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Morning Feature – The Republican Brain, Part III: Changing Minds, a Q&A with Chris Mooney (Non-Cynical Saturday)

May 19, 2012

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – The Republican Brain, Part III: Changing Minds, a Q&A with Chris Mooney (Non-Cynical Saturday)

Chris Mooney changed his mind in writing his book. Can his insights help conservatives change their minds? (More)

The Republican Brain, Part III: Changing Minds, a Q&A with Chris Mooney (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality. Thursday we considered some of the false beliefs held by Republicans, and whether Democrats are equally committed to false beliefs. Yesterday we explored the research on why the two parties are not mirror-images, each stubbornly clinging to opposing false beliefs. Today we conclude with a brief interview with Mooney, and his proposals for bridging the partisan gap.

Chris Mooney is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a contributing editor for Science Progress. In 2009, he was a visiting associate at Princeton University’s Center for Collaborative History. In 2009–10, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Chris Mooney is traveling this week and was unable to join our discussion in the comments. However, he graciously agreed to answer several questions by email:


How much did researching and writing the book require you to “change your mind,” and how difficult was that process for you?

There have actually been several mind changing moments for me here. And in each case, the process is somewhat difficult, but I feel that you have to follow the evidence over time because, well, you respect science too much not to.

First, and like many journalists and many liberals, I was initially resistant to the fundamental idea that liberals and conservatives are just different people. For instance, if you read my Mother Jones article about motivated reasoning that preceded the book, I basically argue there that both sides are biased, end of story, no reason to go any further.

However, the more I read the research being produced by people like NYU’s John Jost and his colleagues, the more I became convinced that they had compiled a body of evidence too compelling to ignore. The evidence came from multiple researchers and disciplines, and it supported the idea of liberal-conservative differences in interlocking ways. This is what we expect to see in serious science, of the sort that points to reliable conclusions. So that was one mind-changer.

The second one is that I initially thought that in terms of how they process information, the key difference between liberals and conservatives would indeed be a difference in a specific mechanism called motivated reasoning. And that’s what the study at the end of the book is designed to test.

Note: Mooney helped Dr. Everett Young design and conduct a study at Louisiana State University to test whether conservatives are more likely to engage in motivated reasoning on any issue – political or non-political – and their initial data do not support that hypothesis. While conservative subjects were more likely to resist new information that related to political issues, there was no statistical difference between conservatives’ and liberals’ resistance to new information on non-political issues such as a favorite athlete, musician, or university. However, Mooney and Young found a difference they had not predicted: conservative subjects spent much less time reading the new information they were presented, regardless of the issue.

But the study didn’t really show this – though it contained some fascinating hints. So as of now, I cannot say that motivated reasoning is the key source of the difference that we’re seeing, between left and right, in terms of how they respond to inconvenient realities.

And in fact, it turns out that isn’t really necessary to postulate that the left and right, on average, differ in a tendency towards motivated reasoning in order account for the results we’re seeing. There are many ways in which they do differ, such as personality and openness to new information (with conservatives less open), or tribal and in-group commitment (with conservatives more group-oriented), that could produce a “reality gap” between left and right of the sort that we actually see in the world today.

So that was another mind changer.

You offer research showing that Republicans find it harder to “change their minds,” at least in terms of new information that challenges conservative orthodoxy and identity. Have progressives’ and conservatives’ responses to your book been consistent with that hypothesis?

Oh yes, absolutely. Note that in the new study reported in the book, we found that conservatives were spending a lot less time reading the essay materials we gave them – and indeed, the conservatives who are angriest about my book show little evidence of having read it.

So, yes: The conservative response to the book, perhaps epitomized by Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, but also Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard, smacks of closed-mindedness. The irony is here is sort of staggering. These people are willing to dismiss an entire scientific field – and it just happens to be an entire field which suggests that they’re willing to dismiss entire fields.

In The Republican Brain you focus on the importance of respectful conversations that identify and build on shared values – what we at BPI call Fred Whispering – and on using evocative and true stories rather than reams of facts. What advice would you offer for advocating progressive ideas to conservatives?

In general what we find is that it is possible, to an extent, to get conservatives to change their views in controlled psychology experiments, depending on how you frame information for them. The real word is not a controlled experiment, though, so whether this actually works very often there is another matter. But based on the experiments, these are the sorts of things you want to do if you want to open a conservative mind about ideas like global warming.

