Being intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed is a good thing. Making sure everyone knows you’re intelligent, reasonable, and well-informed is not. (More)

Better Gossip, Part III – Feelings and Facts (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature distilled the topics we’ve covered this fall into talking points we can use in Fred Whispering, conversations with coworkers, friends, family, and neighbors. Thursday we examined how to critique political stories that sound true but are not reliable. Yesterday we considered how to discuss opportunity and risk. Today we conclude with how to avoid Pompous Expert Disorder.

Note: Many of this week’s talking points come from the “Speaking About” sections at the end of each chapter in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. We discussed that book in greater detail over a six-part Morning Feature series ending last Saturday. I have rewritten some of his examples to more directly apply in political conversations.

Facts don’t matter?

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler created quite a buzz with their paper “When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions.” News outlets from NPR to ABC reported on their paper, under headlines like “Why Facts Don’t Matter.” Here’s the ABC story:

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Nyhan and Reifler’s findings were consistent with what psychologists call confirmation bias, our tendency to accept information that confirms our beliefs and reject information that challenges our beliefs. Their findings also fit what Edward de Bono calls the intelligence trap, where highly intelligent people are better able to defend their beliefs – in Dr. Kahneman’s terms, System 2 ratifying and defending System 1 – and thus less likely to change their minds.

System 2 actively rejecting contradictory evidence can leave us more committed to a false belief than if we had not seen the new evidence at all. As part of their study, Nyhan and Reifler gave one group a mock news story quoting President Bush’s claim that tax cuts increase federal revenue, including a correction showing that federal revenue declined after the Bush tax cuts. Another group were given a mock news story quoting President Bush, without the correction. Conservative subjects who read the correction were more likely to “strongly agree” with President Bush’s claim than conservative subjects who did not. Nyhan and Reifler aptly dubbed this the backfire effect.

Facts aren’t everything

The common conclusion from Nyhan and Reifler’s study is “People believe what they want to believe and facts don’t matter.” But that’s a gross overstatement. Their results showed a significant shift in conservatives’ attitudes on WMDs in Iraq, and a marked decline in the backfire effect, between 2004 and 2006. We’re often reluctant to change our minds, but at some point the steady drip of new facts and their growing general acceptance become too uncomfortable to resist. And in a followup study, Dr. Nyhan found that “people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not.”

In other words: facts do matter, but facts aren’t everything. Feelings matter too.

That fits the information we’ve discussed over the past few weeks. Humans are not Econs, and neither are we Factons. Our grassroots efforts to persuade voters cannot be simply about presenting more accurate facts. We must also avoid Pompous Expert Disorder: presenting those facts with no regard for how it feels to hear them, as if anyone with the IQ of an eggplant should immediately agree. Feelings matter, and indeed….

Feelings come first

One of our core progressive values at BPI is People matter more than profits. That also applies when we talk with voters, our archetypal Freds: Fred matters more than winning the argument.

That’s why good Fred Whispering begins with active listening. That doesn’t mean letting Fred talk while we think about our reply. It means giving Fred the attention he deserves, reflecting on what he said as if we had said it, and repeating it to clarify and confirm that we understood. As part of that process, we want to identify and confirm shared values and goals. Active listening and identifying those shared values is not just about the facts, what Fred said or what we’re about to say. It is also – indeed first – about feelings. It tells Fred: “You matter.”

As Dr. Nyhan found in his followup study, that kind of affirmation helps us be more receptive to new information. However, we betray that affirmation if we then charge ahead to tell Fred he’s wrong. If Fred has shared what he believes is a fact, and if that fact is both false and relevant, we do need to present better facts. But we can’t forget Fred’s feelings. One good way to prevent that – and to reaffirm that Fred matters – is to understand why he believes that false fact, and be sure he knows we understand.

A presidential example:

In his speech on the economy at Osawatomie, Kansas, President Obama confronted the false beliefs of trickle-down economics:

(1) Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes – especially for the wealthy – our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, well, that’s the price of liberty.

(2) Now, it’s a simple theory. And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That’s in America’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. (3) But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ‘50s and ‘60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade. I mean, understand, it’s not as if we haven’t tried this theory. [Numbering added]

Look closely at the structure of his rebuttal. In part (1), he repeats the supply-side claim. This makes sure his listeners know that he has heard and understands that argument. In part (3), he rebuts that argument with historical evidence. But the key – and the part we too often omit – is part (2), where President Obama explains why the supply-side argument feels true. It’s simple, indeed simple enough to fit on a bumper sticker. It resonates on archetypes and attitudes so widely-shared he says they’re in our cultural DNA. President Obama doesn’t say or imply that only an idiot would believe the supply-side claim. Quite the contrary, he expresses his understanding of why so many Americans find that theory attractive.

President Obama first affirms the feelings, then rebuts the facts. That sequence matters, for reasons that are clear from Dr. Nyhan’s study and the other research we’ve read over these past weeks. Voters are Humans, not Econs and not Factons. We know we make mistakes, but none of us likes having our mistakes thrown in our face.

We value our feelings over the facts. If we want to persuade voters, we must respect their feelings. That’s not simply part of “better gossip.” It’s where “better gossip” must start.

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Happy Saturday!