A shocking real life case that revealed a secret how to change beliefs of others.
Changing one’s beliefs is not easy. It requires a deep understanding of a person’s psyche, their current belief system, values and behaviours. And yet Vietnamese government achieved what to many seemed impossible. During the war in Vietnam something incredible took place that changed the world of psychology forever…
Though we can argue what the real reason for war in Vietnam was, one thing is sure: Americans who joined it, truly believed that the Vietnamese government should be abolished for a better future for the country and its people.
But after the war something strange happened. The same people came back changed. They now praised the Vietnamese government.
How such a drastic change in beliefs was possible? Both, the American government and all the scientists, were puzzled.
Analysis of this situation revealed an incredible mechanism on how to change beliefs of other people.
Traditional approach to changing beliefs states that you need to first change values – the source of beliefs. But values are strong, they are a consequence of our life experience and can’t be changed so easily.
The diagram below represents the different layers of every individual and how they affect each other. As you can see, our behaviour is a direct result of our attitudes. Our attitudes are created based on our beliefs. And our beliefs come from our values. The core, the very foundation of who we are and how we behave, is our values. And it’s a pretty solid foundation.
However, what the case of American soldiers after the war in Vietnam shows, is that there is a away to change one’s beliefs, and it’s not through the values.
So how did they do it?
We will go through a 3-step process that allowed the Vietnamese government to influence American soldiers to such an extend.
WARNING! Before we move on to discuss the details, let me point one thing. This is an extremely powerful technique, and it can have huge consequences. Understanding how and why this technique works allows us to understand better ourselves and other people. It can be very helpful in your relationships with others, but I do ask you use it only for good causes. Persuasion techniques are not good or bed, it is our choice what we use them for. And I have faith that you will use it only to help others.
So now that we have that part covered, let’s move on to discussing these 3 steps.
These 3 steps are what the Vietnamese government implemented on American soldiers they took in prison during the war.
1. Write arguments down
The first step of the process was a task that the Vietnamese soldiers gave to American prisoners: write down a letter in which you praise the Vietnamese government. It is important to note that they didn’t force them, it wasn’t a matter of escaping tortures or death. They were simply given a task. We will cover later why this is important.
There are two things happening here.
Firstly, a person engages in arguments for the new idea. At this point American soldiers still held beliefs against the Vietnamese government, but they started thinking of all the possible reasons why they could be wrong. It’s the first moment when they open up to a new idea.
Secondly, they write it down. Psychologist and motivational speakers all agree that writing creates a stronger commitment. To increase probability that a person follows up with their promise, don’t ask them to say they will – have them write it down.
2. Publicly declare your stand
After American soldiers wrote down their letters supporting Vietnamese government, they were then ask to present it to other inmates. As before, they were ordered, but not forced to do it. This is a very important aspect and it links to what psychologist know as insufficient justification.
Whatever we do, we do it either because of external or internal reasons. External justification is when we can blame the situation or other people for our behaviour. Imagine a thief defending his actions by saying that he had no money for his children so he was forced to steal. This is external justification.
But imagine another situation: you are walking back home and on your way you see your neighbour, an older woman, struggling with the shopping bags. You help her. Why? because you are a good and helping person. This is internal justification.
So now let’s look at American soldiers. They already wrote down a letter and now they are publicly supporting the government. This is against their beliefs, which creates dissonance. We are wired to do almost anything it takes to eliminate this feeling. First thing that we do, is to look for ways to explain our actions. In case of American soldiers, if they had been forced to do what they did, they could have explained their actions as them trying to survive. But that was not the case. They were not forced to do anything. The Vietnamese perfectly crafted their message to give enough pressure for American inmates to follow with request, but not enough to give them external justification. So what happened? They turnt to internal justification instead: I did it, because I believe Vietnamese government to be good. Though it might sound incredible, many studies have proven that the lack of external justification can have such profound changes on us.
We are much more persuaded by giving the speech than by listening to it. It is because we are the ones engaged in the action. At this point a significant change starts taking place in American soldiers’ minds.
3. Be responsible for other people
There is one more thing that the Vietnamese government did that significantly increased dissonance American soldiers felt. They told them, that based on their speech, other inmates changed their opinions and they now agreed with the content of the speech.
Now not only do American soldiers feel bad about writing and presenting an opinion which is against their own, but they are also responsible for changing the beliefs of others. The additional responsibility for other inmates creates such a strong pressure, that they search for justification of their actions even more. And as the external justification in not sufficient enough, they turn even more to look for it internally.
What the Vietnamese government discovered is that to change beliefs you don’t have to change the values. You can reverse the process – change behaviour which will trigger psychological reactions that lead to the change of beliefs.
If my behavior is inconsistent with my beliefs, and I have no other way to explain my behavior, I will adjust my beliefs to fit that behavior. This allows me to eliminate the dissonance my actions have caused.
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Now back to you.
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