The Art and Science of Changing Minds

GUEST: Dr. Howard Gardner
VTR: 6/17/04

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And because the concept of multiple intelligences with which he is identified has provided us such profound insights into teaching and learning generally and because, over the years he has in so many ways contributed importantly to American education, I’m pleased that once again my Open Mind guest is Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Quite appropriately, given the range of his researches and writings, Dr. Gardner has been hailed as one of America’s most interesting psychologists.

Yet, I have a bone to pick with my guest. And I’ll bring it right up front, for it has to do with his new book, “Changing Minds, the Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds”, published by the Harvard Business School Press.

Given what at least some Americans think of as our ugliest and unhappiest legacy from the twentieth century, starting with Freud himself to Ivy Lee and Edward L. Bernays and the legions of other brilliant advertising and public relations gurus, who together taught us just how our minds work and then how to manipulate them to create opinions and sell goods and win elections … given all that, why in the world I wonder is my guest now providing even further guidance on how to set about changing minds.

Now I’m sure that Howard Gardner knows I don’t ask this question with hostility, that’s not my style and besides I admire him so much. But I am disturbed that at this and in this place he would so enthusiastically offer up his expertise and his power professional insights for what he calls, “the art and science of changing our own and other people’s minds”. That’s the bone.

GARDNER: I’ve been thinking about my own development as a psychologist, and I spent the first part of my life studying child development … the developing mind. And the next part of my professional life was spent trying to understand how the mind breaks down under conditions of brain damage. So I did both development and breakdown and then reflected in the latter part of my career … I developed an interest in all kinds of mind change.

I’m interested in the kind of mind change that a leader brings about. Both a leader whom you might admire and a leader whom you might disdain. I’m interested in the kind of mind change that a creative individual brings about. You mentioned Freud, Freud did some wonderful things. Probably did some things which weren’t so wonderful, I’m interested in that.

Take Darwin, another kind of tremendous mind-changer. What happens in teaching and training? Those are all forms of mind change and typically when we think about teaching, we think about it as a positive thing, though you can teach hatred and you can teach doctrinaire perspectives as well.

There’s also the more intimate kind of change; the change between lovers, between a therapist and a patient, or a patient and a therapist. Between an interviewer and an interviewee. And then, as, as the book title “Changing Minds” indicates, what happens when you change your own mind.

One of the people whom I study in the book is Whittaker Chambers, a man known to most of us of a certain age who had mind changes which were of enormous importance in American history. A academic who became an intellectual, became a Communist, then left the party, first secretly, then publicly admitted he’d been a Communist, then leveled charges against Alger Hiss, at the time a high level American diplomat, and Richard Nixon became a supporter of Whittaker Chambers and that’s an important part of twentieth century American history.

So I guess the question I would ask you in, in turn, Richard, is people are involved in changing minds all the time, whether or not we write books about it. And my interest is in trying to understand how that happens. I’m aware that any idea that a person produces can be used in more positive or more pernicious ways, and I conclude “Changing Minds” by what I call “Good Work: Mind Changes Which I Like”. But I’m well aware that, you know, a Hitler or a Mao Tse-tung is also an expert in mind changing, even though neither of those people read my book.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, I was fascinated by the fact that it is the Harvard Business School Press that puts out this book and I had the feeling that you were addressing yourself to those who personally … I, personally … am not eager to see them grow in strength, in their ability to manipulate minds.

I mean you use the word, the benign word “change”. Talk about changing other people’s minds, changing one’s own mind. But hasn’t that been at the basis for this base thrust of the twentieth century … manipulating minds … spinning … controlling what others say … think … do.

GARDNER: I think that’s a fair characterization of some of what happens. But you’ve spent you life in broadcast journalism, your hero is Edward R. Murrow, you’ve had people on your program for half a century, and it seems to me you’re absolutely in the business of mind-changing as well.

I think it’s useful to think about the media in two ways. One kind of medium re-enforces our prejudices and I’ll use talk radio now, whether you have a Rush Limbaugh on the Left or an Al Franken on the Right, or an Al Franken on the Left. People listen to those programs to have their prejudices re-enforced or to have their blood pressures raised.

