Skepticism, Confirmation, Bias, and Mindsets: The Path Forward

Earlier in the week we pointed out that the same data can be framed differently to support opposite conclusions, and that our cognitive biases cause us to tend to gleefully accept the framing that seems to support our current position, and scrutinize or write off the framing that seems to challenge it. 

This suggests that simply showing someone a certain framing of data is highly unlikely to change their minds: in fact, it might just cause them to dig in their heels.

So what are we to do in our political conversations with those that disagree with us?

There is a way to get people to change their minds. The key principle: make it clear you're on the same team rather than trying to prove them wrong. 

We've discussed that people focus on identity when deciding political positions. By starting with trying to prove someone wrong, we show them that we're part of their opposition, and we'll each be likely to resist agreeing with the other. 

We touched briefly on an alternative path by thinking about discussing politics like salespeople.  Below, we'll elaborate what some of these steps might look like, and why each is important.

  1. Acknowledge that you have your own biases and that the other person might have something to teach you. Even if we're more in the right than they are, it's very likely our understanding of a situation is not perfect, and the other person may be able to provide some helpful challenges to our thinking that help us get closer to truth. Without this attitude, you'll quickly be exposed as an enemy. 
  2. Start with your shared values. In our case of gun control, we might start by acknowledging that we want fewer violent and premature deaths, that we value the liberties of law-abiding citizens, and we want to solve problems within the scope of the Constitution. This establishes that we're indeed on the same side, and our differences are rooted in having different facts, theories, and interpretations, rather than values.
  3. Agree on the question to answer. In our case of gun control, the question may be, "what's the most effective way to decrease the murder rate in the US?" Or maybe we'd ask, "what's the most effective way to decrease the premature death rate in the US?"  If we're hung up on guns specifically, we'd need to find a very clear question to answer about guns, like, "would a certain gun control policy be likely to save a significant number of lives?" or, "would eliminating guns have a significant effect on the murder or suicide rate in the US?" Having a clear question to answer makes sure we're not talking past each other, and makes us into an exploratory team.
  4. Agree on what would need to be true in order to answer the question definitively. This further aligns our exploration. You may notice that this is starting to look a bit scientific: that's intentional.
  5. Start with testable facts, then advance to interpretations or inferences. In the case of gun control, we might establish first whether an increase in gun ownership leads to a higher murder or suicide rate. We might look by state or by country, or both. 
  6. Use your natural skepticism and scrutiny as a helpful tool. Because we're skeptical of analyses that imply the opposite of what we currently believe, our critical thinking will be at its best when our conversation partner draws an inference that contradicts what we think. Use that opportunity to think of alternative explanations for the data, and let that lead you both to find new data to test the alternative explanation. In the case of gun control, it may mean controlling for poverty, or population density, or something else. Make sure you present your skepticism as a critical tool, rather than as an argument.

You might not reach agreement after this: changing our minds is hard, and it takes time. But these kinds of explorations have two valuable effects:

  1. We establish that those that disagree with us aren't naturally enemies; we can get along with each other and seek agreement.
  2. We plant in each other the seeds of new perspectives. These will develop with time and not only give us greater empathy for those that disagree with us (and thus greater capacity to change their minds), but might just help bump us to being even more correct ourselves.