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Argue better — with science.
Anyone who has argued with an opinionated relative at Thanksgiving about immigration or gun control knows it is often impossible to sway someone with strong views.
That’s in part because our brains work hard to ensure the integrity of our worldview: We seek out information to confirm what we already know, and are dismissive of facts that are hostile to our core beliefs.
But it’s not impossible to make your argument stick. And there’s been some good scientific work on this. Here are two strategies that, based on the evidence, seem promising.
1) If the argument you find convincing doesn’t resonate with someone else, find out what does
Whenever we engage in political debates, we all tend to overrate the power of arguments we find personally convincing — and wrongly think the other side will be swayed.
On gun control, for instance, liberals are persuaded by stats like, “No other developed country in the world has nearly the same rate of gun violence as does America.” And they think other people will find this compelling, too.
Conservatives, meanwhile, often go to this formulation: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
What both sides fail to understand is that they’re arguing a point that their opponents have not only already dismissed but may be inherently deaf to.
“The messages that are intuitive to people are, for the most part, not the effective ones,” Robb Willer, a professor of sociology and psychology at Stanford University, told me last year.
Willer has shown it’s at least possible to nudge our political opponents to consider ideas they’d normally reject outright. Last year, in a series of six studies, he and co-author Matthew Feinberg found that when conservative policies are framed around liberal values like equality or fairness, liberals become more accepting of them. The same was true of liberal policies recast in terms of conservative values like respect for authority.
So, his research suggests, if a conservative wanted to convince a liberal to support higher military spending, he shouldn’t appeal to patriotism. He should say something like, “Through the military, the disadvantaged can achieve equal standing and overcome the challenges of poverty and inequality.” Or at least that’s the general idea.
How to sway the other side: Use their morals against them
Willer’s work is based on moral foundations theory. It’s the idea that people have stable, gut-level morals that influence their worldview. The liberal moral foundations include equality, fairness, and protection of the vulnerable. Conservative moral foundations are more stalwart: They favor in-group loyalty, moral purity, and respect for authority.
Politicians intuitively use moral foundations to excite like-minded voters. Conservative politicians know phrases like “take our country back” get followers’ hearts beating.
What moral foundations theory tells us, however, is that these messages don’t translate from one moral tribe to the other. “You’re essentially trying to convince somebody who speaks French of some position while speaking German to them,” Willer says. “And that doesn’t resonate.”
Willer cautioned that it’s still extremely difficult to convert a political opponent completely to your side, even with these techniques. “We found statistically significant effects,” he says. “They’re reliable. But in terms of magnitude, they are not large.”
The chart below shows how well the moral reframing worked for each policy area in Willer’s study. To be clear, there’s only so much that reframing in terms of values can do: It can’t turn an anti-Obamacare conservative into a proponent, but it can soften his stance and get him to listen to counterarguments.