How To Change A Mind – Woman Got Her Husband To Leave a Cult by E. Gordon-Smith
How To Change A Mind by E. Gordon-Smith
Missy spent more than five years getting her husband to leave a cult, but the breakthrough was simple
Missy met Dylan when she took a job at the restaurant he worked at, waiting tables.
The couple moved in together and got engaged not long after, despite what Missy saw as a huge red flag: Dylan was a member of a religious sect that she believed to be a cult.
Missy was certain she could see through to the man Dylan would be without the sect, and certain she wanted to be with that man.
She did not, however, want to spend her life with a member of his sect.
“Did you consciously think to yourself, I’m gonna change this guy’s mind?” I asked Missy, years later.
“Yes. Absolutely. I made a five-year plan.”
I met Missy and Dylan while researching my book, Stop Being Reasonable: How We Really Change Our Minds.
Their story is singular, but many of us will someday find ourselves in something like Missy’s position, trying to talk the people we love out of believing — against all the evidence — what someone powerful is telling them.
If we do not understand the structure of our loved ones’ beliefs in situations like these, our attempts to change them may well fail.
….Everywhere we look, we see the gospel that reasoned argument is the currency of persuasion and that the “right” way to change our minds is by entering a sort of gladiatorial contest of ideas where we leave the personal behind.
But what if our eagerness to congratulate each other for employing that ideal stops us from asking whether it is worth aspiring to at all?
Why, when we know that changing our minds is as tangled and difficult and messy as we are, do we stay so wedded to the thought that rational debate is the best way to go about it?
….Dylan was born into his sect and raised by parents who were strict believers.
The sect claims to be an offshoot of Christianity — though Dylan now thinks ordinary Christians should feel besmirched by this — and by the time Dylan was 20, he had spent much of his life reading the Bible and attending scripture and worship sessions, always surrounded by the sect’s elders and other believers.
He knew ex-members said terrible things about the sect, but he knew better than to believe them, or to even Google the sect’s name. He knew you weren’t supposed to.
…What finally changed Dylan’s mind wasn’t an argument over ideas or beliefs. It was his loss of faith in one person, and the depth of his faith in another.
….Over the next 48 hours, Dylan read everything he could find [about his cult] and started giving himself permission to wonder: What did explain all that apocalypse date shifting?
Why were elders allowed to own stocks and bonds when it was considered idolatry for other believers to do the same thing? What did all that punitive shunning do to people psychologically?
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had just investigated the sect, finding it has not adequately dealt with members accused of pedophilia. That didn’t exactly halt Dylan’s cascading loss of confidence.
….We still don’t have an answer to the important question: What was the big flaw in Dylan’s belief system?
Here’s what I think happened.
It’s perfectly ordinary to believe what people tell us, and it’s perfectly ordinary to do so in part because we trust the people who do the telling. The bare-minimum version of this involves thinking that those people have access to more evidence than we do, like when we trust strangers who tell us where the train stations are in a city we’re exploring.
But Dylan’s belief structure lets us see a version of taking someone’s word for it that goes beyond the bare minimum. In this case, the thought isn’t just someone has more evidence than us, but that their belief-formulation systems are on the whole better than ours, because they have attributes or abilities or ways of reasoning that we don’t.
This way of accepting someone’s word can be strikingly unaffected by the boundaries of credibility.
….But when you or I trust our “wise” grandparents or teachers because we think they are wiser than us, there is a kind of “training wheels” structure at play:
It’s supposed to help us for the time being, stabilizing us and helping us move forward on our own, but we are allowed — encouraged, even — to think that one day we’ll be able to reason without help.
If we have chosen the right people to think of as wise, they will be excited to see us develop our own ability to think independently.
In Dylan’s case, though, he was explicitly discouraged from ever taking the training wheels off. He had grown up thinking his elders and scriptural leaders were better, wiser, and more enlightened than he was, not just because they had access to more evidence, but because without them he would never be able to access the truth.
But when Dylan heard Matthew [his fellow cult member] describe Missy [Dylan’s wife, who was always kind-hearted to the cult members] as slippery and dangerous, contradicting all Dylan’s firsthand evidence that she was kind and loyal and loving, at last he saw that Matthew could get things wrong and that he, Dylan, could reach conclusions of his own.
He had seen Missy raise their children, care for elders’ families, and throw herself into a community with kindness and cookies when they had treated her with increasing suspicion and hostility.
He was simply confident: Missy was a good person, so Matthew must be wrong.
And if Matthew could be wrong about Missy, why not about God, or the nature of the universe?