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Research shows that research isn’t good at changing people’s minds.

28/07/22

Research shows that research isn’t good at changing people’s minds.

In Tom's latest blog he explores why it's so easy for us to reject the facts when confronted with "inconvenient" information.
This is a blog by Tom Crompton
Tom is the Founder and Director of the Common Cause Foundation.

To paraphrase George Lakoff, if the facts do not fit your values, the values stay and the facts bounce off. (Okay, so Lakoff was writing about what he calls “deep frames”, rather than values, but the relationship between values and deep frames seems close). When confronted with inconvenient information, it’s much easier – it requires a whole lot less cognitive effort – to reject the facts (“the research is biased”, “there are lots of countervailing views”, “what are facts anyway?”) than to reconsider your values and the ways in which these show up in your understanding of the world.

Although the limitations of the “information deficit model” have been understood by social scientists for decades, it took a long time for this penny to begin to drop among social and environmental campaigners. As faith in the power of facts to change minds has waned, more attention is being paid to “narratives” – and that has surely to be a good thing.

But there’s a challenge lurking here. If you yourself are committed to a frame of human motivation that expects people to optimize their choices based on rational assessment of the facts (the “rational actor” frame) then you are unlikely to be moved by research demonstrating the limited persuasive power of facts.

In our work, which draws extensively on social science research in order to highlight the limitations of the information deficit model, we’re well aware of this contradiction. But that doesn’t mean we know what to do about it!

The problem raises a question about “metaframes” – our frames about frames. As we’ve seen, if you are deeply enculturated in a “rational actor” frame, then research challenging this perception may prove unpersuasive. If, on the other hand, you’re open to revising your understanding of human motivation in light of the research evidence, then maybe that’s because you weren’t all that committed to the “rational actor” model in the first place…

Perhaps there’s an explanation here for why we often hear from participants in our workshops comments along the lines of “I knew this intuitively all along, but you’ve provided me with a helpful framework to operationalise that understanding”. In other words, they appreciate the importance of different kinds of knowledge. They were already persuaded by some more intuitive understanding, and now they are finding our account of the empirical research pleasantly confirmatory of what they already knew.

But we can’t simply jettison facts, or see them as subservient to other ways of knowing. To abandon any notion that facts matter would leave us dangerously unanchored (tumbling into the abyss of the “post-truth” world of right-wing ideologues).

Nor, on the other hand, can we sensibly ignore deeper (“sub-factual”) reasons why people care. At Common Cause we argue for greater clarity about why people care about the social and environmental crises that we confront. Why does it matter to many people, for example, that we welcome refugees and asylum seekers to our communities? And is it really because they have read economic analysis suggesting that immigration is good for the economy?

Presumably the social and environmental concern that almost everyone feels, at some level, arises from a deeper appreciation of what it means to be human – that is, in our capacity to love.

One point at which more rational ways of understanding the world come into play is to understand better how our deeper sensibilities are confirmed and enabled – or, as is so often the case, distorted and suppressed – through the social structures and institutions that we have built: for example, the ways in which neoliberal politics leaves us atomised, encouraging us to focus on pursuing personal gain; or the way in which advertising nags away at our pre-existing appetites to identify ourselves through the goods and services that we buy.

This underscores the opportunity for more experiential approaches to building public support for social and environmental action. So conservation organisations, for example, rather than reminding any audience that will listen just how much money the world is worth, might do better to celebrate connection to others human or otherwise.

But what of the social change practitioners – the communicators and campaigners – who help to develop, contest and deploy these strategies? Are they to be found sitting on high, dispassionately sifting the evidence for the best ways to engage everyone else in the struggle for social and environmental transformation?

Clearly not. They too must navigate between these different ways of knowing and being. As part of this process, many of us communicating or campaigning on social issues would surely benefit from deeper exploration of why it is that we care ourselves. It’s not that everybody – campaigners and their audiences alike – care for the same reasons. But people’s deeper motivations often go unexamined, and careful self-reflection is a good place to start in addressing this oversight.

Common Cause doesn’t have the expertise to help support this kind of personal enquiry. But we’ve teamed up with an organisation that does: Starter Culture.

With them, we’ll be holding a space to hear from people in our networks about how they bring both rational understanding and other ways of knowing to their work; how they navigate between these poles while avoiding the extremes of either.

On Tuesday 6th September from 12:30-1:30pm BST we will hosting a joint webinar with the aim to:

  • Explore the ways in which participants’ “inner” journeys, and their “outer” work can intersect and support on another.
  • Reflect on the strengths and limitations of drawing on social science as one way of beginning to navigate in this space.
  • Hear where people familiar with Common Cause have aligned this work with other “ways of knowing”, with the aim of deepening their insight on different ways to support social change.

We are inviting anyone who has previously attended a Common Cause workshop to join a webinar and discussion which we will host with Claire Milne from Starter Culture.

If you’d like to attend, book your free place here.

If you think you might be interested in attending but want to find out a little more before you sign up, we’d be really happy to have a chat. Please feel free to email Tom on tcrompton@commoncausefoundation.org.

A zoom link will be circulated a few days before the call.

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