Ever noticed how hard it is to convince a person of a new idea? Something such as one sports team being superior to another, that human activity influences global climate, or that religions aren’t actually true?
It turns out, it’s not so much the quality of the information you use, or what facts are presented.
Unfortunately, evidence suggests that balanced presentations — in which competing arguments or positions are laid out side by side — may not help. At least when people begin with firmly held convictions, such an approach is likely to increase polarization rather than reduce it.
It turns out, if a person has already decided on one side of an argument, presenting them with a well balanced argument of pro v. con is unlikely to persuade them. When people already have their mind made up, a presentation of both sides of an argument causes them to entrench further, not to update their ideas,
What explains this? The answer is called “biased assimilation,” which means that people assimilate new information in a selective fashion. When people get information that supports what they initially thought, they give it considerable weight. When they get information that undermines their initial beliefs, they tend to dismiss it.
What seems to matter the most? If it’s not the argument itself, if it’s not the facts alone, what does it?
People tend to dismiss information that would falsify their convictions. But they may reconsider if the information comes from a source they cannot dismiss.
It’s people who they used to think they agreed with that are the most persuasive.
It follows that turncoats, real or apparent, can be immensely persuasive. If civil rights leaders oppose affirmative action, or if well-known climate change skeptics say that they were wrong, people are more likely to change their views.
For example, on global warming: If Al Gore, Bill Nye “The Science Guy,” and Neil deGrasse Tyson came out in a joint press conference and said “Hey, I’m not sure this climate change thing is true,” that would make a really strong impression on most of us.
When Ken Ham announces that he’s got proof of god, nobody cares. If Richard Dawkins made the same announcement? Huge difference.
What matters most may be not what is said, but who, exactly, is saying it.
What’s all this mean for you? In the most practical terms, if you’re still in the closet about your atheism, and you have people close to you that think negatively about anyone different from them….you’re the best person to help change that view point.
You can find me on twitter, @DrDavidBurger