We’re all familiar with the feeling of cognitive dissonance, when suddenly we’re forced to hold two contradicting ideas in our heads. Maybe we’ve just heard unflattering news about someone we respected, or have been presented with facts that challenge a deeply held worldview. As any communications expert will tell you, we tend to deal with this kind of dissonance by simply rejecting the new information as incorrect, unreliable, or purposefully misleading.
NPR recently ran a story on this topic that went a little deeper, exploring how partisan beliefs interacted with challenging facts. Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan and Georgia State’s Jason Reifler began looking into why it is, for instance, that Democrats currently believe the president has little control over gas prices, while six years ago they believed that President Bush could do something to lower them. Republicans have just as predictably switched position on this issue. Partisans, it seems, can reject facts they earlier believed – facts that probably don’t mean much to them, really – in order to stay aligned with their party loyalty.
Party loyalty is one way to describe a more deeply held worldview, but I think an even better term is core values. We belong to certain political parties because they have become a stand-in for those values. So we reject or accept facts that question or support our party loyalty (the president has little control over gas prices) because doing so reinforces our belief that our core values are right. And that we are right. President = party = core values = core identity. So it’s important to us that our party's president does the right thing.
So how do we approach audiences armed with facts that are likely to contradict their firmly-held beliefs? NPR reports:
Nyhan and Reifler hypothesized that partisans reject such information not because they're against the facts, but because it's painful. That notion suggested a possible solution: If partisans were made to feel better about themselves — if they received a little image and ego boost — could this help them more easily absorb the "blow" of information that threatens their pre-existing views?
Nyhan said that ongoing —and as yet, unpublished— research was showing the technique could be effective. The researchers had voters think of times in their lives when they had done something very positive and found that, fortified by this positive memory, voters were more willing to take in information that challenged their pre-existing views.
Interesting, and useful if you’re talking one-on-one and know your subject enough to evoke such specific memories. But what about messaging to the masses? I think the answer is values again. By appealing to people’s notions of what we as a country hold dear, and how those values make us our best selves, we give them a bit of an ego boost.
For instance, the topic of immigration can cause many audiences a fair amount of cognitive dissonance. The dominant narrative tells us that many immigrants are criminals just for being here, and are taking jobs from native-born Americans. Of course, the facts don’t support either of these storylines. But many an immigration advocate will tell you that simply relaying to folks that being here without papers is a civil, not criminal, violation; or that study after study shows that immigrant workers have no affect on unemployment rates, does not change minds. But what if we made people feel a little good about themselves first? Could they better handle the dissonance?
We could start by reminding people why immigrants want to come here –for opportunity, because of our freedoms, to be a part of something we all love. We can remind people of the other aspirations that most of them believe make this country great: our values of treating people equally and fairly, our values of community and voice, our ambition to make things better and try new things.
Now clearly, those stories can go in a number of different directions and cause their own dissonance, particularly among progressives. Sure, we value equality, but then why do we stand for income and racial disparities? And doesn’t our ambition sometimes cause us to leave whole groups of people behind? No, we don’t always live up to our aspirations. But they’re still good ones. And they do make a lot of people feel good about the country, and perhaps as an extension, themselves.
Like any messaging strategy, opening conversations with values is no silver bullet guaranteed to ease the way for all challenging ideas. But if we know that throwing facts at people doesn’t work (and actually pains them), we need to rethink how we use those facts. Otherwise, they’re not just useless, but actively harmful to the cause.