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So here's the ChangingMinds Blog, from site author, David Straker. This is my more personal ramblings, though mostly about changing minds in some shape or form. Please do add your comments via the archive or the right-hand column below.  -- Dave


Sunday 21-March-17

Blame and Shame: Negative methods, destructive results

When we are trying to persuade somebody do to something (or maybe not do it again), we often use 'blame and shame'.

Blaming uses a number of assumptions:

  • Actions are good or bad. There is no middle ground. There is no accident.
  • People who do bad things are themselves bad.
  • Bad people must be punished severely.
  • People who call out bad people are good.

This makes the person who blames both judge and jury and absolves us from any challenge or guilt. As it makes them good, it also makes them superior and worthy of praise. This is a temptation that many people find difficult to resist, including when they are seeking to change minds.

Blame can lead to shame. Shame is effectively blaming oneself, which leads to self-judging and self-punishing. A typical way this is done is with repeated self-recrimination and feelings of unworthiness. This can lead to depression and even a self-destructive repetition of socially unacceptable actions that invite blame (and so confirm the person's feelings of shame).

Blame very seldom leads to anything constructive. Forgiveness is another trap as it assumes that the subject has already been blamed. In any case, there are far better ways to motivate people into acceptable action. A simple method is to ignore unacceptable acts and lavish praise on actions that you like. A simple approach is to show appreciation for good acts and give extra praise for improvement.

If we can avoid blaming other and indulging in shame ourselves, it is remarkably easy to build a far better life for both ourselves and also for those around us.

Sunday 14-May-17

Bashful billionaires, billionaires that bash, and those that become puppeteers

There are a few people in the world who have money. Lots of it. Some were lucky enough to inherit it. Some have achieved it through owning raw materials, most notably oil. Some make it through financial dealings. And of course there are the technology billionaires who come up with the next big thing and float their small companies into a wildly enthusiastic stock market. No matter the route, these people find they have remarkable power. They get invited to exclusive clubs where they talk with other billionaires. Politicians court them, hoping for sizeable donations. And so they find they have massive influence.

Some of these billionaires like to use their money for good, almost bashfully giving back some of what they have acquired. Most notably of late, Bill Gates has poured money into many good causes. This is a continuation of a history of philanthrophy, where people like Carnegie and Rockefeller first prove they are clever by earning lots of money, then prove they are good by giving it away. Who knows, they may even be 'buying a stairway to heaven' as Led Zeppelin once sang.

But not everyone is that nice. Some just want more and more, and will bash whoever gets in their way. Money give power and the powerful do not have to be nice. Normal people are civil because if they are not, they can get into social trouble as even their friends criticize them for being unkind. But when you are the big boss or can hire clever lawyers to get you out of trouble, you can get away with a lot more incivility.

Billionaires may also get into politics. Sometimes they want to be visible, maybe even going for the top job. Politics is, in many ways, the ultimate expression of power as you gain influence over millions of lives. Yet many billionaires do not want a public face. Indeed, they shy away from cameras, preferring to deal in back rooms and face to face. These are the people behind the thrones, who whisper in the ears of public politicians and fund organizations that subtly support their causes. Rather than fame, such people are often driven by either further wealth and power, or by ideology. The billionaire ideologues are perhaps the most dangerous in the way they may drive whole nations into courses of action that could ultimately do massive damage to people, the country and even the whole world. 

Just search for 'billionaire politics' on the web and you will find plenty of detail, and not just on conspiracy sites. Credible sources such as The Guardian and the Washington Post have uncovered alarming stories about how billionaires are becoming global puppeteers. Search for 'billionaire climate change denial' for a specific example. You don't have to be rich to be pull strings, but it most certainly helps.

Sunday 07-May-17

One dollar, ten dollar: the power of embarrassing bargains

I was recently Nepal, walking around Bhaktapur, an ancient citadel near Kathmandu, when I was approached by a street seller, offering me a little brass bowl. 'One dollar!' she cried. One dollar? That's 100 rupees (being a closed-currency country, dollars seen often to be preferred). I'd seen the same bowls for sale elsewhere for much more, so I paused, at which point she thrust the bowl into my hands, followed smoothly by the demand 'Ten dollar'. I paused, blinked and asked 'How much?' 'Ten dollar' she replied, and launched into her sales spiel.

