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Change My View On Reddit Helps People Challenge Their Own Opinions

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Wishy-washy, flip-flopper - people aren't always kind to those who change their views. But our Planet Money podcast thinks we should celebrate changing minds. Here's Kenny Malone.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Last Christmas, Liz Weeks accidentally offended her mother. She said cash is the most useful present you can give me. Mom did not take it well.

LIZ WEEKS: And she said, Elizabeth Jane, I want to give you a nice gift for Christmas. Christmas is a time you give gifts to people you love.

MALONE: Ooh (ph), the middle name seems bad.

WEEKS: Yeah.

MALONE: Weeks thought, maybe my view on this is wrong. And so her second thought...

WEEKS: Change My View.

MALONE: As in a message board on the website Reddit called Change My View. And it works like this. Let's say you hold a view that you're open to changing. You write a post stating that view.

WEEKS: Cash or money should be acceptable responses when asked what one adult wants for Christmas.

MALONE: You explain why you think that.

WEEKS: The gist of it is that the point of gift giving is to make the other person happy and I guess maximize their utility and...

MALONE: And then other users who subscribe to the channel come in and walk you through why you might be wrong.

KAL TURNBULL: So we have at the moment 300,000 subscribers.

MALONE: Kal Turnbull founded this group four years ago, when he was 17. And he just got obsessed with the question - what leads to someone changing their mind? Is there a place you can go?

TURNBULL: What about people with views that they are embarrassed about?

MALONE: Some real examples from the site are views like you should have to pass a test to vote, or if you date outside your race you are a race traitor. The group has developed a set of ground rules that actually seem to help people have a calm and rational discussion and change people's minds. One rule is that you have to explain the reasoning behind your view. Another is that you have to be willing to reply within three hours. But Turnbull says the two key rules are number one, don't be rude or hostile because what used to happen is someone would post a view...

TURNBULL: People would say you're an idiot for thinking this.

MALONE: And then the discussion got derailed by arguing. And then the other thing that would happen...

TURNBULL: People were just coming in and saying, yeah, I agree with you. No reason to change this view. It was just - it was unproductive.

MALONE: So they came up with a rule - you have to disagree so the thread doesn't just become an echo chamber. And it worked. People were using the group and changing their minds, which is so unusual on the Internet that researchers are diving in to study the Change My View group.

CHENHAO TAN: Yeah, I find it amazing that this community can actually exist.

MALONE: Chenhao Tan is at the University of Washington. And he found that if you want to change someone's mind on Change My View there's sort of a magic number. You can go back and forth with someone one, two, three rounds and you do increase the chance of changing their mind.

TAN: However, if you go beyond three it starts to decline. And the declining curve is quite sharp.

MALONE: After three rounds you may as well agree to disagree. If an argument isn't working, try something else. Take Liz Weeks, who posted about wanting cash for Christmas. Part of her view was that a Christmas gift is supposed to maximize utility for the gift recipient and cash is the best way to do that. A lot of users tried to change her view by questioning her assumption.

WEEKS: People felt that my recipient-oriented point of view was inappropriate.

MALONE: They thought you were cold.

WEEKS: Yeah. I mean, cold is definitely a good word to describe it.

MALONE: But even after 35 pages of back and forth, that argument did not sway Liz Weeks. Someone eventually tried something new. OK, they said, assume you're right about the purpose of a gift. Cash doesn't always maximize utility for the gift recipient. You don't always know the best thing to buy yourself.

WEEKS: I said, OK, yeah, I think this is a very good point.

MALONE: Weeks explained why that made sense and then followed one of the other rules of Change My View. If someone has changed your view, be proud of it. Plant a flag and let everybody know. And so Weeks ended her post as required.

WEEKS: Delta.

MALONE: Delta, as in the Greek symbol that means change. Kenny Malone, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYAN HELSING AND MATTHEW SALTZ'S "LAYERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.