How Hard Is It to Change a Mind?

Science has now all but proven that facts cannot sway political opinion. But what can?

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Jan 19 2017, 7:22pm

The question of how to change a mind—or get someone to hop the political fence—has likely never been more important, or discussed more frequently, than in today's age. Last year, despite a constant series of bombshells about Donald Trump's evasion of taxes, allegations of sexual assault, racism and xenophobia, and his ties to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the billionaire reality star was—with stunning support—elected to highest office in the world, based almost entirely on egregious lies, political theatrics, and unhinged emotion.

Almost 400 years earlier, renowned English philosopher Francis Bacon published one of his most notable pieces of work— Novum Organum. Within it, Bacon made a statement that, when viewed through the correct lens, reflects the modern climate of political debate quite perfectly.

"Once a human intellect has adopted an opinion (either as something it likes or as something generally accepted), it draws everything else in to confirm and support it," Bacon wrote, describing the phenomena now widely described as "confirmation bias" or "the backfire effect."

"Even if there are more and stronger instances against it than there are in its favor, the intellect either overlooks these or treats them as negligible or does some line-drawing that lets it shift them out of the way and reject them."  

Imaging results from Kaplan's study show high activity in regions of the brain associated with emotion and identity when participants were challenged on political belief.

Since then, scientists have dedicated a lot of time to studying human psychology, and the way in which people accept convenient lies. Last month, a paper published in Scientific Reports detailed the way in which humans, when challenged with facts that dispute their own conceptions of the truth, actually become more entrenched in their political belief—not less.

The study tested participants in two ways: first, it presented statements to the participants that were devoid of politics. "Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb," for example, was one such statement. For the most part, participants agreed—citing the history they were taught in school and the commonly-held belief that Edison really did create the light bulb.

The researches presented seven more statements similar to this, and then presented evidence that contradicted each statement.

"Edison might have patented the lightbulb, but there were earlier examples of others who had created forms of lighting via electricity long before Edison made the incandescent," Jonas Kaplan, lead author of the study, told me, describing an example of conflicting evidence presented to the participants. When presented with this evidence— which Kaplan notes is actually untrue and purposely misleading—most participants reported to have changed their belief that Edison was the principal inventor of the light bulb.

"In some way, we were able to convince them of complete lies," Kaplan told me. "We found that [the participants] almost always saw the other side as a revelation, and not an insult to their intelligence."

The second portion of the study involved the same process of eight statements and eight conflicting arguments—except, this time, the statements were political.

"The US should reduce its military spending"—just one example Kaplan described—set off a reactionary response in subjects, which were recorded via MRI scans of the participants' brains.

"With the political portion of the study, we saw lots of activity in the amygdala and insular cortex. These are the parts of brain heavily associated with emotion, feelings, and ego," Kaplan says. "Identity is inherently political, so when people feel like their identity is being attacked or challenged, they seize up."

Data from the Kaplan's study.

All of the political statements, Kaplan says, were crafted to emotionally incite liberal-minded participants. The researchers (including popular left-wing author and journalist Sam Harris, and Kaplan's colleague Sarah Gimbel) purposely recruited from the Los Angeles area, and screened participants for left-leaning beliefs via self-reported opinion tests.

"I would really like to see what the response would be on the conservative side of the spectrum—just for the sake of it—but the fundamental problem here, I imagine at least, would still be the same."  

Obviously, this can be problematic for any politician or political movement trying to make progress (or at least find some common ground with their opponent). Prime example: during both of Barack Obama's terms as president, the Republicans were chastised for creating a self-induced gridlock of legislative sessions through excessive walkouts and overuse of filibusters. In fact, there was such little compromise in the last eight years that the 112th and the 113th congresses have been labelled the two least productive congressional assignments in the history of the United States.

As Mark Longabaugh (formerly chief strategist for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign) tells me, the modern state of political debate is much like a "cage match of emotions." Policy, once a primary weapon in the ring, is now merely a warm-up for the real siege weapons to win hearts and minds—personality, controversy, and, as Sanders learned in his uphill battle against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, name recognition.

Longabaugh notes that, while Sanders movement ultimately shaped much of the Democratic Party's new platform, many Democrat voters simply could not convince themselves that anyone but Clinton was the candidate for the job. She was, as Longabaugh puts it, the "safe and sure" bet to many, despite the fact that Sanders brought both the progressive policy and fiery prose that could combat Trump's twisted populism.

"If you think about the two candidates who had the biggest impact on their respect parties last election, it was Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. They both had a narrative to tell, and that's the one thing that [Clinton] ultimately failed to tap into," Longabaugh says.

"When Bernie first announced his run, media across the country labelled him as a joke—completely uninspiring. What in fact happened was the opposite. Mr. Sanders had a message—that the working, middle class of his country was suffering and that economic inequality was, in many ways, at the heart of a lot of [American] problems...[Trump], as much as I disagree with him on many things, retained that core economic narrative. He told people there was a problem very simply, and stuck to a vague argument that he would fix it."

Ultimately, however, Longabaugh says that the future of politics is not about changing minds. Rather, it's about getting those who are undecided to join the right side of history in the first place. In context of the election, he points to swing voters—those who either didn't vote, or voted third-party—as the real focus for political campaigns going forward.

A somewhat dreary statement in some ways—an argument that old dogs can't be taught new tricks, and established conservative or liberal voters can't be simply moved from party lines but throwing conventional issues at them. Still, Longabaugh doesn't see it that way. He's actually quite optimistic.

"We don't need to change minds," he tells me, noting the spike in millennials who turned out for Sanders during the primaries as a source of hope for the future. "The real tragedy here isn't that we can't convince opponents to join our side. That has never, and will never be, the ideal political environment. We need opposing minds to find compromise, and we need young people to believe that can happen."

Lead illustration by Jane Kim.

Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.


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