When Facts Fail: Can We Change Hearts and Minds?


I have a level of faith in human reason and the power of communication that often verges on naïve. It is a stubborn faith, but not immune to being shaken. And, lately, it has been severely shaken.

It’s not that divisive issues have never existed before this time, or that people were always able to understand one another up until now. But the U.S. has become politically polarized to a heightened degree over the past decade. Divisive rhetoric of “us and them” has largely taken over. Hot-button issues including gun control and refugees have become symbols representing entirely different worldviews depending on where one sides, and having a conversation about them without devolving into interpersonal Cold Wars seems nearly impossible. We live in a time when Donald Trump is the Republican frontrunner for president, when no amount of fact-checking has weakened his status, when, rather, the more bombastic his lies become, the more support he garners.

I’ve long been interested in finding effective ways to talk to people with whom I disagree. I try not to go into such conversations with the conviction that I am right and they are wrong; they may have information or insight or perspective that I do not. By exchanging such wares, perhaps we can move closer to one another. Maybe one of us will change our minds. Or maybe we’ll just understand one another a bit better. It’s an exercise of understanding first, and convincing second (if at all).

But recently I’ve found myself embroiled in “conversations” in which I cannot, in any way, understand the other, and he or she cannot understand me. Facts and reasoning hold no sway and we yell across a chasm that grows the more we speak. This is my hell, the opposite of what should happen, a direct challenge to my faith.

The first step is to understand.

Why Do Facts Fail?

Fortunately, those better equipped than I are already attempting to do so. A study conducted between 2005 and 2006, entitled “When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misconceptions,” sought to analyze the impact of factual information on participants’ misconceptions (including the ideas that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, G.W. Bush banned stem cell research and tax cuts increase government revenue). Researchers found that, among the most ideologically conservative participants, receiving factual information about the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the lack of correlation between tax cuts and increased government revenue not only failed to correct their misconceptions, but actually strengthened their belief in them. The researchers called this “the backfire effect.” Among liberals, misconceptions were neither corrected nor strengthened by access to information to the contrary.

The study authors suggest that the phenomenon of “motivated reasoning” may explain why misconceptions were not corrected, and in some cases were even strengthened, by contradicting information. Motivated reasoning is the unconscious process by which people interpret, accept and dismiss information in a way that contributes to some goal, and is the focus of much of Yale Law professor Dan Kahan’s research. Kahan explains that motivated reasoning can have diverse goals, including preserving one’s position within a group, maintaining a certain self-image and abating anxiety or dissonance. There are a number of ways in which motivated reasoning plays out: biased information search (seeking out or giving more weight to information that confirms one’s stance), biased assimilation (discrediting evidence to the contrary of one’s stance) and identity-protective cognition (dismissing evidence that would cause one anxiety or dissonance) are three primary styles noted by Kahan.

In 2015, a study by Kahan et al entitled “Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization: Testing a Two-Channel Model of Science Communication” was published in which researchers analyzed how different types of information influenced participants’ assessment of climate change risk and the validity of a study with which they were presented. In addition to the climate change study, participants in the control group were given an article unrelated to climate change; another group was given an article emphasizing the need to lower the CO2 ceiling; the third group was given an article on the need to incorporate geoengineering as part of the solution to climate change.

The researchers also analyzed whether adherence to one of two cultural views, hierarchical/individualist or egalitarian/communitarian, influenced participants’ risk and validity assessments. Hierarchical individualists value, among other things, human excellence and ingenuity in a way that tends to manifest as support for commerce and fewer government regulations on it; egalitarian communitarians tend to be more concerned about social and economic inequality, and are more distrusting of business. The researchers found that egalitarian communitarians ranked the climate change study as more valid after reading the anti-pollution article, which emphasized regulation of business, than their counterparts in other groups. Hierarchical individualists perceived both the risk of climate change and the climate change study’s validity to be greater after reading the article on geoengineering, which emphasized the need for new technology and human ingenuity.

The study suggests that people are more likely to accept evidence when it is coupled with information that appeals to cultural meanings they ascribe to – and this holds for people on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Portrait of a Gun Owner

I can’t think about the connection between worldviews and hot-button issues in the context of ideological impasses without recalling a recent Vox article by David Roberts about how mass shootings serve as support for both more and less gun regulation among the general public. What I find most valuable about Roberts’ article is his detailed and believable portrait of a hypothetical gun owner who fears gun legislation. He presents to us a white gun-owning man in his 50s:

“When he was growing up, there was living memory of a familiar order: men working in honorable trade or manufacturing jobs, women tending home and children, Sundays at church, hard work yielding a steady rise up the ladder to a well-earned house, yard, and car.

That order was crumbling just as our gun owner inherited it. The honorable jobs are gone, or going. It’s hell to find work, benefits are for shit, and there isn’t much put aside for retirement. The kids are struggling with debt and low-paying jobs. They know, and our gun owner knows, that they probably aren’t going to have a better life than he did — that the very core of the American promise has proven false for them, for the first time in generations.

