It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

The time of the year has come for my research ‘how to change my mind’ to become extra topical for many of us. At the end of last week, most Americans sat around the Thanksgiving dining table. And before we know it we’re having Christmas dinner. How do we keep all those dinners cosy, without only talking about the weather?

Family toasting at Thanksgiving meal’, from an article by the Huffington Post about the dreaded discussions at the thanksgiving table.

It’s a question that keeps me occupied these days. As a true ‘change of mind’ researcher, I have been asked more and more lately whether I have any tips and tricks. Come on Marian, don’t you have a solution yet? How do I show my in-laws that the climate is really warming up? How do I make it clear to my sister that Black Pete is really a beautiful tradition that must be preserved? How do I talk about the pension system, Brexit or North Korea?

I have to be honest, I don’t know yet. I find it as scary as all of you. Frankly, my previous blog – the one about my opinion about Black Pete – was one of the most frightening to post ever. Ignoring is better than quarrelling and misery isn’t it?

Fortunately, I did post the blog anyway. And I noticed that I didn’t get into a fight about it. In stead I found more understanding and less taboo in my dealings with other people. Since the blog, I’ve been talking about controversial topics at professional meet ups, on the train with casual fellow travelers and even – oh scaryst of all scary environments – at a birthday party.

My experience? It’s possible, even if it’s frightening. I found the birthday party the most special. I was asked with sincere curiosity about the underlying views and feelings surrounding my opinion about Black Pete.

We did not agree on important points at that party. We were unable to find a ‘common ground’ about whether Black Pete is really racist, and especially about how you establish that, that something is racist. Is something racist if someone feels discriminated against because of race? Or if it is meant to be racist? And what if there is a difference between the two? Who’s feeling counts more?

But we have had very nice conversations. For example we talked about what a democracy really is. Is a democracy ‘the majority decides’, or is there more? To what extent is it a fundamental right to diverge from the majorities view? How much room should a dissenting opinion have in a democracy? To what extent should the right to demonstrate be protected? When should a demonstration really not be possible? And why do we think this right is so essential, even when it is difficult?


Together we have talked about great philosophical subjects. How much do we mind if not everyone is treated equally? Is discrimination unforgivable in all circumstances? And if so, where does it end? Is that really possible, a world without discrimination?

And what about the rights of the child? How far should we go to protect them? What are the absolute limits we should not go beyond? We all have rules about what a child can see on TV, how do we deal with that in ‘real life’?

All in all, it was a special birthday. Which gives me hope for the gourmet table later at Christmas. Because it turned out to be able to differ in opinion, but at the same time to be genuinely interested in the other person’s opinion. It is possible to conclude a conversation satisfactorily, without anyone being convinced. Because you’ve learned more yourself. And the other has as well.

On TED Julia Dhar gave us a real manual to survive heated conversations at the dining table. Unfortunately for me, I only read this after the party. Fortunately, we did follow some of her ‘rules’ accidentally. The rules for a good conversation are, according to Julia:

  • Name the conflict. Don’t walk around it. With us this was accomplished by someone that asked: Marian, what do you think of Black Pete?
  • Establish a common reality. By questioning each other you can establish the ‘common ground rules’. The whole group thought it was important that children had a nice Saint Nicholas party. The whole group also thought that throwing eggs was punishable. Nobody consciously wanted to hurt people. As a society you shouldn’t want racism. We are a democratic country and that is important to us. Within these ground rules there were enough differences in emphasis, and we found them. But by starting to figure out our ground rules, we stayed in better contact during the conversation.
  • Focus on content, not people. The easiest, but also the most difficult. Because we are so bad at distinguishing these. Someone with a racist opinion, is he or she always a racist? Someone with an ill-considered point of view, is that person always stupid? Are farmers conservative? Are urban dwellers elitist? The nice thing is that this point must be feasible at the Christmas dinner table. Just look around you: this is a discussion you have with your loved ones. Your friends and acquaintances. People of whom you are pretty sure, that they are sincere people who do their best to organize their lives as well as possible.
Julia Dahr’s TED talk
  • Accept the fact that you may be wrong. I think this is quite an difficult one, to be honest. But let’s be real: if you have no doubt whatsoever about the accuracy of your own point of view, then you don’t need to have the conversation. Then you are not talking, but telling. The funny thing is that an open attitude is also a good debating trick: being less defensive makes people listen to you better.
  • Use facts – sparingly. Facts help. Especially if you sit together in a frame with space to listen to each other (see previous point). But be careful: only use them if you really know them. And don’t use too many. Splurging out too many facts often works counterproductive.
  • Know when to stop. The moment you notice that the conversation starts to go in to re-runs, the matter is sufficiently deepened. The differences of opinion that you still have can’t be bridged in this conversation. End the discussion, get onto the next topic, or decide to go and get a drink for everyone.

