Behavioral Politics & the Art of Changing Minds

J. Matt Hughey
Jan 23 · 5 min read

With President Trump’s impeachment trial now underway in the Senate, the House’s case managers and the President’s legal team are preparing to make their best arguments in an attempt persuade members of the jury (i.e. 100 partisan senators) to vote in their favor. Anyone who has attempted an impassioned political argument with family members over the dinner table knows what a struggle it can truly be to change the hearts and minds of others. This begs the questions then, “How does one influence another person’s persuasion and what might be the best methods of doing so?” And finally, how might the answers to these questions form important implications for teams on both sides of the impeachment trial?

JDM, Morality, and the Influence of Others

The study of human judgment and decision making (JDM) has been the focus of much academic research for at least the last half century or so and was made popular largely by the works of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. What we know for sure is that humans are NOT robots. We do not evaluate choices and make decisions in completely ‘rational’ ways. We are prone to error, bias, and heuristics — rules of thumb developed over time. Yet, we think of ourselves largely as ‘good’ decision makers. We often tell others we are undeniably “objective.” We certainly weigh all the evidence and “let the data lead us to the (correct) answer.” Work by Jonathan Haidt — and hundreds of others — say otherwise.

Jonathan Haidt, a behavioral ethics researcher at NYU, demonstrates that our decisions are confounded by our environment and the limitations (or perhaps more accurately, adaptations) of our mammalian brains more often than we’d like to admit. In his 2001 article, ‘The Emotional Dog Wagging the Rational Tail,’ Haidt shows how our decisions are pulled like gravity toward choices influenced by our environment. Just knowing we will interact with someone who holds view X will influence our attitude toward their view. For friends, this effect proves even stronger. As shown in laboratory studies, knowing how a friend views subject X shortcuts our individual processing methods and bends our view toward theirs. One must remember, we evolved into communal creatures because those groups who did so survived in greater numbers than those who did not. With community comes a certain deference toward compromise and, therefore, a tendency toward being agreeable.

So what does this mean for both teams at the center of President Trump’s impeachment trial? First of all, while we hold the false belief that we are, we are definitely not rational beings and largely not open to persuasion via logical argument. Furthermore, our judgment is significantly influenced by the opinions of the people surrounding us. Practically speaking, this means each senator will be influenced by the opinions of his or her closest colleagues, like-minded media outlets, and important constituencies.

The Power of Emotion; Confirmatory Evidence; In-Group/Out-Group

Before moving on to addressing a few antidotes to these behavioral flaws there are just a few more we need to add to the list, the first being the power of in-group/out-group thinking. When we consider ourselves to be a part of a group it’s like being in a physical tribe. We take certain actions to protect the tribe from threats and other actions to promote its ‘goodness,’ because if we didn’t believe the group to be inherently good, why would we be a part of it? And if we did believe it to be good, why wouldn’t we defend it? Notice any motivated bias here? Protecting our tribe, therefore, necessitates the discounting of any potentially harmful information, particularly if it originates from a rival out-group and regardless of its validity. Not only do we discount harmful information, but we over-inflate the value of confirmatory information. Unlike say a food inspector who might sample a hundred items from a food manufacturer before being convinced of their safety, we sample one, maybe two if we’re feeling really objective, and if we enjoy the taste, we rationalize that the rest must be safe as well.

Last but not least, and I know none of us likes to hear this but, when it comes to decisions which include deeply-held values or morals, our decisions are often made well in advance of our evaluation of the evidence. Professor Haidt and his team have shown that our moral and even political convictions evoke emotional responses in our brains leading to a ‘gut’ judgment, which is then rationalized post hoc. The long story short here is that, when confronted with a moral or values-driven dilemma, our emotions decide for us and we’re left to explain and attempt to rationalize our choices even if sometimes our conclusions are perplexing even to us, i.e. we’re at a loss for words.

Another Person’s Shoes (aka WWJD)

Okay, so now that we know the inadequacies of our decision making processes and the futility of rational argument, how do we open our own minds and the minds of others to more accurate evaluation? The first method is as old as I can remember and it starts with, “imagine yourself in _____ shoes,” also known as the ‘what would Jesus do?’ (WWJD) method. Perhaps this route of argumentation is so old because it’s effective. Getting you or someone you know to take on the mental role of someone else, i.e. acting, evokes in us/them empathy — another one of those community-based human traits. Empathy, also called the perspective taking of others, has been shown to draw human cognition away from the automatic processing of information, which can lead to error and bias, and toward a slower, more robust evaluation of information and choices.

Framing & Moral Foundations

The second method which is proving to be effective is the identification of another group’s moral foundations. In their work on Moral Foundations Theory in 2007, researchers Jesse Graham and Jonathan Haidt found the subscription to political party closely correlated with individual subscription to a handful of moral values. Specifically, they found ‘liberals’ scored highly on ‘individualizing’ values such as ‘care’ and ‘fairness,’ while conservatives scored high on ‘binding’ values such as ‘authority,’ ‘loyalty,’ and ‘sanctity.’ They hypothesized and found that arguments made from one group to another were often more effective when the arguers framed their message in terms of the other group’s moral values than when framed in values similar to their own.

Concluding Remarks

Overall, our collective research on judgment, decision making and ethics indicates that, for the impeachment trial at hand, rational argument will be largely ineffective at changing minds and votes. Rather, each side should utilize those methods proven to expand our choices and slow down our processing of important judgments: the WWJD Method and Moral Framing. Each of these methods makes use of our adaptations as community-loving, values-driven humans to our benefit instead of our detriment. While we may still share many traits and cognitive abilities with our ancestors, one, however, sets us apart: our ability to self-evaluate, i.e. metacognition. If they’re wise, our political leaders and their appointed teams will go beyond logical argument and use what truly makes us human to appeal to more empathetic reasoning — on both sides of the aisle — and bring this turbulent moment in our politics to a just resolution.


Political · Historical · Behavioral · Practical ||…

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