Why is it so hard to convince other people that they’re wrong?
Short Answer: Because persuasion is a sport.
The goal in sports is to win, not to change teams. The goal of persuasion is to win arguments, not to change minds.
Me to 7-year old Niko: You should clean your room.
Niko: It’s already clean.
Me: No it’s not. Look at this explosion of stuffed animals.
Niko: Can we go to the bookstore after?
Niko cleans his room.
Did I win the argument? Yeah, I got what I wanted! Did I change Niko’s mind about the state of his room? No. He just traded work for something he wanted. A subtle distinction but it makes a huge difference if you extrapolate it out to all the problems in the world.
Owls vs Pigs:
After thinking a lot about cognitive biases and talking to lots of people about it, the #1 question I get on the topic of biases and motivated reasoning is overwhelmingly people asking me why they have so much trouble convincing other people that they’re wrong.
Imagine your town’s basketball team, the Owls, is playing against your biggest rival, the Pigs. The Owls were ahead early in the game but now it’s the third quarter and your team has fallen behind. The Pigs have rallied and scored a bunch of points in a row. They top it off with a play that should've been an offensive foul but it wasn’t called.
It’s an away game in Pigstown, and the crowd is exploding with cheers and songs celebrating their comeback, seemingly oblivious to the blatant fouls and dirty tactics.
The player that made the last shot points to the scoreboard and does a little taunting dance. He points to your side of the stadium, makes an exaggerated crying motion, and swipes you away as inconsequential. The crowd bursts into laughter and cheers and yelling.
The person sitting next to you is rooting for the Pigs. She says, “No hard feelings but the Pigs are clearly the superior team. Look at the score! That’s irrefutable evidence. Look at the crowd: 90% of the people here are Pigs fans. We've won the last 3 championships.”
She leans in, “Why are you so reluctant to become a Pigs fan? Join the better side! We even have better swag.” She waves a pig flag in your face.
What do you do?
If you’re feeling extremely polite you might simply scowl back and say nothing. If you’re feeling rude on the other hand… it could get ugly.
Your team eventually loses the game. You admit defeat, but you’re never going to become a Pigs fan.
Let’s step back a bit.
When you innocently ask people why they ignore the evidence (on climate change, health care, immigration, gun control, vaccinations, racism, sexism, income inequality, free speech, etc) and why they buck the consensus of all the fans and scientists and experts on our side, let’s be honest… you sound like a Pigs fan asking an Owls fan to join their side.
IT’S A RIDICULOUS REQUEST!
That’s why it’s hard to convince people that you’re right and they’re wrong.
Is there any way for the Pigs to recruit Owl fans more effectively?
Will scoring more points help? No.
Will bringing louder crowds help? No.
Will pulling up more data about previous season stats help? No.
Will winning more championships help? No.
Will creating better taunts help? No.
None of these things help because:
Persuasion is a sport and no game mechanics have ever been established for recruiting fans from the other side.
Sports are really just a social invention modeled after war, but designed to be less deadly. As vicious as some sports get, they never get quite as vicious as real wars.
Scrimmages, practice games, exhibition games, and oddities like the Globetrotters are a lower-stakes versions of league games.
Maybe the key is finding or inventing a new type of even lower-stakes game that’s modeled after a scrimmage or practice game more than a real league game.
Amongst friends, we are used to arguing for fun, without putting a whole lot of significance on the outcomes.
Across political, demographic, or other more stark team boundaries it’s a completely different story, and yet we expect the same results.
Imagine how differently the Owls and Pigs would have to play to make it less threatening for fans to switch team affiliation.
Imagine how differently we’d have to talk about gun control, climate change, politics, etc to create an environment where Trump supporters and the rest of us even considered the possibility of switching positions on a debate.
The sports model of persuasion definitely won’t get us there.
If we really do want to change minds instead of just winning (and losing) arguments, we need to think less about amassing points and rallying supportive crowds on our side of the stadium and more about lowering the stakes and threat level of our conversations.