The Science of Persuasion

The other day I gave you a transcript from a lecture. The article was titled Why People Defend Their Dogma. At the end I promised a follow-up with some practical advice. And here it is. They did another episode of Reasonable Doubts, Episode 70, where they talked about how to persuade people, especially about science. They talked about a professor who has done some studies. I have written up a transcript of the salient parts of the conversation.

Partial Transcript:

37:18 If the goal is not to score points, if the goal is actually to persuade people, if the morally superior goal is to win minds rather than just make people look stupid, then tone really does matter. Psychology has some things to say about how we should best go about trying to persuade people to really, any position, but even more specifically to a scientific position that they may otherwise feel threatened by,  or may conflict with their worldview.

38:07 It's an empirical issue. What is likely to be persuasive or off-putting or not is a testable question. There are people right now researching how you package factual issues and seeing if that affects the rate at which people believe, disbelieve or deny them.

One of the examples of this, there is a researcher who's name is Geoffrey Monroe from Towson University who has done some studies on peoples' willingness to agree with belief consisting information as opposed to information that's inconsistent with beliefs as a function of things like how the information is presented to them.

So he had a piece on Science and Religion Today where he folded this into the debate about, do you alienate people by using blunt language that offends them. The theory behind this that people don't, as most people probably realize, they don't simply make up their mind on the basis of factual, cognitive, cold type calculations. This is one aspect that frustrates us, is that when we are debating with somebody, it quickly becomes apparent that the facts of evolution in some cases won't make a difference, if the person has an emotional investment.

So people hold attitudes because they are linked to aspects of your self-identity. As stated in Terror Management Theory, if you have a worldview that can be threatened, you get defensive. You circle your wagons as if attacked. In the same way, with factual issues like scientific-type things, religious people hold these as part of their broader self-identity.

So if you're saying, "I'm a creationist", you're not just saying, "I favor the arguments for creation", you're saying, "I, as a person, my identity is as a creationist". So if you're attacking creationist claims, you're attacking that person as well, their self-identity. So how do you challenge the beliefs, but don't threaten them on a personal level?

40:14 Geoffrey Monroe did a study that is very sobering, because what he found was that, his particular study used stimuli that had to do with things like homosexuality and mental illness. He had people who thought homosexuality and mental illness were the same thing, and he had people who had the view that there's no connection. Then he presented them both with statements that confirmed or disconfirmed that.

What he found was disturbing. People who's views were challenged by this evidence, so believed disconfirming information, so if I thought that homosexuals have higher rates of mental illness, then I read a scientific article that said the opposite, those people tended to devalue science itself. That is, they rated lower the ability of science to answer questions like that, even beyond that, that it generalized to other issues other than the one that was challenged.

So it wasn't even just, "this is a bad study", or "I disagree with the conclusions" it was that "science itself cannot answer a question like this". They become almost postmodernist. They would say, "well, you can have your science, but that doesn't answer these questions."

People at my university usually reserve two areas where "science can't touch this": religion and things like love or sexuality. They say, "Yes, you can have your data but these things are immune to faith or the wonders of the emotions, but science can't address that."

It seems also that a lot of pseudo-sciences tend to cluster together. You're going to hear on a christian radio network, typically, obviously creationist stuff, but climate denialism comes in there, a lot of times there's a lot of pseudo-science-y herbal remedies that you'll hear late night on the christian talk shows.

It does seem to be that once you distrust one area of science, it's not all that hard to start being more skeptical of others.

42:07 It spreads. So, what Monroe's work is suggesting is the reason that happens is the person has some sort of cognitive dissonance. "My view is apparently disconfirmed by this study, so therefore this study cannot be valid, and studies in general probably aren't valid." They bring out things like, "even scientists disagree" or "facts can be twisted".

What Monroe's broader point to the debate of how information is presented is that often you can change that, or you can blunt that response by packaging the information in a less threatening way. That is, if somebody's emotional factors are involved in this, if they are hurt, or if their worldview is challenged, if you present the information in a way that allows them to maintain part of their worldview, they are less likely to have that compensatory defensive response.

His argument is that you can use language that is relatively more accommodating. Like instead of saying, "we argue" that you instead frame it as, "here's what the data says". Or that you allow them to affirm part of their identity in another area.

So the way that some of these studies work is, let's say you're studying group boundaries like nationalism or patriotism. If you present the information like, write an essay on things that are good about America, and then present them with information that might be challenging, like slavery or something like that, then the person is more likely to accept that information because they've had the chance to affirm their broader values in a different context.

If I'm somewhere talking to a christian face to face, and we're getting into a theological debate, I found myself instinctively but then later deliberately using a lot of morally loaded terms when talking to them. Instead of just saying, "you're wrong on this position, that's not the most valid argument", you say things like, "well, I know you believe in integrity, I know you believe in worshiping god with all your heart soul,  and mind. I think integrity requires us to use the same standards to judge our own arguments that we would others." Now what that's doing, I'm still making a critique of their position, but I'm affirming some part of their moral identity. I'm not attacking them, "you're a bad, ignorant person", I'm saying "you're a person who wants to live a life of integrity. Here's an opportunity to have more intellectual integrity."

45:05 The evidence suggests that if you frame a response within the person's own worldview as much as possible, that it's less likely to be alien to them and they can just dismiss it. For example, about the environmental movement becoming more christianized, or rather that the christian left movement, that if you package things in terminology like "creation carer" or "global warming stewardship", that the persons are more likely to receive that rather than deny that.

The point is that if you frame an issue that is less likely to be threatening, or if you allow the person to affirm other things, like "religion is really great for you, it sounds like it's done great things, but", then that makes the person less likely to have a defensive response where they just say "No, I'm not going to listen"

45:54 So the question is, can we do this in a way that preserves our intellectual integrity? Do we have to lie to them, and coddle them and say, "oh this is really great" when we don't think it is? Or can we frame things and still preserve our own beliefs?

~What follows is the RD guys hashing out their ideas and thoughts, which are interesting. They don't really agree that it's a good way to handle arguments with religious people, but have a listen for yourself to get their full thoughts.

What do you think? I want to mull it over some more, but I think affirming someone's moral identity, appealing to their sense of integrity, would be a good way to go, to not alienate them. But I agree with the guys that winning a tiny little battle isn't really that satisfying. Although part of me thinks it might help, another part thinks it might be harmful, as the guys mention how people mix pseud0-science with real science readily, which isn't acceptable. I also don't believe that science and religion can mix.

It's a delicate issue. I look forward to hearing what you think about it, if you care to chime in.


  1. Humility is a must if you wish to persuade someone to change their mind about something. After being confronted about his argumentative nature early in life, Ben Franklin made a decision to never use absolute terms and to find something to validate about what someone believes prior to sharing his perspective on a particular aspect of the subject in question. This helped him to become of the most influential leaders in recorded history.

  2. [...] some interesting and, I think, quite good advice and commentary over at Heaving Dead Cats on framing and persuasion — particularly with regard to talking to creationists and other [...]

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