How clever! I had passed by many other stalls, ignoring their pleas. By starting with a fake bargain, this lady had made me stop. Also, she could have easily triggered an embarrassment response, whereby I realize that arguing for the impossibly low one dollar price would make me seem greedy and mean, and so continue with an acceptance of the low price. In fact I would not even be able to just walk off without giving away my unethical act.

Even arguing that she said 'one dollar' would get me nowhere, as her easy response would be to assert that she said 'ten dollars' or, with her limited English, just look pained (more guilt tripping) and repeat the ten dollar price.

For me, this was interesting, though I can see many others feeling trapped and end up paying the ten dollars. It is surprising how much we will do to avoid embarrassment and the disapproval of others, even complete strangers who we will never see again. I briefly considered responding to the game, but felt this would not be right, so I moved on.

A coda to this story is that the exposure to the bowl aroused my desire and the ten dollar pricing anchored me to this value. So when I stopped at another stall where the seller just asked straight out for ten dollars, I paid up without question.

Sunday 16-April-17

Culture, anger and negotiation

With upcoming Brexit negotiations in Europe and emotions running high, it is going to be a bumpy ride. Britain wants free trade and border control. Europe wants to set an example to stop other black sheep leaving the fold.

A question in negotiation is the extent to which you are cool and professional or whether you should express emotion. Anger in particular is a tricky one as it easily provokes the fight-or-flight reaction. The result is either one side capitulating (which is the implicit purpose of anger) or a stand-up fight where reason flies out of the window. Culture can make this a doubly dangerous game as we misunderstand the likely reactions of the other side. For example Adam et al (2010) found that students from different cultural backgrounds who used anger in negotiations could suffer from a significant backfire effect.

Yet anger, used carefully, can have a helpful effect. Adam's experiments made this work when subjects were warned beforehand of cultural tendencies of the other side to become angry. When you come from a culture where public displays of anger are disapproved of, then seeing anger can be alarming as you assume the other person has lost control of themself. Yet there are also cultures where non-expression of emotion means you are not really committed. If you know if it is normal the other side to express anger, then you will be less likely to be aroused by its use.

If you are faced with the anger of the other person, the first step is to bite your tongue. Do not get provoked into unthinking reaction. Take a break if needed to cool down, or just say nothing. Then think about why they may be anger. Is it something you said? Are they deliberately trying to manipulate you? If you have said something that could reasonably be interpreted as a provocation, apologize but do not offer negotiation concession (this is often the target). If they are trying something on, you can even turn things to your advantage, even by winding up the argument, being 'insulted' yourself or otherwise working for your own advantage.

A way to make anger work in a Western context is to remain relatively calm while indicating in words that you are feeling angry, for example by politely saying something like 'I am becoming very frustrated' or even 'I find that insulting'. When working across cultures, a good understanding of whether anger is acceptable (or even expected) can also help you choose your strategy and hence be successful.

Adam, H., Shirako, A., & Maddux, W.W. (2010). Cultural variance in the interpersonal effects of anger in negotiations. Psychological Science, 21, 6, 882-9

Sunday 03-April-17

Anti-Political Correctness as Power

Political correctness is a term that first appeared in about 1990 as a criticism of liberal values that promote equality and fairness. It has never been a real term to promote fairness. Instead, it was only an insult, a denigration that declares attempts at fairness as being excessive, wrong and illegitimate.

We are naturally biased. We unfairly criticize and act against the interests of others. We seek out reasons, real or imagined, for those who are not like us to be wrong and bad. We excuse our ill-treatment of them and justify punishments. In this way, we build our identity. We are not like them. We are good and right.

We are also biased towards people who are like us, who share our beliefs and values, who are similar in all kinds of ways. We seek out such similarity and focus on being the same. This is the basis of tribalism, of bonding like-minded people into a cohesive, supportive unit, of creating a powerful 'we' who can defend ourselves and oppose others.

A tricky tribal problem lies the social rule of caring for the vulnerable, who are less able to care for themselves. This can make them an uncomfortable burden and an acid test of morality. Helping our friends is good, but helping the vulnerable is extra-good. For some, this has been a path to social superiority as they champion the weak and chastize those who do not provide sufficient support.