It’s a bitter, helpless feeling. And for someone naturally attuned to ‘order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity,’ it’s scary. …

Over the last few years, our gun owner has found a whole network of TV channels, radio shows, books, blogs, and Facebook groups that speak directly to his unease. They understand the world he heard about from his father and grandfather…they understand the urgency of saving what’s left of it.

Most of all, with his already heightened sensitivity to threat further aggravated by economic uncertainty, they finally help him see who’s to blame. They show him the immigrants crowding in, using up jobs and benefits that were promised to American workers. They show him minorities demanding handouts that are paid for with his taxes, even as they riot, even as they kill each other and the police. The show him terrorists making a mockery of weak American leadership. They show him elitist liberals, professors and entertainers, disdaining his values and mocking his religion. …

[T]he one place he knows he can draw the line is at his door, on his private property, because he has a gun. He can defend his own. If the minorities riot again, or immigrant criminals move in nearby, or terrorists attack, or some wackjob goes on a shooting spree, or Obama comes for his guns … well, that’s what the guns are for. …”

Roberts isn’t justifying the gun owner’s conclusion here, but he is, I think, providing a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of how understandable fears and values – fears of economic insecurity and violence, the value of hard work (which should pay off) – may develop, with no shortage of influence from various media, into an interpretation of facts that shape a worldview hostile to contrary evidence.

Roberts concludes that the only way to advance the cause of sensible gun legislation – and other hot-button issues that activate what he calls “tribal identities” – is by overwhelming opponents with political force. He provides an account of the gun owner that, while somewhat sympathetic, instructs that we must leave him behind, overriding him rather than attempting to change his mind.

Toward a Different Answer

Kahan’s framework, in which the understanding of facts is based on cultural meanings, points to a more optimist possibility. His study on climate change perceptions led him to advocate for a “two-channel approach” that 1) advances the most reliable information available, and 2) presents the information in a manner that is sensitive to different worldviews. In the study, this manifested as discussing climate change not only from a pollution/regulation angle, but the angle of innovation and market development as well.

The crucial question: Is such a two-channel approach possible with other issues, such as gun legislation, refugees and immigration? What would that look like?

I can’t formulate an answer to those questions yet. But, at the moment, I suggest a couple potentially valuable takeaways from the above that may get us closer.

First, we can seek to understand the values underlying specific political opinions. Even when confronted with what we may consider more far-fetched ideas and interpretations of facts, there may be a value behind these – such as physical security, personal accountability or economic security – that we can at least understand.

Second, we can seek to understand the specific fears and anxieties which may underlie people’s ideas and interpretations. These will often mirror values – fears about economic and/or physical security, feelings of moral decline, etc. And they may be perfectly legitimate.

Going hand-in-hand with the above two suggestions is the need to depart with more common but often inaccurate explanations for people’s disagreements and biases, particularly that “those people” are just insane or stupid. In fact, a 2013 paper from Kahan suggests that some of the most capable motivated reasoners are those who exhibit above-average levels of cognitive functioning; he theorizes that this is because heightened cognitive ability better enables people to assimilate given information into their current worldviews.

One final thing I’ll note for the moment: It’s important to understand that information bias and motivated reasoning are not the exclusive territory of conservatives. This can be a hard thing to keep in mind, especially right now, when particularly vicious lies from GOP candidates make headlines on a regular basis. While they may beat out lefties on the debate stage, among the general public, we’re all susceptible to motivated reasoning. Maintaining vigilance concerning our own thinking, and entering conversations with a bit of humility in this regard, may help us reach some point of understanding with those with whom we disagree.

Entry Points

The proposals above are not the answers for changing hearts and minds. They don’t of themselves challenge the fundamental worldviews they confront; they seek to reach people within them. I think the hierarchical/individualist orientation is harmful to society, that we should work to foster greater understanding of the systemic barriers in place for social and economic justice, that capitalism and the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mindset are not the paths to a just society.

But I am confident that we can’t begin to address fundamental worldviews if we can’t get to a point where we’re at the very least talking about the same world – one in which climate change is a real risk, gun violence is a real problem, etc. These thoughts have brought me only to an idea of how to find an entry point to talking with one another. I don’t think we should ever give up the goal of changing hearts and mind. I just know that we can’t get anywhere near that beautiful, “naïve,” distant, worthwhile goal without an entry point to understanding.

Facts aren’t the only reality, and reasoning isn’t the only cognitive function we perform. Values are real, and our cognitive processes are emotionally attuned. Let’s keep gathering and sharing evidence. But let’s not ignore the valuating and emotional sides of thinking. To be continued, with hope.

Amée LaTour earned her BA in philosophy and politics from Marlboro College in Vermont, where she completed a thesis on secular ethics. She currently works as a freelance writer and plans to attend graduate school for further work in philosophy. She has written for The Humanist, LadyClever.com and Cognoscenti.wbur.org.