How to Change a Mind

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

Eleanor Gordon-Smith
Forge
Published in
11 min readOct 14, 2019

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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…

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