But the article then leaps to a seriously erroneous conclusion: “And that undercuts the standard notion that the way to persuade people is via evidence and argument. In fact, head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever.”
In support of this, the article cites studies attempting to change change people’s deeply held but factually wrong beliefs about global warming and the Iraq-9/11 link.
There error here is in assuming that people hold these beliefs because they conform to previously held beliefs and biases. People believe these things because they want to believe them. If someone continues to believe in a link between Ira and the 9-11 attacks, showing them a mountain of evidence to the contrary will never change their mind, because you are not attacking the deep and personal reasons they hold that belief. That belief may be as simple as the desire to see someone punished for the attacks (not blamed, punished), or the need to feel strong after feeling so weak and vulnerable. We were attacked that day and seeing it on TV and hearing all the emotional stories afterwards made me feel so vulnerable, upset and exposed that I want to lash out at anyone anywhere who has ever threatened us. In this hypothetical person’s mind, there actually is a similarity between the Iraq and Al Qaeda. And that similarity forms the link. Proving that the Hussein government was never in contact with the Al Qaeda leadership in no way affects that smiilarity.
Likewise, global warming is equally a threat. Maybe it’s true, maybe not, but I’ve built an enitre life relying on cars, air conditioning, and cheap and reliable electricity and I don’t think I could handle changing all that. It’s easier to say “your science is wrong” then to face a reality: “These changes are scary to me. My job is 20 miles from my work and there is no public transport, and I’ll be stranded without my car. If global warming is real, I’ll have to move away…”
The problem is not argumentation or reasoning. The problem, as in most cases, lies in understanding the real problem. And there is a real problem that affects those people very personally. No one protests tax hikes that won’t actually affect them directly unless they are really really angry, and they are usually really really angry about something else that does affect them directly.
If you want to change a 9-11 conspiracy theorists mind about the government, start by asking the person what their mother/father/teacher/older brother/coach thinks about the theory and what that authority figure thinks of the person’s belief in the conspiracy theory. Because a conspiracy theory is about a very personal anger, resentment, and distrust of an authority figure in their lives that is projected onto the government. It isn’t about the tensile strength of steel at high temperature.
Being a birther is not about birth certificates and hospital records. It’s about fear of the Other (a fear implanted by parents or a social group) where the too-close Other is embodied by a president who doesn’t code as President (not a patrician, not a cowboy, not Horatio Alger poor-boy-makes-good), doesn’t code as “black” (not Ice Cube, Denzel, Oprah, Colin Powell, or Condi Rice), and has an arabic middle name.
These wrong but strongly held beliefs are symptomatic of an underlying personal conflict, and when they are held by a great many, it suggests that the underlying conflict is likewise widepsread.
The way to overcome these beliefs is not through argument and evidence, but through questions that get to heart of the matter for that individual. Only when the issue is resolved for a number of individuals will the pattern among the national demographic emerge.
If the body politic holds beliefs that conflict with reality, and the persistence of those conflicts prevent it from addressing its problems or cause it to stagnate, then we need to put the body politic on the couch.
And you have to ask the right questions. What really upsets them about this idea? What is really the problem inside the problem? When
“Tell me, what’s bothering you today?”