On the other hand, I listen to NPR; I consider that to be an outlet where I actually might change my mind about something because I hear discussion, I hear argument back and forth. I can remember many times when I’ve thought about something, but because of the way it was discussed on that program or the authority of the person who is presenting it, it gave me … it gave me pause. And so I think that this is a situation where it’s wrong just to cast a negative light on individuals who are mind-changing because many of the people whom you and I both admire … whether it’s a Franklin Delano Roosevelt or a Mahatma Gandhi are absolutely in the mind-changing business.

The only solution to people who pervert or manipulate is to make those tools very widely known and very widely available so that people who want to enter into the fray on the other side can do so equally.

HEFFNER: Talking about open minds, rather than closing them and keeping them closed. But you know, it’s interesting, when The Open Mind began, almost fifty years ago, I would have not one guest, I would have usually three guests and it was fascinating, you could see man or woman thinking. The director was good and we had more cameras and we did then, in those days …you would see someone listening to a person talking and you’d seem them sort of shaking their head and changing their mind.

And then the power of this medium began to dawn upon people who would be my guests and instead of coming to have a conversation, or to discuss matters, they came to thrust upon the audience their own point of view. And the notion of changing other people’s minds, taking advantage of the medium, prevailed.

GARDNER: There are two different models. The model of discussion, openness, debate back and forth. And the model of what I call “fundamentalism” where there’s a commitment not to change your mind about something and you only read those newspapers or watch those television programs or go to those Internet sites which purvey a certain ideology. And Deborah Tannen talks about an argument culture. We are, we are a culture where people scream and shout, rather than one where there’s a softer kind of interchange.

But the blessing is that the very fact that you or I or audience members might be annoyed by that … gives us the challenge of saying, can we produce something to re-invigorate another kind of an information exchange

HEFFNER: But you know you say that you’re disturbed by those who, let’s say are fundamentalists, who have an idea, will not change, will not listen to another side. How did you then come to pick George W. Bush as one of your examples of change?

GARDNER: Well, my feeling about George W. Bush … and I wish I could re-write the chapter every few months because this is, is a work in progress … is that he’s actually changed his mind about many, many things, but he has a commitment not to talk about his mind-changing. Because he sees himself as somebody who’s resolute and who has a point of view which he will stick to and his heroes are people whom he sees that way. But what I talk about in, in “Changing Minds” was … is George Bush pre-9/11 and post-9/11.

Pre-9/11 George Bush had very little agenda at all. He saw himself as somebody who was vindicating his father, he had some ideas about tax relief; he had some ideas about education and he had some ideas about not being involved in foreign escapades.

Come 9/11 this man suddenly realized that his job was different and his role as President was different. And in fact he has, from my point of view, one of the most transformational and radical Presidents we’ve had. I don’t particularly like what he’s done, any more than Margaret Thatcher, whom I also discuss as a heroine of mine … but if you’re studying mind-change, you can’t just focus on those people who, whom you like.

We’re talking about this in the period of the 2004 election and the three characters epitomize what I’m writing about. John Kerry is seen as “flip-flop” … changing his mind on everything, without any reason.

HEFFNER: “Seen” by whom?

GARDNER: The media and the public that knows about it.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t it be fairer to say “seen by his political opponents”; that’s what they’re pushing. And what we pick up.

GARDNER: He provides evidence for that.

HEFFNER: You think so?

GARDNER: Yeah.

HEFFNER: You really do.

GARDNER: Yeah. I mean … if you wanted to put a positive spin on it, you would say, “thoughtful, recognizes complexity” and so on.

HEFFNER: But I would think you would, with your emphasis upon change … think through an idea … change the conclusion you’ve come to.

GARDNER: Since we’re talking about politics, what I miss in John Kerry, speaking in June of 2004, are … what are the deep personal lines where he isn’t going to change his mind so readily. Those need to come out. I mean he has, he has a rating of 100 from the American Civil Liberties Union, but people don’t … he doesn’t talk about that and that’s not known. He has a rating of zero from other organizations. So he does have some deep beliefs but they haven’t, they haven’t come through.

