How to Change a Mind

Missy spent more than five years getting her husband to leave a cult, but the breakthrough was simple

Illustration: Reza Hasni

MMissy 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.

Would you believe something just because other people told you it was true? The usual answer is, “Most certainly not, and how very dare you for asking.” It’s the grown-­up version of that maternal chorus: “If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do that, too?”

Here in the well-­lit landscape of responsible belief, we don’t just accept things on other people’s word. We independently check the evidence for something before believing it.

But take a look at how many of our perfectly ordinary beliefs turn out to violate this seemingly simple rule: Whether it will rain tomorrow, what anyone else’s name is, when the next bus is due, where Machu Picchu is, who crossed the Rubicon, how much the U.S. dollar is worth — the list quickly gets out of hand and rolls away like unspooling string.

How much of this list do we have perfectly good beliefs about? Most of it. But how much of it have we experienced the evidence, independently? Not a whole lot. We believe these things to be true because we believe the people who tell us they are true.

It’s strange, then, that the “don’t believe what you’re told” rule is so popular in public consciousness and that “taking someone’s word for it” can be shorthand for “being gullible.” I truly do not know how this became so widespread, when it takes two seconds’ reflection to realize how many of our beliefs are rooted in testimony.

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?

“I always believed,” Dylan told me when I met him and Missy on his porch, surrounded by their kids and a yappy dog. It had been almost three years since he left the sect, which he, too, now calls a cult. “Those were my beliefs. I just didn’t understand how twisted they were… I was probably never not indoctrinated.”

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.

Missy knew plenty about the sect herself. Her family had been members when she was a child. When her younger sister was born, she was very sick and in need of a medical treatment forbidden by the sect. Her mother authorized the lifesaving treatment, and Missy’s sister survived — but the family was excommunicated. Missy’s mother never saw her fellow believers again.

To get a sense of the magnitude of Dylan’s mind change, it helps to know what some members of the group believe. The apocalypse is coming (though the forecast date keeps changing). There is a revealed truth only known to the all-male governing body (but that truth changes, and the new truth is unveiled in personalized revelations made only to members of that governing body). Believers who break the rules can and should be shunned completely, including by their partners and the people who raised them. Certain medical treatments should be rejected, even when they prevent grotesquely painful deaths. No sex before marriage, no drinking, no smoking, no drugs. No privately formulated interpretations of scripture. If you feel you might be gay or bisexual, you shouldn’t ever act on those feelings. Association with nonbelievers is a “danger.” Also, Smurfs are a problem. No Smurfs.

It’s easy to look at people who believe what Dylan used to and feel they had run afoul of a simple rule about what and when to believe: Never believe something just because other people tell you to.

And yet, it’s hard to dispute that sometimes we can. Seen in the right light, there is something deeply moving about this: It means that we owe much of the vast progress of human enlightenment to the simple fact that we can talk to each other.

And it means that the problem in how Dylan structured his beliefs has to be more complicated than “believing what you’re told.”

So what was it? Something had clearly gone awry. It’s worth finding out precisely where.

Feeling as she did, Missy’s only possible option was to get Dylan to change his mind. But she didn’t tell Dylan she wanted him to leave the sect. She knew he might walk away from her if she revealed the depth of her contempt for his beliefs.

Instead, she let herself be introduced as a new partner who was open to being baptized. She went to meetings with Dylan; she prayed and clasped hands and sang the songs; she furrowed her brow and took notes in scripture study.

“Most of my notes said stuff like ‘WTF,’ ‘Are you freaking kidding me?’ and ‘This is BS.’ So if they had looked any closer they would have seen all of my writing going ‘That’s not true’ and ‘That’s not what the Bible says.’”

Sometimes Missy would try to argue Dylan out of one of the sect’s arbitrary rules, she recalled: “Believers say they can’t have their children play sports with other children, and I would say, ‘Why not? If all of your community is only believers, that’s a pretty cult-like thing to do.’ And he’s just like, ‘Missy, it’s not a cult.’”

