If our unconscious, intuitive Elephants make our moral decisions and our conscious, analytical Riders are clever enough to deflect inconvenient facts, how can we change minds about fairness? Research shows we need to woo the Elephant. (More)

Fair or Unfair? Part III: Wooing the Elephant (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at the deceptively complex concept of fairness. Thursday we reviewed Jonathan Haidt’s research in The Righteous Mind on how we form moral judgments and what progressives and conservatives mean by fairness. Yesterday we saw how Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow exposes the limits of intuition and reason. Today we conclude with how to discuss fairness with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

“Would you like to walk with us?”

On the way to the park to meet some friends for a nature walk, you encounter a stranger. The stranger seems nice enough – not a threat – and you’d like him to join you and your friends and enjoy the local flowers growing along a stream that wanders through the park.

How would you invite the stranger to walk with you? That example may sound odd, but it’s an excellent metaphor for how we make decisions and how we change minds.

You wouldn’t start by criticizing the stranger’s other plans (“Why do you want to watch a stupid softball game?”). You also wouldn’t start by deluging the stranger with details about the nature walk (“The roses were planted back in 1933, after a decades-long debate with the city council!”).

Instead, you might start with a friendly greeting. After that you’d probably like to seem both interesting and – just as important – interested. You’d want to be a person the stranger would enjoy walking with. If you are, it’s a lot easier to ask “Would you like to walk with us?”

Fred Whispering

And that’s exactly how we should talk about fairness in conversations with people like our archetypal median voter Fred. We call those conversations “Fred Whispering” and the attitudes and techniques are all about wooing Fred’s Elephant … being a person that Fred feels comfortable walking with.

That starts with believing that Fred is more important than winning an argument. If Fred gets the idea that your conversation is a competition – that you care more about winning than you care about him – he’ll either argue back or walk away. Fred’s Rider may be willing to debate the merits of the nature walk, for a little while, but his Elephant will want to be over at the softball field and away from you. Even if you get him to agree that those 1933 roses are pretty, sooner or later Fred will end up where his Elephant wants to be: at the softball field and away from you.

Fred Whispering continues with active listening, because it shows Fred we respect him and because that’s how we identify shared values, like the concept of fairness that underpins so many political issues. Until we understand how Fred feels about fairness – and find a model of fairness that we can agree on – we’re more likely to talk past each other than with each other.

Smoothing the path

Returning to our metaphor of the hope-to-be-friend in the park, you also wouldn’t begin by explaining that you’re in tip-top physical condition and showing off your top-of-the-line hiking shoes. You may be in good shape and those may be the best hiking shoes available … but you’re also telling your hope-to-be-friend that the nature walk is a difficult, dangerous path and for which he may not be ready.

In much the same way, your conversations with Fred shouldn’t be strewn with (usually none too subtle) hints about how brilliant you are and how deep into the policy weeds you’ve waded. It may feel good to present yourself as a deeply-read policy wonk, but if Fred gets the sense that only deeply-read policy wonks can understand progressive Democratic values and ideas, he’ll probably head for that softball field. As political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that people are more likely to change their minds when the change feels comfortable.

If Fred’s unconscious, intuitive Elephant wants to join you on that nature walk, his conscious, analytical Rider usually won’t need reams of facts to find reasons to join you. But if Fred’s Elephant wants to be at the softball field – and away from you – your reams of facts won’t convince his Rider otherwise.

Facts matter, but facts don’t convince people who don’t want to be convinced. To change minds, we must first build relationships. To reach Riders … we must woo Elephants.


Happy Saturday!