Identity, and the Mechanics of Persuasive Conversations

Civility is obviously very important, but do you ever feel like it’s increasingly tough to find common ground? Do you ever look at those big, divisive issues that have plagued American politics — abortion, the death penalty, immigration, etc. — and think to yourself: if we cannot even agree to disagree, how can we ever get to the point where we can fruitfully make policy?

The idea of a civil politics is premised on negotiation: the notion that if I tell you what I need, and if you tell me what you need, assuming that we’re both acting in good faith, we can — we hope — each get some of what we want without trampling the core values of the person sitting across the table. The idea of a civil politics, in other words, assumes that both parties are rational in their decision-making process, and that they want to move forward.

But most of us know, if we’re really honest with ourselves, that that isn’t the way that a civil negotiation works. We all have beliefs of one sort or another that are not strictly rational. And as David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, recently told NPR about vaccinations, fear, or the perception of risk, is subjective. It’s a matter of how we feel about the facts we have, not just what the facts say.

So if our beliefs — and especially our most deeply held beliefs — are in some measure subjective, it does not seem unreasonable that it might take a deeply subjective, possibly irrational form of argument to change our minds.

This premise seems to be confirmed by some new research from political scientists Michael J. LaCour and Donald P. Green of UCLA. In this study that they published in Science in December, 2014, they tell us that contact with people is often as important as contact with ideas if we seek to change minds and hearts — that civil negotiation must be one part polite argument, and one part social interaction.

The idea itself is not exactly new. It is called the contact hypothesis, and it goes back to the 1950s. Social psychologists starting with Gordon W. Allport have asserted that direct personal contact is among the best ways to break down ingrained prejudices — to change people’s minds when their position is not fundamentally rational.

What is new about LeCour and Green’s study is some fine-grained experimental data that tells us that direct engagement with the objects of our prejudices can have a profound impact not just for us in the moment, but for our opinions weeks and months later, and for our friends and families, too.

In the course of their research, LeCour and Green sent canvassers to the homes of 972 voters. Some of those canvassers were gay and some were straight, and each group spoke with the voters about why they should support gay marriage. The result was that five days after the experiment, the gay and straight canvassers each had about the same impact in changing voters’ minds. But that increasingly as time went on, voters who had had a direct interaction with a gay canvasser were considerably more likely to retain a more permissive attitude toward gay marriage. And folks who had secondhand contact with the gay canvasser — friends and family of the voter contacted — were more likely to come around to that point of view as well.

The classical formulation of the contact hypothesis predicts this. It tells us — simply — that the contact has broken down the prejudice. But what’s innovative about Green and LeCour is that their data suggests that contact is most effective when it comes with a rational argument in tow. A group of voters who received a visit from a gay canvasser with a script about why one should recycle (the experiment’s control group) did not, by and large, change their opinion about gay marriage. Or at least not at the same rate.

Green and LeCour’s results, in short, were this: that active contact is capable of producing a cascade of enduring opinion change. That rational discussion of a given issue is important. And that contact with people who have different values is important. But that we are most able to listen beyond our preconceived notions when both of those factors come together.

Returning to civility, we can learn an important lesson from this. That is: when we sit down to speak with people with whom we disagree, we must address them not just as a collection of ideas, but as a complex human being. We must understand that neither our own beliefs nor theirs are completely rational, and that the social interaction itself, not just the the content of the conversation, are invaluable in attaining mutual understanding.

This is clear in the Institute’s expanded definition of civility. It’s about respect as a starting point for dialogue about differences. But this is also a strategic point. If your goal is to change people’s mind about whatever kind of big, divisive political issue, civility is not just window dressing. It is essential to the process.

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