Hairstyles changed; holidays came and went. The couple had children, plural. Missy took a new job in health care, working with people as they prepared to die. She lived surrounded by believers, and every day, for years, she pretended she was still making up her mind. Once, at a convention Dylan brought Missy to, a woman got onstage to speak about her son’s decision to leave the sect. “She said that it’s been hard to not speak to her own son, but it’s just like having a child that’s dead,” Missy told me. “I got up and I slammed my chair, and I walked out. There are people that actually lose children. And they were gushing over her like she was a saint. It was horrible.”

Dylan did not need to lose his faith in what his elders were saying; he needed to lose his faith in them.

Missy had made a concerted effort to be kind to the believers, and she was well-liked as a result. Even she doesn’t totally know whether that was strategic or just part of who she is: She likes being the friend who helps you on moving day or brings you freezable meals if you’re sick.

But the elders did not easily forget incidents like the chair slamming, and, as the years passed and Missy’s “potential interest” in being baptized never quite materialized into an actual baptism, their fondness for Missy dwindled to cool toleration.

Progress had stalled. Five years after Missy started trying to change Dylan’s mind, he was no closer to wanting to leave. In hindsight, it’s clear why: Missy was focusing on what Dylan believed, while Dylan was focusing on who. Dylan did not need to lose his faith in what his elders were saying; he needed to lose his faith in them.

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.

As Missy and Dylan rolled into their sixth year of life in the sect, there was an elder who became a close friend: Matthew, a kindly older man whose family developed a fondness for Missy’s pink lemonade and cupcakes.

One day, when Matthew was onstage giving a talk, Missy saw what her expertise told her were signs of an impending heart attack, she recalled. “So I went to his wife after the meeting and I said, ‘Has Matthew been feeling okay? It just seems like there’s something going on with his heart.’”

Missy was right. Matthew just missed having a heart attack, his doctor said, and seeking treatment when he did had saved his life.

But months later, Dylan got an unexpected phone call from Matthew: “He said, ‘What’s Missy’s disconnect? Why won’t she get baptized?’ He said she was a danger to the congregation. I asked if she’d done anything wrong, and he said that because she was so nice, and so well-liked, that made her a danger to the congregation. He said that his family wasn’t allowed to have contact with us anymore, because she wouldn’t start studying scripture again.”

Missy interjects: “He said, ‘You have to choose between your wife and God.’”

“She had been so nice, throughout the years,” Dylan explained. “She went out of her way, like if someone was sick, she would cook for them. She was always — with nothing in return, too, that’s just not how we operate. So with him talking about her like that — ”

It’s clear that Dylan sees this as the big turning point, so I wanted to be sure I understand his indignation.

“This is someone who owed Missy his life?”

“I don’t look at it as saving his life,” Missy demurs, but Dylan won’t have it.

I did,” he says. “I looked at it as at the very least preventing a heart attack. And so for him to be the one to call me and say these things… That conversation totally changed every viewpoint that I held.”

The evening, after he spoke to Matthew, Dylan Googled the name of his sect for the first time in his life.

“I found, like, all apostasy YouTubers and the ex-members’ communities online. I’d just always been taught that these people are out to hurt current believers. But I couldn’t have been further from the truth about them. They genuinely wanted to help me and other people who were trapped.”

“He started spending a really long time in the bathroom, where he would read on his phone,” Missy remembered. “And I was like: Uh-huh. And so it begins.

Over the next 48 hours, Dylan read everything he could find 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.

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.

Two days after speaking to Matthew, Dylan went to worship for the last time.

“Missy always told me they always speak in the same monotone, but I was seeing it for the first time. I was just sitting there looking around, and I started realizing I was there with a bunch of robots. It was like being in a movie.”

“So it wasn’t gradual?” I asked him.

“No, no. It was like turning off a faucet. Just — gone.”

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. Teachers and university lecturers are familiar with the strange habit students have of coming to them for advice about relationships or career choices or political leanings, as though expertise in one area bleeds across all the others. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When someone shows certain traits in their area of expertise — like attention to detail, or the capacity to weigh different sorts of value, or a detached and clinical gaze — it’s not completely ludicrous to imagine those traits might generalize. Many of us have been shaped and improved by precisely this way of trusting people.

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 describe Missy 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?

This article has been adapted from Stop Being Reasonable: How We Really Change Our Minds by Eleanor Gordon-Smith. Copyright © 2019. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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