How to encourage people to accept the facts – a scientific method

ignore-factsIt’s a very common challenge – how to battle misperceptions and non-truths. In short, how to get people to pay attention to, and make decisions to support or not support, based on facts and not myths, rumours and misperceptions.

One common approach has been to develop fact sheets and launch education campaigns. But those seldom achieve results. There are several scientific theories for this:

  • Even respondents who are exposed to facts may not successfully process them or update their beliefs due to limits on their attention, motivation, or capacity to understand complex information (Zaller 1992 and McCubbins 1998)
  • Misperceptions may fit more comfortably into people’s existing views – the world makes sense under these myths (Kahan 2015)
  • Directionally motivated reasoning – biases in information processing that occur when one wants to reach a specific conclusion (Lord, Ross and Lepper 1979; Kunda 1990; Redlawsk 2002)

In short, misperceptions are not just an information problem, the threatening nature of certain facts may also inhibit people from acknowledging the true state of the evidence.

More senior communicators have understood the need to drill deeper into the emotional and personal reasons people choose to believe misperceptions, even digging into psychological tacit webs of belief.

A new study by political scientists Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter in the UK takes the hypothesis of directionally motivated reasoning a step further. It makes the assumption many people are ill-informed, not necessarily uninformed.

The study asks is it possible people could accept unwelcome facts in a different frame of mind?

They conducted several different studies with different groups. Participants were asked for their viewpoints on various issues then presented with factual information that clearly and directly contradicted their existing viewpoints.  Naturally, they found a mixed response and often people would reject the “factual” information if it didn’t agree with their existing views. But when participants were first asked to remember an act or deed that they had done well, prior to beginning the study, the percentage of participants more willing to accept information that contradicted their existing beliefs went up substantially.

What does this mean for Communications?

  • Rejection of uncomfortable facts is a form of defensive processing that protects one’s self-identity
  • To some degree, it is the threatening nature of the unwelcome information that contributes to people denying facts they might accept in a different mindset
  • Buttressing people’s self-worth helps them accept uncomfortable facts
  • When people have sufficient feelings of self-worth, they are more likely to accept contradicting information
  • When one’s self-integrity is affirmed in some other domain, people are less likely to respond defensively

If someone is opposed to your viewpoint, and you know you have thorough factual information – don’t tell them how wrong they are – tell them how right they are about something.

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