Was my entire career a waste of time?

Before some of you leap out of your chairs to holler out an affirmative to the headline, I’m talking about whether attempting persuasion is a futile undertaking.

Chris Mooney has an excellent article on Mother Jones exploring how people can keep believing in something even when facts and reason should overwhelmingly convince them they are wrong:

This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president (PDF), and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.

It turns out that, when it comes to the inner workings of the brain, reason and logic take a backseat to emotion and preconceived bias.

In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers (PDF). Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

The scientific method is specifically designed to overcome these limitations of our personal inability to seek and discover truth. That’s why peer review and replication are such important parts of the scientific method. Everything a scientist does must be examined and be repeatable by those who don’t necessarily share the same biases.

Which is fine for science. But that turns out to mean diddley for persuading individuals that scientific conclusions are actually correct.

In other words, people rejected the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views—and thus the relative risks inherent in each scenario. A hierarchal individualist finds it difficult to believe that the things he prizes (commerce, industry, a man’s freedom to possess a gun to defend his family) (PDF) could lead to outcomes deleterious to society. Whereas egalitarian communitarians tend to think that the free market causes harm, that patriarchal families mess up kids, and that people can’t handle their guns. The study subjects weren’t “anti-science”—not in their own minds, anyway. It’s just that “science” was whatever they wanted it to be. “We’ve come to a misadventure, a bad situation where diverse citizens, who rely on diverse systems of cultural certification, are in conflict,” says Kahan.

In fact, persuasion attempts often lead to a “backfire effect” that causes people to hold onto disproven beliefs with even greater fervor.

The solution? Don’t start your argument with facts, but values: “In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.”

The brain is a fascinating thing. I think most of us in the persuasion business don’t understand enough about it.

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