It becomes particularly apparent at family get-togethers. When people of different generations get into a discussion about current events, they often have widely opposing belief systems. Be it climate change, politics, kids’ screen time, you name it… nobody gets very far in changing anyone’s mind.
It doesn’t matter what facts, figures, and scientific evidence you haul out as proof. If Great Uncle Henry doesn’t believe in climate change, you’ve got little hope of convincing him otherwise. Even telling him 97% of the world’s scientists all agree isn’t going to do it. It’s why we have such a divide in political parties. People cling to their beliefs even in the face of evidence that’s contrary to what they are arguing for.
It’s even worse online. Facebook is abundant with fake news stories. I’m not talking about differing opinions. I’m talking about inaccurate claims that are easy to prove false, such as, “the world is flat.” Try to convince someone that believes this, that the shape of the Earth was figured out a long time ago. They won’t believe you.
But why is this? Why are humans so resistant to change, even when staring in the face of new evidence?
It’s all tied up with a person’s need for social acceptance. We are social animals and we have evolved to cooperate within our social groups. This makes us skilled at justifying our beliefs and arguing our case to others. Though ideal for the cooperation that is required to exist in a social environment, it turns out to be lousy for truth-seeking.
What are the psychological ways that keep us from believing the truth?
- Confirmation bias. This is the wishful thinking that helps to justify beliefs despite all evidence to the contrary. You only listen to evidence that backs up your beliefs and ignore anything that doesn’t support your theory.
- Cognitive dissonance. When facts are contrary to our beliefs, it makes us feel uncomfortable. For example, smokers that have an abundance of evidence that smoking leads to adverse health effects, but continue to smoke anyway. They may feel guilt, shame, and discomfort, yet search for evidence to help them justify their bad habit.
- The backfire effect. This occurs we are confronted with conflicting facts, and rather than looking at new evidence, we instead double down on our beliefs. Stubbornly refusing to change our minds, our belief system grows even stronger. For example, on Facebook, when people were told an article was fake, they tended to share it even more.
The need for social acceptance
People’s motivations in what they believe are heavily tied to their social groups and the need for social acceptance. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, love and belonging needs are third on the list, behind only physiological needs, and safety needs. This third need includes affiliations and being part of a group.
The deep need for belonging was critical for the survival of our species. Getting kicked out of your tribe meant losing access to resources and protection. It’s no wonder that group acceptance can be more important to people than accuracy and facts.
How to overcome the psychological barriers to truth-seeking
If social acceptance evolved to be a more important trait than truth-seeking, how do we overcome our natural tendencies to believe biased thinking? How can you change someone’s mind when they believe a fake news story or some other biased information?
The answer lies in social connection.
Getting someone to change their mind can be equivalent to asking them to leave their tribe. If the flat-earther has built friendships around the flat earth theory, changing that belief means leaving that group. So what can be done?
- Research suggests that helping people feel more secure in their personal identity can help them feel strong enough to change their beliefs. Researchers showed that self-affirmation exercises made people more willing to believe information that went against their political beliefs.
- Friendship is another solution. If someone feels they’re going to lose their tribe by changing their beliefs, they will be a lot more likely to do so if they feel secure and supported. You can’t expect someone to change their beliefs if the result is social isolation. They need somewhere to turn to.
30 days of living with a different viewpoint
From 2005 to 2008, Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me fame had a TV show called 30 Days where for 30 days, he inserted someone into a lifestyle opposite their beliefs.
He sent a Christian man to live with Muslims, a straight man to live with a gay couple, a border security guard stayed with a family of immigrants. And in every single episode, each side grew to appreciate the other and parted as friends, with a new understanding of a completely different viewpoint. And even more importantly, they grew to have empathy for people that are different from themselves.
Obviously, in the real world, we can’t send someone off to live with their opposites for a month at a time. So what can we do?
People are more willing to accept new facts from someone in their group or a trusted leader of their group. You can appeal to people with commonality. We’re all together in the tribe called human after all.
Psychologist Peter T. Coleman has shown people may be more willing to change their minds when having in-person conversations with someone they have built up goodwill for. Additionally, being presented with facts that are complex and nuanced, rather than a simplistic list helps to change minds.
For writers, this goes against everything we’ve been taught for online writing. The advice to hold a reader’s attention in the online world is to keep your information simple, keep reading levels around a 6th-grade level, use simple bullet points, don’t use difficult words. These methods may be excellent for teaching someone how to use a software program, file taxes, or learn about a product. But if your goal is to persuade, these may not be the best methods to do so.
And in your personal life, try to see things from another perspective. Let the person talk, find out why they hold their beliefs. When you share your ideas, don’t just state facts. To change minds, people need to feel a safe space for doing so. Nobody likes to feel wrong and foolish. Sometimes presenting your beliefs, and then letting it rest without an argument, gives the other person time to think about what you have said in a safe space.
This can be a much more effective way of changing minds than engaging in a combative argument. Because as we’ve learned, being forced to justify their beliefs only makes a person double down even stronger on them.
- We’re social animals, evolved to cooperate in groups and avoid rejection from our tribe.
- In-person conversations with someone you like is going to do a lot more to change minds than reading a factual article online.
- Arguing can often cause someone to double down on their beliefs, believing the untruth even more strongly.
- When trying to persuade, don’t shy away from complexity and nuance. Sometimes this is more effective than bullet points of pros and cons.
And none of this means that you shouldn’t speak your mind and stand up for your beliefs. Events critical to our moving forward as a more enlightened society have come about due to civil unrest. The civil rights movements of the 60s, Vietnam War protests, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, LGBTQ rights. These movements all came from people unafraid to speak out. Speaking out is important. It’s changed the world.
But I do believe there was something more going on in each of those movements than someone simply stating facts or arguing against others. And I’m pretty sure that nobody ever changed their minds because someone criticized them on Twitter, or Facebook, or any other social media platform.
To get real change, you have to do more than tell the truth. You have to be someone’s friend; you have to offer social acceptance and affirmation. Until we find a way to understand each other, there will always be a divide.