This championing is, by definition, laudable. Yet it has also led to unexpected, immoral effects. Over the past decades, attention to the vulnerable has escalated at a steady rate. For some, this has not been fast enough. For others, it has spiralled out of control. In particular, those just above the 'vulnerable' level feel especially hard done by. They see the weak getting help, with massive funds being used to help the helpless minority. Yet their own majority position has been losing out as their standard of living is constantly eroded and jobs threatened or lost. Worse, they feel themselves now at the bottom of the social order as positive action and other support lifts the vulnerable above them. They can't even tell biased jokes like they used to, that made them feel momentarily superior, without the PC police kicking them back to the bottom.

Feeling ignored, mistreated and downtrodden, many in this underclass had given up voting, considering it a waste of time as neither of the major parties seemed interested or able in improving their lot. So when some canny politicians woke up to this situation, they realized here was an untapped source of great power.

Paradoxically, the majority parties who had adopted the politically-correct position of helping the vulnerable (even if they dragged their heels in practical action) were unable to take advantage of the opportunity. Those able to grasp the politically-incorrect nettle have been thick-skinned demagogues and parties on the political fringes. With conventional rules of politics cast out, they play to their audience, giving voice to common bias and making bold promises that seem politically suicidal or financially impossible, yet which their audience laps up.

This style of politics has been labeled 'populism' by a cynical mainstream. In some ways it is indeed cynical as it tells people what they want to hear, yet impossible promises have long been a political ploy. Politics is a performance and playing to the crowd an essential game.

If the dirty truth be known, there are many more beyond the lower classes who still have plenty of bias and who have tired of ever-escalating politically-correctness. There are also those of power who have smelled opportunity in the shifting winds of opinion and played canny backroom games. The result has been bombshell referenda and elections where the PC-free have gained power. Even those not elected have found themselves listened to, if not in awe then at least in fear.

Has the game changed for good? Is political correctness a thing of the past, a blip in history? I think not. A thing creates its opposite and the shocked mainstream is regrouping and good people will come to the aid of the party. The war of politics is never finally won and I expect more battles and further swinging of the political pendulum.

We live in interesting times and the one thing I don't expect is boredom.

Sunday 26-March-17

Leave, Remain or Stay: Small words that may have changed the world

Since 2016, Brexit has been all the talk in the UK. It has also gained a great deal of interest in Europe and around the world as international trade and migration are seriously affected by this. The UK's vote to leave the European Union was a contentious and surprising one. Those who wanted to stay in Europe were expected to win, but were pipped at the post by a narrow margin.

In closely-fought contests, even the smallest things can make the difference between winning and losing. In this case, we can look at the words used, and how these might have been used to bias the results.

Initially, the vote was going to be a simple answer to the question 'Do you want to leave the EU?' However, someone realized that this would cause bias because, as all sales people know, people are generally more likely to answer 'Yes' than 'No' to any question. We like to feel positive and 'Yes' just seems better. The 'Yes' campaign (to leave) would hence have an advantage.

So they changed the question to 'Do you want to leave or remain in the EU?' Now the choice is 'Leave' or 'Remain'. This seems better, but they are still not equal. 'Leave' is a nice, simple, one-syllable word. 'Remain' is a two-syllable word that is more likely to be used by those with greater language sophistication. A word that is more equal to 'Leave' would be 'Stay'. Why was this not used? It is a single syllable and is sociologically simpler than 'Remain'.

To make this even more biased, the actual voting slip had two choices: 'Remain a member of the European Union' and 'Leave the European Union'. The first choice is longer than the second choice, again making the 'leave' option a cognitively easier one to make.

For want of a syllable, the UK's future, as well as that of Europe and the rest of the world, has been changed forever.

Sunday 12-March-17

Our two greatest challenges

In our lives we need to face many challenges, some of our own choosing and some that are thrust upon us. Sometimes they are troublesome, sometimes they are interesting, and sometimes they are exciting. And no matter how we feel about them when we face them, we feel good when we overcome them. Indeed, studies such as Czikszentmihali's 'Flow', have shown that challenge is a great path to happiness.

Two of these challenges that we must unavoidably face are perhaps the greatest challenges that we face during our lifetime.

As a child, we live in the cocoon of the family where much is provided for us. But this does not last forever. At some time we must face life, striking out by ourselves, becoming independent and self-sufficient. We go from being child to adult, from receivers to providers, from students to workers. We have total choice in all things, but have to face the consequences of our choices.

A difficult transition here is that children are often happy to receive more authority, gaining control over their lives, but they do not like having responsibility, with nobody to rescue them and nobody to blame but themselves. Many people show a failure to complete this transition to adulthood as they avoid responsibility and try to blame others when things go wrong. It can also be seen when people feel that they are still somehow a child rather than an adult well into their 20s and beyond.