With this manual in my pocket I will be looking for the conversation in the near future. To practice in what may be even more important than changing one’s mind: to disagree in a good way and talk about it.

A different kind of tribalism

And then I decided to write a blog about tribalism, the week before the arrival of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicolas, a Dutch celebration on december 5th). The arrival of Sinterklaas turned out to be a perfect example of tribalism: groups op people demonstrating against Zwarte Piet (the traditionally black painted helper of Sinterklaas and subject of a deep felt controversy in the Netherlands) were ‘egged’ by angry mobs. Police had to intervene in more than one city, leaving us with these kind of images on the news.

the subject of Zwarte Piet is obviously very controversial in the Netherlands. I therefore have chosen the ‘safe’ route up until now: ignore this particular subject in my research, or at least in my public findings. Only last weekend at the scouting (where I am a volunteer) another parent asked me if my research provided a solution for the Zwarte Piet debate, and I answered in jest: I think I will start with something simpler like World Peace.

But in the end I didn’t start this research or blog to be safe. And so it feels like it is time to share a personal story with you. The story of the first big change of opinion for me, my ‘origin story’ for this research. My change of opinion about Zwarte Piet.

It happened a couple of years ago, in 2012. I had a visitor from America in my home at around October-November. She was (and is) an American singer-songwriter who came to do a European tour. Completely in style with the ‘crowdfunding-hype’, the tour was completely made possible by fans. With money, but also with help. Like offering a place to sleep and organizing a living-room concert.

She slept at my parents house (our house is a bit cramped, and my parents were kind enough to make their guest room available) and we organized a concert in our living room. It was very a very special time. Because the singer had just landed from America, she had built in a couple of extra days to account for her jetlag. So we really had time to get to know each other (five years later the whole family attended her wedding in America, but that is another story).

It was on one of those quiet evenings that we, with a glass of limoncello in our hands, got to talk about special regional and national customs. We talked about Luilak, St. Maarten and of course also about St. Nicholas.

It was when I told her about this last character, who came from Spain on a ship with his Zwarte Pieten as helpers, that I noticed that my visitor felt less and less at ease. I continued to talk cheerfully and proudly, because I was proud of the tradition that I described as ‘less commercial than Christmas’.

Finally, when I asked her why she was upset, she told me about the American tradition of ‘blackfaces’, which had been abandoned because of its racist characteristics. Black painted actors who caricature Afro-American people in plays. This way of acting comes from the time when segregation still took place in America. Since the introduction of equal rights, acting with blackfaces has been labelled racist and is subsequently no longer done in the States.

Because of this – for our European standards still quite recent – history in America, my visitor found our Zwarte Piet really very racist. Something that shocked me, but also filled me with complete incomprehension: our tradition was not meant to depict slavery. These were children’s friends in a children’s festivity. I understood that her American history led her to positions like this, but she did not understand the cultural differences. This was different. This was not evil, this was fun!

It was a tough evening. Not because we disagreed. But because our opinions were so close to our feelings. Feelings of pride and joy on my side, feelings of shame and disgust on her side. Firm, overwhelming, important feelings. Feelings that made it difficult to understand the other, to te even want to try to.

The conversation with my American visitor lingered in my head, in my heart, and in my lower abdomen, long after her departure. From a complete rejection of her point of view, respect and understanding slowly grew. I still did not see it as being racist, this children’s festivity. But more and more clearly I started to see that my viewpoint was not the only possible, or even the only legitimate viewpoint. When does something become racist? When I find it to be so? Or when I notice that others – who look at the same event from a different perspective – find something racist? More and more I started to feel that it doesn’t only matter how I looked at it. What was at least as important was that there was a group of people who felt that Zwarte Piet was racist and who were hurt by that. I had ignored their point of view, and I could no longer continue to do so.

The reason I found it so difficult to accept this new viewpoint, this new position on Zwarte Piet, was the fear that from this new viewpoint I was a racist. Me. The alternative hipster mother that cooks organically and supports many charities. I couldn’t be a racist! The sinking feeling that this ‘clash’ of viewpoint gave me, made me prefer to put my head in the sand and no longer think about the whole issue.

In the end, the issue of ‘am I a racist’ was finally settled with me last year at Oerol by George and Eran (another story as well, but in short: George and Eran are two actors who performed a very gripping and sometimes extremely confronting play about racism last year in the Netherlands): I’m not a racist. But sometimes I am. Or rather, sometimes I do racist things. Not deliberately, not because I am mean, but because I don’t know any better. Or because I get too tired of figuring out how I can learn to know better.

