negative information. So someone in this state may receive fear as an effective motivator — counter to how someone in a more neutral state tends to respond.

“This is why, after stressful public events — for example, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, market collapse — under those situations, many people around the world become stressed,” says Tali. “Even if [it’s] halfway around the world…then they start listening to all the negative information in the media, taking note, and it really affects their beliefs and they can actually become overly pessimistic.”

Under such circumstances, we may be goaded into making suboptimal choices rather than proceeding according to previous, rational plans.

“For example, starting to sell stock when the market is collapsing when really what they should be doing is holding on,” says Tali. “Or cancelling flights after terrorist attacks when really what they should be doing is flying not driving, because driving is more dangerous.”

Something bad happens. We get stressed. We pay heed to negative information. We become overly pessimistic. We make poor choices, we get more stressed, and the cycle continues.

Facts and Figures

It may infuriate you that presenting provable facts and figures to your meme-spewing high school acquaintance on Facebook tends to have zero effect on persuading them to see things your way.

In fact, it often results in what Tali calls the backfire effect, in which the person presented with facts that attack their position doubles down on that position. In such a situation, this person would rather attack the data than admit that they’re wrong.

“If there’s an ideology or beliefs that are really important to us and who we are, shaking those beliefs is going to have a negative emotional impact on us,” Tali says. “It’s kind of a protection — we want to protect ourselves, who we are, what our beliefs are. So when someone’s coming at us with swords, we take our swords out and try to win the fight.”

Our brains didn’t evolve to use numbers and data to calculate conclusions. Our brains evolved to persuade others we are right — not to actually be right.

In fact, the more intelligent we are, the better we rationalize our existing beliefs. So instead of being smart enough to realize bias and strive for truth-aligned accuracy, we’re just more adept at convincing ourselves that what we already believe is actually true by twisting data around to suit our purposes.

Can Belief Be Changed? Four Factors to Consider

“It is absolutely rational to evaluate a new piece of evidence in light of what we already know,” says Tali. There are four factors that matter to whether we’re going to change our beliefs:

  1. Our current belief.
  2. Our confidence in that current belief.
  3. A new piece of evidence.
  4. Our confidence in that new piece of evidence.

“The further away that new piece of evidence is from our current belief, the less likely it is to change the current belief…that means that sometimes we do have false beliefs that we hold with confidence, and those are very difficult to change,” Tali says.

When we’re children, our beliefs are obviously more malleable and different rules apply.

Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about what happens when new evidence doesn’t fit our beliefs — but fits what we want to believe, why our own biases persist even when we’re aware of them — and what we can do to turn them around, how we can reframe our message in a positive way to be more effective when we’re trying to influence others, and lots more.


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