As an adult, we grow older and must eventually face the inevitability of our own deaths. With luck, this comes with old age, but can appear at any time. It can be a surprise and it can be the end-stop of a terminal illness. When we are young, life seems infinite, but gradually the horizon gets closer. We busy ourselves with our lives and ignore it for as long as possible, but aches, pains and the death of loved ones increasingly reminds us of our own impending doom. It catches us up as the value we place on the remainder of our life seems constant, such that the older we get, the more we value each day.

We may find religion, science or philosophy to help explain what it is all about, yet we must still face our death. A question here is in the difference between dying and being dead. Being dead may be easier to accept. Religion promises a glorious afterlife, while science suggests non-existence removes worry or pain, although the philosopher in us worries at the loss of identity. The process of dying can be a more immediate worry, as it suggests pain or perhaps the loss of mental function and consequent identity.

As a young person, we must face life. As an old person, we must face death. Both are inevitable. While others can help, we must ultimately face these challenges alone. If we can do this, we will have cleared the way to a happier life.

Sunday 05-March-17

Knowing, ignorance and self-knowledge

If you take any subject, you can have a range of knowledge about this, ranging from no knowledge to full knowledge. Few people exist at the extremes of this spectrum, though many have little knowledge and a good number may have a lot of knowledge (but not total knowledge).

There is a second, reflexive dimension on knowledge, which is the self-knowledge of knowing about your knowledge, in particular knowing what you do not know. In other words, this is the ability to see the spectrum of knowledge in any given subject and place yourself upon it, saying 'I know this but I do not know that'. A paradox of learning is that, as you gain more knowledge, you realize how much more you have yet to learn.

It can become problematic if you do not know what you do not know, as this can make you arrogant as you assume you know everything. This can be seen in the 'curse of ignorance', where people are not only ignorant, but are also ignorant of their ignorance. This does not mean they have no knowledge. Indeed, they may be very knowledgeable. Yet they are still ignorant of some things, and this lack of self-knowledge can lead to combative argument.

Why might we not know what we don't know? Sometimes it is because we simply have not encountered a sub-domain of knowledge. People who understand Newtonian physics may feel they know how atoms work, even though they have not encountered quantum mechanics. Sometimes also, we actually do know there are things that we don't know but feel uncomfortable about this, so we pretend that what we don't know is unimportant or simply does not exist. This is where we turn to deception rather than accept ignorance, even as we condemn ourselves to remain ignorant.

The best position is always to accept your ignorance, and always be ready to learn. This requires a certain amount of humility, which often needs sufficient self-confidence to publicly and cheerfully admit ignorance. Yet it is a position from which we can each grown and learn, increasing both our real knowledge as well as discovering more ignorance as a route into a learning future.

Sunday 26-February-17

Do, Lead, Help, Nudge or Watch

In your life, whether it is at work, in volunteering or wherever, you can often see a whole set of activities going on or where some action are needed. A way to look at these are as 'projects', where there is an intended outcome following a certain amount of work. These 'projects' can be of any size, from a few minutes to several years. A critical question for you (or a group you are in) is 'What should I/we do about it?' Here are five options.


Sometimes all you need is to roll up your sleeves and get on with it. When something clearly needs doing the best approach is to do it rather than talk about it.

When you are going to do something, either taking the lead or doing it all yourself, there are three questions to ask:
1. Do I have the energy for this? (Or might I give up?)
2. Do I have the resources I will need? (From money to wheelbarrows)
3. Do I have the support I will need? (Including practical help and formal authority)

Particularly when we fear failure or criticism, we can get lost in the safety of meeting, talking and planning. While it is usually good to communicate, sometimes all you need to do is say 'I'm doing X. Did anyone want to join me'. Then just get on with it.


Some jobs you can do yourself. Other work is just too much for one or needs the expertise, resources or influence of other people. In voluntary contexts and where you do not have direct authority, this means you will need to influence others, motivating them to join your cause.

Leadership is a highly skilled activity, but if you are good at it you can get a lot done. It means being able to see both the big picture and how all the parts work together. It also means building such good relationships with the people involved that they want to help you and one another succeed.