Ralph Nader is what I would call a fundamentalist. He’s made a commitment not to change his mind about many things, including whether he’s going to run for office. And I think with George Bush you have mind-changing occurring all the time under the surface, but you have a public commitment to say that “I’m a person who’s resolute and doesn’t change my mind, because I think that’s what people are looking for”.

HEFFNER: I’m so puzzled by that, Howard, because you write, “Yet in the months following the morning of September 11th it was evident to observers that Bush had changed. As he said to his associates that day, ‘We are at war, that’s what we’re paid for, boys’,” but since that time certainly there have been those who reported that the President, from the very beginning of his administration knew that Iraq was going to be our target. And that was a subject for frequent discussion, long before 9/11.

GARDNER: My reading of the history, which … we probably read the same sources … is that there was a small group, we could call them a claque with Wolfowitz leading it … who always wanted to go to war in Iraq; that they didn’t get much of a hearing from Bush before 9/11 and even on 9/12, when this was put forth, his response was “Afghanistan is where our concern is now.”

In a sense it’s a shame that that’s what he really thought and was convinced to go otherwise. But according to the Woodward book, he felt the evidence for going in wasn’t very strong. And you, you might … I think what happened there was really a kind of a macho perspective pervaded the White House and he didn’t want to be left short. Which is where Colin Powell was left.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s wonderful …here we are, two college professors … very much reading …

GARDNER: The same things.

HEFFNER: … things in common and coming up with very, very different conclusions. Now, please explain.

GARDNER: Is your argument that George Bush is actually somebody who had the same view of himself as a politician and the same view of his policies let say, in 1996 … 2000 and 2004?

HEFFNER: Well, I’ll start with 2000, and say “yes”. Basically when you say that he … I mean you compare him with his father … and what horrifies me, you compare him with Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson … or quote those who, who do. You say, “Bush devoted his energies to building up the same kind of international coalition as had his father for the Gulf War ten years before.” To compare the coalition that Bush pere developed with great skill with the coalition of the, of the willing … beats me.

GARDNER: But, my comparison … my comparison there was with Afghanistan, where he did do, he did do that kind of thing. But let’s, let’s take a bit of a distance …

HEFFNER: I, I … I’m … yeah.

GARDNER: … from this. The issue is what causes individuals to change their minds. And I use George Bush as an example of somebody who was not particularly pre-disposed to change his mind, but where what I call a “real world event”, in 9/11, had an electrifying effect on him, because he really went to work on his Presidency in a way which he clearly hadn’t been before, in fact, the amount of time he’d spent on vacation rivaled Ronald Reagan before 9/11. And that’s not something that’s been true since.

In “Changing Minds” though I talk about six other forces which change people’s minds and we would want to think about Bush or Whittaker Chambers or …

HEFFNER: What about Whittaker Chambers? What did bring about that change and are you convinced that there was a fundamental change in the way Chambers talked or perhaps just a shift in his targets or his alliances?

GARDNER: I think that Whittaker Chambers became a true believer in Communism as many people of his ilk, both in the United States and abroad did in the late twenties …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

GARDNER: … early thirties. And what happened in the middle thirties was there … was a lot of data, what I would call research, which showed that the god had failed; that Communism was not at all what people had expected. And Whittaker Chambers being alive and alert noticed this, he also saw friends of his disappearing one way or the other; being eliminated, as we say; as well as people whom he knew from abroad.

And he had a bunch of choices: what’s called a cognitive dissonance choice was to believe even more strongly in what he did. And you know there were many people who defended Communism, particularly in Europe right through the sixties and seventies and we associate them particularly with France and Italy. There are other people who kind of slink quietly into the background; but there are a few people of whom Chambers was one, who decide to make anti-Communism his cause.

And I frankly don’t doubt his sincerity for a minute. I think the interesting question is why, for ten years, he kept quiet about other people who were involved in espionage and then he decided to go public in 1948, doing something which he believed would destroy his family and himself. And he believed he was coming out for the losing side, because he actually believed that Communism would prevail. And I think one can accuse Whittaker Chambers of many things, but I would not … I would say the man had the courage of his convictions … right or wrong. And many people who defended Alger Hiss did not pay attention to the evidence.

