Avoiding Filter Bubbles, Tribes, and the Backfire Effect

One Saturday in 1983 I was out canvassing for Greenpeace. I knocked on the door of a mansion in Marblehead, Massachusetts and braced for the worst. I didn’t like the look of this place. Canvass long enough, and you’re able to do an instant visual demographic prediction of who is going to open the door, and how likely you are to get a donation. The indicators that I was going to walk away empty handed? The car in the driveway was a Mercedes rather than a Volvo. No bumperstickers. The dog was doberman rather than retriever. The newspaper tube at the end of the very long driveway, complete with marble lions, was for the Wall Street Journal. And sure enough, within seconds of the door opening my suspicions were confirmed: the owner was a Reagan Republican. Nevertheless, ten minutes later I was walking back up that drive with a check for $100 to help fight acid rain. Not to save forests or out of love of the planet, but because it was ruining the finish on those imported Carrara marble lions at the end of the drive — a point he raised, not me!

A few things strike me about this story. One, the 80s were a simpler time, when an environmental activist organisation could pull support in the US from a wider range of the political spectrum. I also had donations from right-wing conservatives who viewed the stance Greenpeace took against Russian whaling on the high seas as excellent work — because it aligned with their anti-soviet views. From Republican duck hunters who didn’t like chemicals pouring into the local rivers — because it poisoned the food source of their prey. From Daughters of the American Revolution who thought highly of work to save harp seals — because their little faces reminded them of their pet poodles. In every case, the story of why they should support Greenpeace was one which didn’t involve changing their minds, but reinforcing their own values.

These days, the idea of a US Republican of any stripe supporting environmental activism with a Greenpeace brand for any reason seems practically impossible to imagine — the lines have hardened, the tribes have congealed.

The second thing to remark is that that’s a shame.  Environmentalism and the survival of the planet’s life support systems really ought to be a cross-cutting issue, regardless of your view on economics or social issues. As environmentalists, we should be actively challenging any confines that limit people’s sense of agency or involvement or welcome or eligibility to our cause. If a right-wing conservative wants to buy an electric car for nationalist reasons of oil independence, that car’s contribution to the reduction in carbon footprint is no less valid than one bought explicitly for the sake of the planet. Action against climate change cannot continue to be a single-party issue, or a differentiator between left and right.

In part one of this series we talked about the backfire effect and how facts that contradict a core belief can actually reinforce that belief. We’ve seen decades now of evidence for this in the failure of climate data to convince the right in the US of the urgent need for climate action. So how do we, as environmentalists, convert all those conservative minds to progressive values?

We don’t. We can’t. And we shouldn’t try.

One thing I learned from Jonathan Haidt’s excellent The Righteous Mind was to recognise that the tug of war between conservatism and liberalism is as old as the human journey — and one of the resilience factors which meant that journey didn’t end millions of years ago. It’s an essential struggle, with important values at play on both sides even when it’s hard to accept someone who holds values that don’t look like our own.  But is it just me, or does anyone else get the sense that there’s an evangelical stridency that’s crept into our politics, somehow rooted in an unspoken belief that each side thinks they can make the earth clean of the other’s foolhardy ideas?

We will only move forward, progressives and conservatives, tugging each other this way and that, recruiting across the boundaries of our tribes now and then, if we stop asking either side to utterly rebuild its world view from scratch. The polarisation and stagnation evident most clearly, but not exclusively, in US politics today is the common enemy. We won’t survive a world in which conservatives can’t accept the need for rethinking the way we feed and fuel the earth, or a world in which progressives can’t accept that an event like Trump’s election isn’t an anomaly fluke of bigotry but a genuine expression of a need for system’s change.

The good news from behavioural economics is that we don’t have to change any minds. We only have to change behaviours, which is far easier. But where we do want to change minds, we really ought to pay more attention to the science of how that happens.

In part 3 of a recent You Are Not So Smart podcast, Stephan Lewandowsky takes us through his advice from The Debunking Handbook, his guide to the psychology of avoiding the backfire effect when presenting facts that threaten core beliefs.

I’ve gleaned a set of how-to points from his work and that of others who are hoeing this same row:

1) Abandon the “Information deficit model.” Seriously, my fellow ecofreaks, put down the chart and walk slowly away from the report. The problem is not a lack of information. We’ve been stacking reports on one side of the see-saw a mile high and expecting it, with every new page, to tip in our favour for decades. The other end? It’s bolted to the floor. We need a wrench, not more downloadable PDFs.

2) Focus on undecideds, not skeptics. We all build our Jenga towers differently. Some facts are like the blocks that are essential to the structure’s integrity. We’ll resist anyone pushing them out of the stack at first prod. Others are loose, and can slide out without tearing down our sense of who we are and the political or social class that we identify with. Don’t argue with the hardcore — the fact you are challenging sits right at the base of their tower. Seduce the center.

3) Join someone who disagrees with you in a joint attempt to solve a mystery, rather than position yourself as persuading. An exchange of opinions which is predicated on me exchanging my opinion for yours is going to make me put up a wall. And think about how I’ll make you pay for it instead of listening to your case. If we’re in it together as equal partners, well let’s roll up our sleeves and get to it.