At other times the project may not be yours to do. Perhaps you lack the energy to lead it or someone else already has the bit between their teeth. Perhaps you as, have been asked to help using our expertize, or maybe they want a bit of extra grunt work during a critical period.

Whatever the reason, on these types of projects you are a helper, not a leader. This makes life a bit easier as you do not have to chase people and be at every meeting. You can hence just do your bit and leave the worrying to other people.


In some projects you may have no active role, yet still have a concern for the outcomes of the work. This can be frustrating, as you want to steer the ship yet are neither the captain not the crew.

This is the position of the activist. Typically with concerns for social issues, they agitate, irritate and work to influence the decisions of those in power. Lobbyists, too, seek to nudge, cajole or otherwise influence the powerful.


Sometimes you have little influence, but are still interested in what is going on, for example so you can prepare for the outcome or discuss it with others. In such projects, you should just sustain a watching brief. Get hooked into information streams as you can, such as email distribution lists, notice boards, etc. and then just keep an eye on things.

If necessary, you can change your status on a 'Watch' project, for example if you become concerned that things are being done wrong or that your interests are not being examined,


Sunday 19-February-17

Organizing for local support and action

I work with a local 'town team' organization, whose goal is to help the local community improve. Our strapline is 'better together' and we want to make the town and area 'a great place to live, work and visit'.

Our challenge is that other local groups are rather inward-looking, concerned about their own affairs and unwilling to take the larger picture or look out into the future. Changing minds happens at every meeting and we need to be careful to keep our stakeholders happy. When you live in a small town, you can easily alienate many people with one bit of carelessness.

We were having the classic 'who are we' discussion the other day and I summarized the possible organizational role into an increasing level of complexity.

1a. Facilitating conversations. We did this in bringing together various groups from the county council to disability and cycling people to discuss a project to repave the high street. To be successful, this requires that we achieved a position of trust, sitting between all parties, which means not giving preference to any one, of helping everyone to be heard and holding back those who want to dominate. Facilitation in general means holding lots of conversations, helping people speak and listen to others. It means holding back your own

1b. Local activism. In some work we have taken the position of experts and cheerleaders. For example in the high street project, some of our members pushed for particular solutions. Contrary to the facilitation role, this may mean being partisan. It may lead some people we work with to not want future involvement with us. It may mean other groups feel we are treading on their turf. This oppositional dynamic means activism requires lots of energy to push through resistance, wear down the opposition and enthuse others to join in. There also seems a choice between this and facilitation. While we could do both, the dynamics of trust would make this difficult.

2. Volunteer projects. The easy way to get things done is to do them yourself. A simple example was when we got together to clean up a rather tatty car park. This role needs far less interaction with others, other than to find people to help and ensuring any opposition is minimized. It is a good way to get successes under the belt and evidence that we are a force for good. People like to associate with success, making this approach a good way to attract other volunteers.

3. Funded projects. In making improvements around the town, some things will need money, for anything from a bit of cement to paying for contractors to do major work. We did a presentation day for the town that needed money to hire the hall, print literature and so on. We would also like to do bigger things, from improving sports facilities to setting up a catering college. To do this means finding and managing money. It means understanding grant systems, how to apply for funds and keeping the funders happy as you use their money. This needs a prudent organization with the systems and expertize to attract and handle funds.

4. Managed projects. A step beyond getting funding which typically goes straight to a supplier, is to become more involved in the project, actively managing what is going on. We have not got to this as yet, but other town teams are doing such activities and it becomes necessary when funded projects require more active involvement. When you are a volunteer, becoming a manager can increase significantly the time you need to spend on the project, especially if you are managing the activities of other people. It turns helping when you can to working as you must. Even if you employ a professional project manager, you still need to manage the work of this person. It typically will require more formal project meetings, risk management, reporting and all the other aspects of managing projects.

5. Managed services. The highest level of activity that we have considered is in musing about the future, for example where local councils are seeking to divest responsibility for local assets such as parks and town buildings. In such cases the assets would be given to local trusts who would then become responsible for their upkeep. Managing projects is a short-term activity with a clear end goal. Managing services is ongoing work, quite possibly with permanent employees and contractors, and requires a long-term commitment.

Which path we take, whether to stay at the lower levels or reach into more active roles, will depend first on the energy and consequent commitment we can find.




For more, see the ChangingMinds Blog! Archive or the Blogs by subject. To comment on any blog, click on the blog either in the archive or in the column to the right.


Best wishes,



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