Emotions are stronger than facts: Deal with it

by Doug Downs, managing partner

I was reading an article the other day about what the author called “Radical transparency” in Stakeholder Engagement. The overall premise of the article was that with social media and Internet search engines today stakeholder engagement has become far more complex than perhaps just 10 or 20 years ago. I agree with that; opposition to projects and activist groups are easily organized – including swapping strategies and key messages in different jurisdictions.

Then the author wrote “In this age of transparency, the best way to combat conjecture and emotion is with facts and logic.”

My brow furrowed. That’s certainly not my experience.

Honesty and facts are important – but in my experience, fighting emotion with facts and logic can be like throwing gasoline on a fire.

In 1950, Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger wrote “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts and figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to his logic and he fails to see your point.” This was his summation after a famous case study in psychology involving a Chicago-area cult whose members thought they were communicating with aliens who would come save them the day the world was supposed to end. When the cataclysm didn’t occur, members of the group rationalized they had been spared at the last minute by God due to their willingness to believe in the prophecy.

When people are confronted by facts their emotions don’t agree with, they tend to reject the alternative conclusions due to motivated reasoning. Rather than objectively consume factual information, we filter it in accordance with what we already believe.

When we think we’re reasoning – we’re rationalizing
When we think we’re being scientists – we’re being lawyers

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience. Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion. Not only are the two inseparable, but our feelings about people, things and ideas arise much faster than our conscious thoughts.

When you think about it, it’s a basic human survival skill to push threatening information away and pull friendly information close.

So how do you respond to strong emotion?

  • Respect emotion as something that counts. It’s likely what’s being expressed is the result of a series of incidents, beliefs or understandings. You need to listen. Often companies will embark on “education campaigns,” to try to get emotional audiences to consider the facts and change their minds – these seldom succeed.
  • Leverage whatever pre-built trust you’ve established with your stakeholder group. If you don’t have that, you’re a stranger and we’re taught at a young age what to think of strangers.
  • Build good engagement with people. Many of the companies we work with have adopted the term “meaningful consultation” into their community engagement plans.
  • Try to understand the real drivers of the emotion. What I’ve found is people are typically driven by how they feel something will affect them personally – will it be fair? Will they have to pay a price others don’t? People are also reluctant to express these emotions (fearing they may be perceived as selfish) so they attack based on other emotions. They will tell you they are upset about A wherein they are really upset about B.

Facts are part of life. Emotions are life.