Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You’re on Facebook catching up with your friends’ status updates about their kids, jobs, lives, etc. when you see a post that’s full of shit. It could be an anti-vaccination meme, a rant about how the Democrats are going to repeal the Second Amendment or a conspiracy theory involving the Catholic Church and the Antichrist. You try your best to reason with your friend and explain why they’re wrong. You might even share a link from either Snopes or PolitiFact. What do you get in return? “Fake news! That’s what they want you to think! The mainstream media doesn’t have the guts to print the truth!” You then decide to just leave the conversation or else you’ll end up being that person who stays up all night because someone is wrong on the Internet.
Welcome to our Post-Truth World, where the facts don’t matter and the truth is what you feel is true. It’s nothing new, of course; we all have that one right-winged uncle who gets all his news from Fox News and World Net Daily. However, with all the propaganda that fueled both Brexit and the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it’s no wonder the Oxford Dictionary declared “post-truth” to be the Word of the Year in 2016. Can anything be done about it, though? Well, according to science, it’s hard but not impossible.
First, let’s get the bad news out of the way: facts alone cannot change minds. This is something social psychologist Leon Festinger found out in the mid-1905s after doing a study on self-proclaimed prophet Dorothy Martin who convinced her cult followers aliens would save them all from the upcoming apocalypse. Whenever her predictions didn’t come true, she kept tweaking her prophecies like Harold Camping, and her followers never stopped believing her. Festinger and his colleagues Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote about their study in the 1955 book When Prophecy Fails, which laid the groundwork for Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. The book’s opening paragraph perfectly sums up why cognitive dissonance makes it hard to change minds: “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
The sad part is it’s not just your racist Republican uncle or religious cult members that are prone to cognitive dissonance; everyone’s guilty of confirmation bias. In a 2016 draft paper, three social scientists took a look at various Facebook pages—both science and conspiracy theory pages—and examined how users reacted with the content of each page throughout a five-year span. The results were that within both types of group, users automatically accepted false information as long as it confirmed their personal narratives, therefore creating echo chambers. “For both scientific information and conspiracy theories,” the study continues, “the more active a user is within an echo chamber, the more that user will interact with others with similar beliefs.” In other words, even so-called skeptics can be wrong.
Now that the bad news is out of the way, it’s time for some good news. Researchers from Cornell University recently looked at the Reddit forum /r/ChangeMyView (CMV) to see what kind of arguments changed minds the most. The way CMV works is you post your opinion about a controversial subject, explain why you believe it, and then other members explain the other side to the issue. What the researchers found was that the most persuasive arguments involved a particular communication style. For example, calm words like “dull” were more persuasive than emotional words like “terrorist,” longer responses were preferred over one-liners, and using different words than the original post were more influential.
One man who’s using the science of persuasive communication to change minds is Dr. Gleb Tsipursky of the Pro-Truth Pledge. He recently wrote about how to combat our post-truth society using rational politics in Psychology Today and gave an example of how to effectively change people’s mind. Shortly after the Ohio State terrorist attack this past November, Tsipursky went on conservative talk-radio host Scott Sloan’s show to debate whether or not profiling Muslims is the solution to terrorism. “As we began talking,” Tsipursky writes, “I validated the host’s emotions, saying it was natural and intuitive to feel anger and fear toward Muslims, as our brains naturally take shortcuts by stereotyping groups based on the actions of one member of the group. However, such stereotyping often does not serve our actual goals and values.” He then went on to break down the numbers of radical Islamic terrorists compared to the number of general Muslims, and how a Muslim registry would only radicalize more Muslims, leaving the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. “In the end,” Tsipursky writes, “Sloan agreed with my points and updated his views on Muslims—not because he felt like being nice and generous and kind toward Muslims, but because he valued his security and safety.”
These techniques might not work for everyone, but they are certainly a start, so keep these in mind the next time your friend from high school claims Stanley Kubrick filmed the fake moon landing.
Trav Mamone is a queer trans blogger who writes about the intersections of social justice and secular humanism at Bi Any Means. They also host the Bi Any Means Podcast and co-host the Biskeptical Podcast.