And so I stand. I am still Marian. A woman looking for how she can change her mind. A woman who believes that Zwarte Piet must change with the times, to stop hurting people. A woman who now finds it difficult to see a totally black Zwarte Piet, without thinking ‘how did I ever think this was not racist? In short, a woman who has changed her mind and feelings on this subject.

At the same time I still remember the pain. The pain of looking at my childhood memories from behind these new glasses. The enormous pain it caused me to realize that I thought and felt something, that made me a racist in the eyes of others. The pain of being called something that I never wanted to be. Only to discover that – to put it in George and Eran’s words – every person sometimes thinks racist thoughts. Even me.

Perhaps that is why I have kept quiet in this debate. Understanding for both ‘camps’ (because yes, that’s how far it has come, we’re talking about camps), is a recipe for getting trolled by two sides.

In addition, I have no answer, no easy solution. Because even though Zwarte Piet will evolve in Roet Piet (soot pete, with chimney soot on his face), or a Regenboog Piet (a rainbow pete with faces painted in many different colors): the real conversation, the conversation about our unconscious tribal behaviour, about thinking in ‘we-thay’ and in ‘our people and strangers’, is a difficult, long and tough conversation.

It is a long journey to find out that the stranger we see, resembles us more closely than we like. Only when we dare to look as much in the mirror as we do towards the other, can we overcome the tribal aspects of this ‘struggle’. This here is my first step, my look in the mirror…

When two tribes go to war.

Without being very aware of it, completing the online course ‘the science of everyday thinking’ brought me to an important point in my research. Over the past weeks and months I have studied how our brains work, why we think things, what unconscious shortcuts we use and what effect this has on our opinions. This research eventually led to the blog on climate change, where I summed up everything I learned and gave advise on how to make people change their minds.

That’s a wrap, you might say. But then something happened in America that made me feel that it wasn’t that simple. That there is more going on. The fact that sometimes people will keep insisting that untruths are true. Not because they believe it, but because they belong to a group in which that untruth is elevated to an established fact.

What happened? A political journalist, Jim Acosta, was refused entry to the White House. The reason given by the White House for this refusal was that Acosta would have ‘been placing his hands’ on an intern of the White House . Now the term ‘placing his hands’ is rather ambiguous, but the message was that the journalist had committed violence against the intern. A rather bizarre claim, given the images that were broadcast from the press conference at which this was supposed to have happened. What you saw was a journalist who put the president to the test with his questions, and did not want to stop asking questions.

Hyperlink to the clip as released by TIME

But, not much later, the White House releases its own version of the visual material. The same images, but zoomed in, repeated and probably somewhat accelerated. Experts, journalists and those present at the event are unanimous in rejecting this obvious manipulation. The source of the film can even be traced back to infowars, a ‘spinning website’. But still: the White House chooses to officially distribute this version of the film as its truth.

What is the consequence? Everyone is now arguing with each other over the extent to which the second film has been manipulated. The objective truth has become a ‘we say – they say’ story. A very good example of the ‘somewhere in the middle’ syndrome of course: the White House hopes that if there are two versions of the film, the people will think that the truth will be ‘somewhere in the middle’. And before you know it, the journalist is still suspicious… Because where there is smoke…..

But apart from the fact that this is a very good – and very threatening – example of how faith in conspiracies works and can be stimulated, I was seized by a discussion from a different angle: to what extent is this still a matter of believing in the conspiracy? To what extent is this still about the ‘somewhere in the middle’ syndrome, and about the continued belief of the people in the innocence of the president?

On twitter Amanda Marcotte, a political writer known to be ‘a strong voice for the left‘, took the view that we have long passed this phase in mass hysteria. This is no longer a matter, she said, of gullible and worried citizens who are fooled by their brains. This is now a question of peer pressure and abuse of power, of tribalism. People no longer believe in the myth, people do what the group – and the boss of the group – says they should do.

The distinction may be subtle, but it is important: in mass hysteria the people still believe in the lies, in tribalism the people know very well that lies are being told, but they still support lies. Because in tribalism it is a sign of loyalty to the boss, if you support him even if he lies.

You have to fight mass hysteria as I explained in my previous blog: presenting the facts in the right way. But what do you do with tribalism? Talking back is actually not desirable, after all: it is also a sign of loyalty to the boss if you can infuriate the ‘enemy’. And if we really are in a state of tribalism, we are in the middle of this enemy thinking. You don’t believe the enemy, not even if he presents the argument well. In fact, it’s no longer about believing at all. It’s about loyalty and power.

