"When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?" asked Keynes.
And there is no greater praise in modern politics than to call a policy "evidence-based".
But does political argument really work like that? I think not.
An article on the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog today analyses a study published in the journal Discourse Processes:
The researchers assessed 120 student participants for their prior knowledge and attitudes to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their need for dietary purity, measured by items like “I often think about the lasting effects of the foods I eat.”
This was the key variable of interest because it was intended to tap into how important food purity was to the participants’ sense of identity. The researchers specifically wanted to find out whether this identity factor would influence how people felt when their beliefs were challenged, and whether they would comply with, or resist, the challenge.
After the researchers gave participants scientific information worded to directly challenge anti-GMO beliefs, those with higher scores in dietary purity rated themselves as experiencing more negative emotions while reading the text, and in a later follow-up task, they more often criticised GMOs. Crucially, at the end of the study these participants were actually more likely to be anti-GMO than a control group who were given scientific information that didn’t challenge beliefs: in other words, the attempt to change minds with factual information had backfired.The blog suggests that such fact-based arguments are most likely to backfire when people's sense of identity is threatened.
I am reminded of something Richard Rorty says in his Irony, Contingency and Solidarity:
All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes. They are the words in which we tell, sometimes prospectively and sometimes retrospectively, the story of our lives. ...
A small part of a final vocabulary is made up of thin, flexible, and ubiquitous terms such as “true,” “good,” “right,” and “beautiful.” The larger part contains thicker, more rigid, and more parochial terms, for example, “Christ,” “England,” “professional standards,” “decency,” “kindness,” “the Revolution,” “the Church,” “progressive,” “rigorous,” “creative.” The more parochial terms do most of the work.And it is these thicker, more parochial concepts that can be threatened when another cites facts in disagreeing with you.
What to do?
Three years ago I blogged about a couple of studies that, in effect, appealed to people in their own thick, parochial vocabulary to change their minds. That post was helpfully summarised in an article on Wired:
Jonathan Calder on his politics blog, observed that LGBT groups in America won over voters by discussing their quest for equality not in aggressive demands for equal rights, but with language conservatives would refer to their own marriages: love, commitment and family.
Similarly, a press release from The Association for Psychological Science found that talking about climate change in terms of 'purity' and 'sanctity' of Earth could win over those with conservative morals, traditionally unconcerned with climate change.The implication of all this, I suspect, is that if we want to persuade people who are tempted to vote Leave to vote Remain, we should frame our arguments in terms of concepts like patriotism and the continuity of British history and not laugh at them and call them "fruitcakes" - as this blog is prone to doing.