First, have an exchange in person. Interpersonal exchanges always work better and force people to listen to one another, rather than demonize one another.

Second, frame the science in a way that supports this conservative’s core values. So show that climate science is consistent with religious values, free market values, entrepreneurial values.

Third – and this is where liberals inevitably fall short – it would help to, er, be a credible conservative messenger. A religious leader, for instance, or an industry leader. But liberals have far too few of those in their ranks.

Clearly, speaking as an authority that conservatives respect will help change their minds.

You also call on progressives to be ‘more conservative,’ not in policy but becoming better organized and self-disciplined. Do you worry that may prove as difficult as convincing conservatives to be more open to science and/or that practicing greater organization and self-discipline might nudge progressives’ policy ideas toward greater conservatism?

Not really. I think this is unnatural to progressives, just as circling the wagons to defend the team or tribe is natural to conservatives. But the big difference is that by definition, progressives are open to change and trying out new things. That’s the mark of who they are. So they should, by definition, be more adaptable. They should be better able to come up with different strategies when the ones they’re using aren’t working.

I think progressive movements have, for too long, splintered into disloyal factions or rambled a disorganized fashion. In terms of disorganization, I think Occupy Wall Street epitomizes this problem.

But I know that progressives want to do better and are deeply intellectually interested in why they so often do not. To me, over time, that means they are going to embrace this knowledge, look in the mirror, and organize themselves better.


Changing minds: ours and others’

I agree with Mooney that we progressives must become better organized and more self-disciplined in our advocacy. We discussed one example last week: why words like “marriage equality” matter in political dialogue. Too often we adopt the language of Conservative rather than rigorously speaking the language of Progressive. Ironically, in resisting pressure to “repeat the party line,” we often end up repeating the other party’s lines.

However, while the Occupy Movement have not (yet) shown the organization or discipline of the Tea Party – who found and supported Republican candidates for federal, state, and local elections in 2010 and 2012 – they did introduce the phrases “Top One Percent” and “99 Percent” into the Progressive language. Those have been stickier and more effective in pushing the issue of income inequality than President Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s “Wall Street/Main Street” frame.

I was delighted to see Mooney emphasize the face-to-face political conversations that we at BPI call Fred Whispering. It’s not enough to talk among ourselves, online or in progressive and Democratic offline groups. We must also talk with our friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors in our communities, and focus more on forming relationships than on ‘winning’ arguments. We can’t all be religious or industry leader Authorities, but we can often become another, equally convincing kind of Authority … trusted friends.

Finally, Mooney also reminds us to become better storytellers. As we discussed in January, stories are ‘stickier’ than facts and logic. And as Chip and Dan Heath emphasize in Made to Stick, stories better embed nuance and – more important – work as “flight simulators” that better prepare us to take action.

Research suggests conservatism may be the ‘default’ attitude, but history shows that progressives can overcome that if we work together, reach out to people we meet, and tell our stories.


Happy Saturday!

  • winterbanyan

    First of all, my sincere thanks to Mr. Mooney for answering your questions. It was interesting to read of his journey to changing his own mind.

    I will agree that one of the first things we progressives need to do is change our method of operation. As long as we remain individualistic in politics, we can’t form the cohesion necessary to get our message out there and persuade people. We are a herd species, and when one herd appears larger and more certain, we’re apt to join it. Unfortunately, the conservatives, especially the truly right, are dominating the conversation. They make more noise, they speak the same points over and over, and use the same language to do so. They sound very certain, and the volume makes them appear bigger.

    Rounding up our big tent is going to be difficult, but some things are worth falling in line and marching together. If we want a progressive future, then we’re all going to have to put our shoulders to the wheel and push in the same direction for once. Attacking our own side only diminishes its strength. We can discuss our differences again AFTER the election.

    Glad to know Fred Whispering is approved. 😉 I’ve seen it work in my own life, but Mooney’s comments verify what you have been saying all along: initiate an understanding friendship. Then find the grounds on which your listener will actually listen.

    Good stuff!