4) Framing. Vocabulary. Triggers. Mention “the environment” or “nature” or “the planet” as reasons to not frack the english countryside and you’ll win over everyone who already agrees it’s a bad idea. That’s called wasting your time. Speak of “the sanctity of the landscape” and you’ll bring conservatives to your side. My go-to guy on this is George Marshall, founder of Climate Outreach. Check out his pointers about how to talk to a conservative about climate change.

5) Change behaviour to change opinion, not the other way around.The mind’s need for consistency means people will change their opinion on their own. Chris Rose uses the example of how peer pressure in a neighbourhood to set a recycle bin at the curb can make people who don’t care about the environment put a bin out — first the early adopters out of a love of being trend-setters and later by the bulk of the bell curve not to be different from the rest of the community. As if magically, if you compare the percentage of people who consider themselves environmentally aware before and after they’re putting bins out you’ll see a spike. And a change in attitude about other environmental issues. We like to think that if we make people care about the environment they’ll recycle. Instead, the process is more commonly: “Wait… I recycle, therefore I must care about the environment.” (They forget that the real reason might have had more to do with Bridget next door…)

6) (OK, now take a deep breath because this one is hard.) Make someone feel GREAT about their values. Make them feel confident that they’re right about everything except the thing you’re trying to change. Take identity off the table, and people are more likely to embrace new thinking.

7) If you’re trying to undermine a myth with a fact, don’t mention the myth you’re trying to debunk, only the fact you’re trying to plant. Repeating the myth reinforces it.

8) Don’t overkill. If one fact is enough, two might completely undermine your case. If you’re explaining why you didn’t go to a party, a sick child is fine. A sick child and a flat tire sounds fishy.

9) Replace the table leg you are taking away. This one’s complicated, but centres on people’s preference of an incorrect model to an incomplete one. Tell me that the cause of Trump’s success wasn’t a bigoted backlash to a black president, and you absolutely have to give me an alternative reason I can put in its place, or I’ll put that leg right back to keep the table from tipping, even if you demonstrate it to be statistically incorrect. The psychological study at the root of this is the Warehouse Fire, where subjects were told about a blaze that started in a closet full of old paint. That fact was later corrected to say that initial reports were wrong, and the closet turned out to be empty. Nonetheless, more than half of those who heard the story recounted it later as being started “in the closet with the paint cans.” They completely ignored or forgot the correction. UNLESS they were told there was another closet filled with oily rags. Nobody blamed the paint cans any more.

10) Get out of your own bubble. Practice changing your own mind. Look at the world through the eyes of a different point of view. I’ve been consciously practicing this of late and have found a couple tools really useful. One is AntiPersona, and app that lets you choose any twitter handle and see the world as they see it: to adopt their bubble. It’s a very strange and trippy experience. (Donald Trump — who barely follows anyone — sees a twitter stream dominated by Piers Morgan tweets)

Examine your own beliefs with the same ferocity that a skeptic would. Visit the brilliant (and expertly moderated) Change My View subreddit, where redditors make a declarative statement and invite argument that might change their mind. Delta points are awarded for arguments that shift someone’s opinion and gathered in a Deltalog — a fascinating resource for argument research.  It geing Reddit, you can post from your own viewpoint, or you can take on a conservative persona with a throwaway account and practice arguing as effectively as you can from the opposite viewpoint. Or grab Candid, a forum app in which opinions are posted without any identity consistency, and practice being the most convincing conservative you can.

And then step out of the bubble and the virtual. Think deeply about how you came to believe what you believe, think about the human experiences that shaped your values, and tell that story face to face with someone who thinks differently.

In Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything by Becky Bond and Zack Exley, two Bernie Sanders organisers who helped catalyze a campaign that should have been over in two weeks into an ongoing revolution in the Democratic party, dismiss out of hand the traditional tools of political persuasion. They tell us the gold standard isn’t media buys or television time or polls or billboards or magazine ads. The  tell us that “the gold standard in any campaign for changing hearts and minds is a personal conversation between a volunteer and a voter at the door or on the phone.”

And the gold standard for those conversations? The conversion story: the story of how I came to believe what I believe told as a human tale of discovery. Not a flurry of facts about why you should believe what I believe, but a narrative that describes a true personal journey, one that speaks to a shared set of values with your audience. It’s the personal story at the heart of Marshal Ganz’s Story of Self, Story of Us, Story of Now formula for purposeful storytelling.

It’s not the facts that win the day. It’s a story well told that reveals a set of values that connects the storyteller, the story, and the listener and reminds us of what makes us one rather than what makes us different, and then opens the door to a conversation of how we can move forward mindful, respectful, and genuinely rejoicing in those differences.


If you’d like to hear more about story as theory of change, join me for a day-long workshop in London on March 21st. Register here. 

3 thoughts on “Avoiding Filter Bubbles, Tribes, and the Backfire Effect”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.