I don’t actually want to finish these thoughts in my head. I think a world in which large groups of people are victims of mass hysteria is a lot friendlier than a world in which we fight tribal wars. But at the same time I feel in my bones that I have the next phase of my research here. Changing your mind, that was one thing. Now we have to find a way to change our mind publicly in a group, and to change our behavior as well. This research has to be continued…

The Circle is completed

This week I had the opportunity to give a lecture at a convention for managers in the Social Sector of Government. The day was about vitality at work. I talked about how you can keep yourself – and your team – happy at work. And about why that is so important.

At the University of Berkely they did research into the effects of being happy at work. And those effects are considerable, and economically relevant. Happy people live longer, and are – not surprising – happier. But for the company there is also a gain: Happy people need less control, are sick less often and can solve more problems independently. So having happy people is a surprisingly economically profitable element of your business operations.

At the University of Berkely they even came up with a ‘recipe’ for happy employees: PERK! Or Purpose, Engagement, Resillience and Kindness.

Still from the online course Happiness at Work from Berkely on EdX

PERK works on a personal level, you can work on your own resilience and friendliness. But PERK also works in the interaction with others, and even as organisational advice: make sure, for example, that your employees know exactly what the goal is for which they work, and that they also feel that their actions influence achieving that goal. This beautiful video shows me very well how essential it is to work for a goal.

Still from the short film (click to view it)

The beauty of PERK is that it works on the three different levels. As a result of that, it is incredibly easy to start using PERK. Simply choose every day to do your mindfulness exercise for example. Or stop gossiping. Or every day looking for three moments when you can give someone a sincere compliment. PERK not only gives a recipe for happy employees, it also gives a recipe for motivated and empowered managers. The managers not only felt responsible for the happiness of their team members, they also felt that they had an influence on this happiness.

But besides motivation and empowerment, something else happened in the group that was listening. Something that is very relevant for my research. The group started to get more and more restless during my talk. Not always a good sign when you’re giving a lecture 😉 But in this case it was a visible unease about a very essential point in my presentation, which I ignored myself (my assignment was an to be enthusiastic, no problematic): how honorable is it to use the PERK recipe?

Because the image of the company as the happy family, where you feel at home and fit well, has a lot of beauty in it. And at the same time: how scary can it become? If everyone at work is there for the same noble purpose? How long does it take until full group think arises? Before you are no longer allowed to have a different opinion? For the company get sectarian characteristics?

The example of internet giants like Google and Apple, with their ‘company campuses’ with full-fledged child care, restaurants and fitness centres, feels a bit unreliable and insincere, if you simultaneously follow the discussion that is currently happening around those same internet giants. How ‘nice’ and ‘happy’ are they actually? How honest are their motives? What do they do with the gigantic power they collect?

Google campus at Mountain View

The book – and the film – the Circle was soon a central element in the presentation. Clearly a case of ‘not honorable’ use of all the beautiful PERK recipes. In such an extreme case, influencing people’s happiness leads to simply abusing people. This moral grey area, this tangled web of what is possible, what is good for yourself, the other, the customer and your company, was visible on the faces of the people in the room. Sure it is possible to influence happiness, and yes it is logical that you want this as a manager, but be careful that it does not get out of hand. Continuously check your own power and influence over the other person. Especially in a managing position.

The group gave me goosebumps. I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction and discussion that arose. I notice thatI still chew on it in my head. The more I learn about how people change their opinions, their happiness, their behaviour, the more I run into moral questions. What makes us human? What is the right behavioural change? What is acting with integrity?

These are questions that I do not yet have an answer to. Nor do I think that these questions ultimately exist in their final form. But they are questions that must be asked in the search for behavioural change. Every time again. Because that makes the distinction between the world that the University of Berkely predicts us and the world that the film The Circle predicts us. Changing behaviour and opinions is not as difficult as we might think. Changing one’s mind, in relation with others and consciously done, with integrity, may be more difficult.

I have to work on this last idea further. Fortunately, I am currently following the Justice (political philosophy) course at Harvard. Perhaps the insights of people like John Locke, Immanuel Kant and Aristotle will help me in this tangle of power, influence and morality. On the other hand: if I thought psychology was a rabbit hole for me to disappear into, I can get ready for the real stuff now. Philosophy is beautiful, but doesn’t often lead to certainties. The circle is complete, now I have to be careful not to bite my own tail!

Still from a excerpt of The Good Place (click to see the short and funny scene)