HEFFNER: Well, you, you start things with “R” and I am interested in the “Cs”, the causes. You say, you use the word “cause” … he shifted from one cause to another. Doesn’t it concern you a little when you’re talking about fundamentalism, aren’t you talking about people who have “causes?” As it seems to me George W. Bush has causes that he sticks to and since we’re in this timely business now, the, the matter, the week after President Reagan was buried and the question of his families desire to see cell research …

GARDNER: Stem cell research …

HEFFNER: … stem cell research pushed … the President maintains the same fundamentalist point of view.

GARDNER: I think that all of us need to have certain fundamentals which we won’t deviate from. And these which we would only deviate from after much, much consideration. I am not impressed by people who’s minds change all the time on everything. That’s the negative aspect of “flip-flop”. On the other hand, I’m equally unimpressed by people who, as I would say of George Bush in the middle of ’04 is resolute, but wrong. That is there are a number of issues now where it would be very wise for him to say I was wrong about something. But he somehow feels he shouldn’t, he shouldn’t confess to it.

What interests me .. and what I find most impressive are individuals who indicate what their fundamentals are, but also indicate that they’re open to learn from experience, and trying things out and they basically share their education with the wider public, whether they’re leaders of nations or foundations or universities or members of families. I consider Franklin Roosevelt a hero because when he came in 1933, he said, “You know, things aren’t working. And we don’t know exactly what’s going to make them work, but we’re going to try things out. If something doesn’t work, we’re going to try something else out.” So he brought people into his mind changing.

Mahatma Gandhi, my greatest hero wrote a book called “Experiments with Truth” where he discussed all the things he tried out that didn’t work and the lessons he learned from it. So I’m not giving a white wash to people who never changed their mind. But I’m also not endorsing people who don’t have some beliefs which are very fundamental, and other ones which are more, more changeable.

HEFFNER: Well, when Virginia Gildersleeve was Dean up at Barnard College, she used to say to the young ladies, “Young ladies, keep an open, but not so open that your brains fall out.” And you’re suggesting that middle position.

I, I’d like to go back, if you’re willing to … to this matter of John Kerry … you’re at Harvard, you’re in Massachusetts, you know more than I do, certainly, about the history of his political involvements. You, then, accept this “flip-flop” notion that’s stems from his political opponents, was picked up by the press and that I hear echoed … and that’s really what it is “echoed” all over the place. You somewhat subscribe to this.

GARDNER: I think John Kerry, whatever his deep and pervading beliefs are has not be able to make that known and shared with a wider audience. And so, he appears as somebody who’s analytic, who’s good at counter-argument, but not if somebody says, “what are your fundamental beliefs about war and peace, about education, about the nature of our polity, about what the biggest problems are …and I think that’s a real … I think that’s a real loss, but I think it says something significant about him.

HEFFNER: Well, you know that’s just precisely what Walter Lippmann said about the Governor of New York …

GARDNER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … Franklin Delano Roosevelt, your hero, when he ran in 1932.

GARDNER: What … Franklin Delano Roosevelt … he said he was a nice man without very important qualifications, who wants to be President of the United States.

John Kerry is highly qualified; he’s been in the, in the Senate for three terms. He has been a State officer. But if you say what, what legislations that he’s connected with compared to say someone like our other Senator Ted Kennedy, he doesn’t have a long list. And I think that I … I actually prefer the Oliver Wendell Holmes remark about Roosevelt as, “a second rate intellect, but a first rate temperament.”

Because what I actually believe is we vote for Presidents in this country, rightly or wrongly on two dimensions: how likeable they are and how trustworthy they are. And to me, that’s what I call resonance. People whom we feel we want to be with because it’s, it’s a marriage, it’s a marriage of four … it’s renewal. But also people whom we, when they say something we believe they mean it and they’ll stick with it.

And I think George Bush scores well on likeability; perhaps not for you and me, but for many, many people. And I think he’s trying to establish that he’s trustworthy by having these lines, which I say are resolute, but wrong.