    • NCrissieB

      I’ll join you in thanking Chris Mooney for the Q&A. He emailed his responses in the wee hours (Squirrel Standard Time) this morning from Somewhere Over An Ocean. Thank you, Chris! 😀

      This is crucial, winterbanyan:

      Rounding up our big tent is going to be difficult, but some things are worth falling in line and marching together. If we want a progressive future, then we’re all going to have to put our shoulders to the wheel and push in the same direction for once. Attacking our own side only diminishes its strength. We can discuss our differences again AFTER the election.

      We need to recognize that however incomplete our gains when we win, we gain nothing when we lose. The notion that Fred will join The Glorious People’s Revolution if we just let Republicans mess things up badly enough for long enough – that we can “win by losing” – is both a false hope and also cruel to those who get ground under when we lose.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • addisnana

    I think this is related to both words matter and how to change conservative minds. I am reading Before the Lights go Out by Maggie Koerth-Baker. She talks about how conservatives in Kansas embrace energy conversation and efficiency with gusto but lock up and shut down when climate change and global warming are mentioned. Her insights reinforce Mooney’s observations.

    I am all for progressives becoming more disciplined about both messaging and making stuff happen. If our intellectual openness and ability to generate options is getting in the way of us focusing and winning elections, perhaps we could just shelf it from now until November and bring it out to play after the election.

    • NCrissieB

      Framing issues well is very important. Conservatives have recognized that for a long time, and use experts like Frank Luntz to develop talking points that will resonate with voters. Conservatives also have somewhat more discipline, so they’re more willing to repeat those talking points and push their frames into the political narrative.

      This isn’t about progressives switching to “bumper stickers,” or “making stuff up.” It’s about recognizing that the words we use matter, and using words (and telling stories) that are both fact-based and also work for how humans actually think. There’s a lot of science to support the idea that humans are not rational, fact-based logic boxes. We progressives need to accept and adapt our methods to that science.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • Gardener

    Thank you for this. Very interesting read!

    • NCrissieB

      You’re welcome! 😀

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • glendaw271

    This was fascinating and will take a couple of readings, there is so much information here.

    Thank you, Chris Mooney.

    • NCrissieB

      There was a lot of information in Mooney’s book. I always have to compress ideas for a Morning Feature series, but this week I felt as if I had to compress more than usual. I encourage everyone to read the entire book.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • mikeinthedirt

    I first experienced this concept in Lakoff’s “The Political Mind” and was stunned by the anecdotal evidence I had unwittingly gathered over the years. Working construction I could not understand the failure to support unionism I encountered endemically; the disenfranchised and economically ‘under-represented’ consistently spoke (and voted) against their own interests. What a revelation. As an engineer I see the glass is twice the size it needs to be, but did not see that reason was an ineffective tool for changing minds.

    • winterbanyan

      Welcome to BPI, mikeinthedirt. 🙂 It’s nice to see you here, and I hope you continue to join us and comment.

      I spoke to a union member who is Republican a few weeks ago. After I’d listened to his problems with Agent Orange, and sympathized and shared his indignation, he said the problem the police had down here was that they lacked a union.

      I said, “Well, I’m sure you follow the news and know which party has been trying to destroy public sector unions.”

      He thought for a few seconds, then reached for the ballot petitions he had refused to sign at the outset because he was a Republican.

      Listening, sympathizing, then finding the wedge really does work. 🙂

    • NCrissieB

      Welcome to BPI, Mike. The idea that working class Republicans “vote against their own interests” presumes they should have the interests we progressive Democrats have for them. Fred Whispering begins with active listening for two reasons:

      First, active listening shows respect and helps build – in us and those we talk to – the sense that the relationship matters more than ‘winning’ the political discussion. In fact you can’t ‘win’ a discussion … but you can lose one.

      Second, active listening helps you identify the other person’s moral values, because he/she will speak from those moral values. Once you find a shared moral value, you can tell a progressive story around that.

      Fred Whispering takes a bit of practice, as it’s not the kind of conversation we usually see or take part in when the topic is politics. But the practice is well worth the effort. You won’t always see a shift in attitudes during that conversation, but you can always “plant seeds of thought” that may bloom days or weeks later.

      Good afternoon! ::hugggggs::

  • mikeinthedirt

    Sorry, meant to thank you, NCrissieB, and Chris Mooney. This went far toward fleshing out the concept.