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. 

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