6 Strategies for Conversing With Someone Who Has Irrational Ideas
When you encounter, say, some neighbors who refuse to vaccinate their children because of long-debunked fears of autism and mercury poisoning, it’s tempting to throw facts at them. But — as you know if you’ve ever tried this approach — bombarding people with evidence is doomed to fail. If you want any chance of engaging in a meaningful conversation, you’ll need better tactics. Here are six worth trying. We can’t promise they’ll work, but they’ll give you a fighting chance.
Be a good listener and make
As much as we’d like to think otherwise, most human judgments aren’t based on reason, but on emotion, says Ditto, the UC Irvine psychologist. Aim to forge a personal connection that makes the other person inclined to see you as “one of us.” Research by Yale’s Kahan has shown that people tend to adopt beliefs associated with their cultural groups. So look for common ground.
That means listening with respect, says Randy Olson, a scientist-turned-filmmaker and author of Don’t Be Such a Scientist. “Do not lecture. Nobody wants to hear that,” he says. Instead of throwing out a bunch of facts, ask questions. Show that you’re open to what the other person has to say. “Don’t rise above them; approach them at their level,” Olson says. The moment you create a divide (by implying that you’re smart and they’re not, for instance) you’ve lost the debate. Ultimately, it makes no difference how much evidence you’ve got. If you want your message to register, you have to speak it in a voice that’s trusted and likable, Olson says.
Figure out where they’re coming from and devise a frame that speaks to that:
When people cling to irrational beliefs, it’s often because they’re somehow tied to their identity or social group. Whenever possible, present your argument in a way that fits, rather than challenges, the other person’s self-identity, says Julia Galef, co-founder of CFAR. For example, imagine you are trying to convince a friend who thinks of herself as bold and decisive that it’s OK to change her mind about an issue on which she’d taken a public stand.
One way to do this, Galef says, would be to frame an about-face as a gutsy and strong move.
Usually it’s not an aversion to science that motivates people to tout unscientific ideas, but some underlying cultural, social or personal issue, says Rosenau, of the National Center for Science Education. For instance, he says that many evangelicals he’s encountered see evolution as a repudiation of their religious beliefs. As long as they view it that way, they can’t endorse evolution without giving up their identity — and they’re unlikely to do that, no matter how compelling your facts, Rosenau says. The solution? Find a way to talk about evolution that doesn’t force them to abandon their group identity or belief system. “I might say, ‘Did you know that [National Institutes of Health Director] Francis Collins is an evangelical Christian?’ Then we might have a real conversation and talk about what it means to be a Christian who accepts that evolution is true.”
self-worth before knocking down their erroneous beliefs: When your facts challenge people’s self-identities, their immediate impulse will be to reject them — that’s human nature, says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College. When the thought of giving up a tightly held belief feels like a threat to our identity or world view, we’re prone to reject it out of hand.
One way to circumvent this problem is to make the person feel positive about themselves before presenting evidence that might topple their self-image. In one study, Nyhan and his colleagues had volunteers participate in an exercise designed to bolster their feelings of self-worth, such as remembering a time they felt good about themselves or recalling a value that was important to them, before presenting them with information that contradicted their beliefs about political events. The results showed that the self-affirming drills increased participants’ willingness to accept uncomfortable facts.
In real life, this might look more like an exchange that happened between my husband and me while we were backpacking. Coming to a fork in the trail, I insisted that we needed to go one way, while Dave was sure the other way was correct. It turned out that he was right, and I knew he was right, but I didn’t like what that said about me — that I have a poor sense of direction. This notion contradicts the vision I have of myself as a competent person. But when Dave laughed about it, and told me how funny it was that a smart person like me could get lost, I was suddenly able to accept his facts because they no longer challenged my beliefs about myself. By telling me that I can be a smart person and also get lost, he gave me a way to accept his directions and still feel good about myself.
Focus on the facts, not the misconceptions:
When trying to counteract a myth, a natural response is to present and then debunk it. But tread carefully, says Nyhan. Studies show that repeating a misconception in order to disprove it often ends up reinforcing the erroneous idea in people’s minds.
In one study, volunteers viewed a pamphlet debunking myths about flu vaccines. Immediately afterward, people correctly sorted myths from facts, but just a half-hour later, they performed worse on this sorting task than they had before reading the flier. Reading the myths connected them to flu shots in participants’ minds, Nyhan says. People remembered reading those things about the flu shot, but over time they forgot which were true and which were false.
Instead of reiterating myths, Nyhan advises finding a simple, truthful message to present. If you overwhelm the person with a long list of complex explanations, you could invoke the so-called overkill backfire effect that drives your target to an explanation that’s more appealing.
“A simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an overcomplicated correction,” write researchers John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky in The Debunking Handbook.
Ask the person
to explain what
People who feel sure of their position set a high bar for contrary evidence, Ditto says, but often such confidence stems from a misperception that they know more than they actually do, a phenomenon researchers call the illusion of explanatory depth. Break this illusion, and the person may become more open to your position, Ditto says.
A study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2013 found that when people were asked to explain the details of how a political policy they supported would work, their beliefs on the issue became more moderate. Asking people to explain what’s behind their beliefs seems to make them scrutinize what they know, which in turn can force them to recognize the gaps in their knowledge. As a result, they become less sure of their position and possibly more open to what you have to say.
I recently tried this approach with an acquaintance who expressed concern that vaccines would harm her baby. What, exactly, was she worried might happen? Halfway through her attempt at an explanation, she admitted that she wasn’t really sure how immunizations would hurt him, but it scared her to give such a young child so many shots at once. She didn’t change her mind then and there, but she did agree to read some information I gave her to ease her fears.
Engage in person, not in writing:
It’s no secret that people can behave poorly online. When you’re having a discussion in the abstract, it’s easy to set people off without being conscious of it, since you miss the body language and other social cues that would normally inform your behavior, says Chris Mooney, co-author of Unscientific America. “Once the emotions are working, responses are hot rather than cold, and pretty soon everybody’s circling wagons,” Mooney says. It’s more difficult to spiral into mindless rants and name-calling when you’re engaging someone face-to-face than when you’re arguing with their avatar. If you want to have a real debate, Mooney says, “go have a beer. Don’t argue