Sunday, October 07, 2007

Changing Minds: The Art & Science of Changing our Own and Other People's Minds

I read a fascinating book tonight (thanks Marc!) It is entitled Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing our Own and Other People's Minds. It's written by Howard Gardner. If it is possible to say this, I found certain aspects of the work to be too simplistic. For example, Gardner ascribes many important traits to leaders that I simply don't think can be understood without the context of historical events. While he does touch on these events, he seems to feel that people have certain skills and become effective leaders due to these skills regardless of the time period. I personally feel the factors are more complex. I wasn't entirely convinced by the leaders whose personalities and mentalities he chose to explore- I sometimes felt there were better examples to be had, or that he completely glossed over important parts of their personalities. Perhaps the thing that irritated me the most was Gardner's assertion that certain leaders were not introspective simply because they do not reveal their introspective qualities in public. Gardner works off of the assumption that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, for instance, are not introspective, ostensibly because they are not given to making long pithy speeches talking about themselves. But how could he possibly know what goes on within their private lives or the confines of their own mind? Perhaps they truly are introspective and he simply does not see it; I found his matter-of-fact dismissal of them to be groundless and unconvincing.

With all that being said, the book is best used as a tool. It contains some information that is fantastic and some that is less convincing. It is thought-provoking; certain ideas and sentences stood out to me and really made me think. I jotted notes while reading and here's what I came away with:

1. "And so individuals are not equally "smart" or "dumb" under all circumstances; rather they have different intelligences that may be variously cherished or disregarded under different circumstances." (30)

That's an incredibly interesting concept! Gardner explains that nowadays we most value linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences. However, given the constraints and ideas behind a certain society, it's completely possible that one day our society values musical intelligence most, for instance, and all those of us who are reasonably articulate will find ourselves demoted and forgotten. We shall no longer be considered intelligent; instead that honor will be given over to those who practice a different kind of intelligence.

This reminds me very much of a Twilight Zone episode entitled "The Eye of the Beholder." We encounter Janet Tyler, a woman who is desperate to look like everyone else; she has undergone her eleventh surgery in order to accomplish this. Unfortunately, the surgery does not take. As we look upon her features we see that she is truly beautiful. In contrast, everyone else in the room has ugly pig snouts upon their faces. They have tried- and failed- to graft a pig snout onto her. And so beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, for beauty is societally mandated and therefore lies in conformity (or so it is suggested.)

Oddly, I have never thought about the same concept in terms of intelligence. But it is so, is it not? Intelligence is also in the eye of the beholder, as it were; it is in the eye of our society. So long as our society predominantly values logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligence, many of us are safe. But should society ever shift or change and value a different type of intelligence, many of us will find ourselves in Janet Tyler's position.

2. Naturalistic intelligence expresses itself even today in our ability to differentiate between different designer brands/ logos/ clothing in the same way that our predecessors needed to differentiate between harmful and helpful rocks/ herbs/ trees.

I like this suggestion very much because it suggests that our intelligences adapt themselves to our surroundings. In this manner, intelligences we would have used in one respect as cavemen or cavewomen are still used nowadays, but are now channeled or focused in a different way. I find that idea interesting. I don't know if I buy the example about designer clothing but the idea in and of itself is creative.

3. "Making sense is not the same as being correct." (54)

This phrase is very well put. From the beginning of time, we desire to make sense of things. That is why we have so many stories, myths, perhaps even religions. This is all based on our seemingly innate desire to make sense of what is put before us, the ideas with which we are presented. But while something may make sense or may be spurred on by our attempting to make sense of it, that does not necessarily make it correct. One may "make sense" of the world by resorting to Just-So Stories, but that does not mean they are correct.

4. "To change minds effectively, leaders make particular use of two tools: the stories that they tell and the lives that they lead." (69)

Gardner makes a very good point when he demonstrates the ways in which successful leaders not only have a particular vision and story they wish to share with the world, but their own lives embody that vision. He uses Margaret Thatcher to great effect when demonstrating this. Margaret Thatcher's background (self-made woman who lived through hardship and pulled herself up) mirrored the way in which she wanted to reform Britain. Hence, in order to be successful, one must embody one's own philosophy/ live the story one wants to share.

I do find it peculiar that Hitler managed to convince so many that Aryan qualities (the famous blonde and blue-eyed equation) were so important when he himself did not possess them. What happens to Gardner's theory here? Why was Hitler so successful at this seeing that he himself did not embody or possess these characteristics? They are understandably minor given his entire agenda, but I still wonder how Gardner would work around that.

5. The most important quality a leader can have is integrity. (112)

This works off of the idea of embodying what one preaches/ the story one shares; I just liked the line.

6. "One must handle an encounter with an "other" who cares about logic, consistency, directness and verbal argument very differently from an encounter with an "other" who is concerned about emotion, respect, subtlety and nonverbal forms of communication." (163)

This is something that I've intuited but I enjoy its being put into words. We must relate differently to different types of people; there's a different way of connecting with and interacting with people depending on what they are concerned with. I liked Gardner's examples of Bill Clinton's ability to manipulate people (I like the term "seducee") by finding one common point they both agreed on and charming the person into thinking they were the best of friends. I further liked his delineations of the different groups with whom people in power must interact (the elite and knowledgeable, the common and less specialized groups) and the fact that one must give over the impression that you have the ability to work with either group. To the sophisticated academics, one conveys the impression that he can work with the less specialized common people. To the common people, one conveys the impression that one can hobnob with the intellectuals. This leads to respect on both sides of the spectrum.

One odd tidbit (at least per Gardner) is that firstborns find it harder to accept change (he specifically brought this up when discussing evolution.) He said that on a whole it's harder to change firstborns' minds! (115)

Most interesting was a concept Gardner states at the very beginning- one's mind is not changed in a flash, a sudden epiphany or insight. One has to be primed and ready before the supposed insight can occur; indeed, the epiphany is often the end of a process rather than its beginning. (Or the epiphany does not last long, i.e. born again Christians often revert to their former religious state- that's per his suggestion.) I'm not sure if I entirely agree that epiphanies are the end rather than the beginning of a process, but I find the point of view intriguing.

The best page in the entire book is page 162. Gardner there outlines the factors one must take into account before engaging a person in a meeting/ discussion in order to ensure the most productivity. I should make a photocopy of that page and hang it up on my wall.

Definitely an interesting read. Gardner's analysis of "changing minds" in various different spectrums/ communities/ populations is intriguing. I personally don't like the idea in and of itself- to go out and attempt to "change someone's mind," to force someone to think differently. I like to present information and allow people to do what they will with it- guiding, perhaps, but not changing, not forcing. So I wouldn't see changing people's minds as a goal. But figuring out how to best present information, how to cater to the multiple intelligences- that's a worthwhile goal. Basically, read page 162.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you on #6.

I have heard it said once on a program that there are 7 types of intelligences and only 2 of them deal with things in an academic or school setting.

How about those people who are weak linguistically and/or logically but are very atuned to and excel in areas of intuition, emotion, feelings, sensitivity, compassion, understanding, and respect? While it appears to all who are only atuned in the linguistically and logical that these other people who live their lives in a disciplined manner according to their special abilities that they seem to lack all intelligence because it is beyond the grasp of those who know only the linguisitical and logical intelligences.

e-kvetcher said...

Take a look at this video