How to Open a Closed Mind

February 17, 2015

by Dan Solin

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Every advisor knows that sinking feeling that arises when a prospect raises serious objections and a meeting heads downhill.>

The scenario goes something like this:

You are trying to persuade a prospect that overwhelming data supports investing in a globally diversified portfolio of low-management-fee index funds. The prospect is unconvinced, and believes that he could “beat the market” with the help of a big brokerage firm, insurance company or hedge fund manager. Regardless of the amount or quality of data you present, the prospect remains unconvinced. The meeting ends with the parties polarized.

Why the task is formidable

One of the most common questions I get is: “How do I change a closed mind?” This is a formidable task.

There’s a Chinese proverb that states: “A closed mind is like a closed book; just a block of wood.” People process new information with a bias toward their pre-existing beliefs. This has been well established in numerous studies. People will interpret ambiguous or mixed information to confirm their beliefs and reject or trivialize information that contradicts them. Perhaps that’s why many of us feel that trying to change a closed mind is much like pushing a giant snowball uphill.

A different approach

In their recent study “Blank Slates or Closed Minds?” Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter offer a different approach to prying open a closed mind. The study attempted to change the minds of participants who held views on these polarizing issues:

  1. The effectiveness of insurgent attacks in Iraq after the U.S. troop surge.
  2. Job growth in the U.S. from January 2010 to January 2011.
  3. Global temperature change over the past 30 years.

The purpose of their experiment was to determine the most effective approach to change people’s pre-existing beliefs. They tried presenting written data that contradicted the beliefs held by participants, presenting evidence in a compelling chart and, lastly, “self-affirmation treatment,” where they built up the participants’ self-esteem.

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