However, I actually believe, and that’s what I wrong about in “Changing Minds”, that this is a man whom real world events make him think, not only differently about the world, mainly we have to be active, rather an isolationist, but more importantly, Dick, what kind of a President he’s going to be. I don’t think he thought he was a President that was really going to change lots of things about the role of America in the world and, indeed, lots of things about the, the domestic scene. He was a pragmatist in Texas. He had a Democratic Lieutenant Governor who was powerful, he was dealing with the Legislature, which was certainly not in his pocket, and the kind of domestic agenda which he’s pushed now, which is based on religious grounds, which he very reduced budgets except for defense, with an education law which was bipartisan, but is now un-funded. Those are not things that people would have predicted knowing him in Texas in 1996 or 1998.

Indeed, one other thing … in the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows writes that on debates on television Bush was even very different before he became President. He was much more articulate, much more fluent, and he’s even put himself forth as a bigger … as a different kind of persona … a more regular guy, “Joe-Six-Pack-Texas-Rancher-type”. So this is, this is a person who’s got plenty of capacity to change, which we even know because he was an alcoholic, who’s been able to go on the wagon. So he’s, he’s a complicated character and all the people who know him well, including Bill Clinton, say don’t underestimate this guy.

HEFFNER: Now, take in the three minutes we have remaining, take this evaluation of the need for change and your admiration for Bush, for Margaret Thatcher …

GARDNER: Don’t say “admiration”, I’m trying to understand him; these folks …

HEFFNER: Okay.

GARDNER: I’m trying to analyze them according to seven levers of mind-changing.

HEFFNER: And you see them as capable, having been capable of change and as having changed?

GARDNER: No, let me correct you there, if I may, because Margaret Thatcher, I think, changed many people’s minds about Britain, both domestically and internationally. George Bush, as you pointed out, has not been able to change the minds of other countries except perhaps to exacerbate some of their unhappiness with America. And it’s not clear to what extent he’s changed minds in this country.

HEFFNER: Do you see us …

GARDNER: I use him as an example, in other words, of changing his own mind, rather than, so far, being very successful as a public mind changer.

HEFFNER: If our friends or non-friends overseas were to say, “Professor Gardner, do you see you nation as a nation that is capable of changing its minds in the productive way that you want to see change take place?” What’s your answer?

GARDNER: I think in the absence of effective leaders on the one hand and what I call Trustees on the other, Trustees are people who are well-known, respected, but seen as being disinterested, as not partisan, I think it’s going to be very, very difficult. The loss of the 1960’s was the loss of Trustees … the John McCloys, the George Kennans, the Walter Lippmanns … people who saw the health of the country as a whole as their concern.

There were some good reasons to get rid of Trustees because they tended to come from a fairly narrow arena. But we have no Trustees in this country now. We have Trustees of the world. Walter Cronkite was probably the last Trustee of Americas. Trustees of the world would be people like George Soros, or Kofi Annan or Bill Gates.

But in the absence of people who say, “Our country is so important, we can’t let it go down any partisan road, but what is happening domestically and what is happening abroad is not good for the world”. The whole world ought to be voting on the American President, because the whole world has to live with him. We don’t have that.

I know that that’s been a mission of yours, it’s been a mission of mine to try to give more sustenance to people in voices like that …

HEFFNER: You have no nominations for Trusteeship?

GARDNER: Well, actually …

HEFFNER: In 30 seconds?

GARDNER: … we’re doing a study of this right now and I will tell you the three that have been nominated so far and they certainly give me pause … Alan Greenspan, Oprah Winfrey and a television comic who I don’t know, named Jon Stewart. I dedicated the book, “Good Work”, my previous book to John Gardner, John W. Gardner, a relative. He was, I think, a tremendous American Trustee, someone who really thought about the health of the country as a whole. But his name is not a household word. It’s not that we don’t have people who are, who could be Trustees, it’s that they don’t have the recognition and the support in this age of athletics, entertainment and mass media.

HEFFNER: So we have to make that our crusade and thank you very much for joining me again on The Open Mind, Howard Gardner. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say …

GARDNER: And Trustee.

HEFFNER: And Trustee … Edward R. Murrow, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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