“I can’t hear you with all these facts I don’t believe in in the way…”
The following post is by my friend Emma White, a specialist in communications and messaging. In the wake of the epic fail of the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity ad featuring Dexter, Michigan resident Julie Boonstra, Emma’s observations & commentary on the difficulty of using facts to change opinions are critical for all of us to understand.
Please welcome Emma to Eclectablog for her first guest post.
“‘I personally do not believe that,” Julie Boonstra said when confronted with the fact that Obamacare will save her more than $1,000 a year. It’s easy to laugh (or feel sympathy, as Chris has suggested) when presented with such an extreme example of holding onto belief in the face of evidence to the contrary. But instead I’d like to suggest that we use this story as a lesson about the challenges of trying to persuade with facts.
Have you ever had the experience of presenting a friend or family member with long list of facts to support your position on the minimum wage or reproductive rights or another topic, only to have them dig in deeper and deeper as you talk? As Ms. Boonstra’s story illustrates so sharply, when facts come into conflict with our deep-seated values or beliefs, we tend to discard the facts and keep the values. In this case, Ms. Boonstra beliefs about government so strongly influence her view about Obamacare that she resists the evidence undercutting her views, even when it has financial benefit to her personally. But this pattern is true not only for her, or for conservatives, but for all of us.
Social science and opinion research are full of examples where explaining the facts to a skeptical public either makes no impact or backfires and encourages skeptics resist: the safety and efficacy of vaccines is one. The reality of human-made climate change is another.
I have moderated dozens of focus groups where participants rejected the facts I presented in favor of their values. Liberal mothers refused to believe the health threats posed by toxic chemicals in the products they bought because it challenged their notion of themselves as good mothers who protect their children. Conservative men told me that the U.S. could not be torturing prisoners overseas or holding people indefinitely without trial because “we wouldn’t do that.” It conflicted with their value of patriotism.
Finding a message that would reach these audiences was not a matter of finding the right facts, or even of finding the right person to explain them (though that helps), but of finding a way to connect with the values motivating the participants’ resistance. So, for example, my clients had to work with the conservatives’ patriotism, by starting communications with an assertion of what America stands for, before launching into the ways our government was violating those values.
The lesson is simple: If you want to persuade the public, or simply a family member who disagrees with you, step one is to let go of the facts.
Emma White is a pollster and message consultant. She can be reached at email@example.com