Our goal is not to change beliefs, it is to change behavior:

In almost every jurisdiction, in order to win political battles, we must persuade at least some non-aligned or “swing” voters. We call them “persuadable voters.”

These Americans aren’t like you and me. They don’t pay much attention to public policy. They are neither staunch conservatives nor avowed liberals. They don’t often read the political news. They don’t even like to watch it on TV. In general, they’re the citizens who are least interested in politics. After all, if they paid attention, they would already have taken a side.

To political activists’ ears that may sound like an insult; it is not. The persuadables are normal people. Instead of focusing on the next Democratic presidential nominee, they are thinking about what to fix for dinner tonight, chores that need to be done next weekend, and how to pay for the kid’s braces next year. Just by reading this blog (or by writing it), we’re singling ourselves out as oddballs.

Sadly, persuadable voters don’t care a whole lot about who wins elections. Every four years, polls for the American National Election Studies ask Americans if they “care a good deal” or “don’t care very much” which candidate wins the presidency. It is clear that persuadables care a lot less than we do.

Similarly, persuadables are substantially less aware of what is going on in politics. The same American National Election Studies show that persuadable voters usually cannot identify which party controls the U.S. House or Senate. When voters don’t know who controls Congress, they don’t know who to blame for congressional ineptitude. And further, when they lack basic political information, they can be led to believe that a lawmaker who backs mean-spirited policy is actually a “compassionate,” or that a tax cut for the rich somehow helps average citizens, or that patriotism means it is okay to harass and discriminate against folks who somehow don’t “look” American.

So millions of Americans don’t know basic political and policy facts. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have political beliefs. Many of them believe things that are completely untrue. The solution, it would seem, is to education voters. And yet, public education usually fails. Why?

No matter how clearly a contrary truth is proven, people rarely recognize that beliefs in their own heads are wrong. Millions still believe that Saddam Hussein played a role in 9/11 and that the U.S. actually found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Millions think that reports of climate change are fictional. Half of Americans feel negative about the Affordable Care Act but cannot give a factually valid reason.

Am I saying that we have to give up all hope that democracy will work? No, but we have to change the way we craft our arguments to voters. We have to realize that people hear what they want to hear. They hold fast to their beliefs, and they’re primarily looking for information that is consistent with those beliefs. When facts are contrary to what they already think, people discount or ignore the facts.

For example, scientists at Emory University used brain scans to study a group of partisan Democrats and Republicans during the last three months prior to the 2004 election. The subjects were given statements by President Bush, Senator Kerry, and nonpolitical people, such as actor Tom Hanks. Each statement was followed by factual information that clearly contradicted it, “generally suggesting that the candidate was dishonest or pandering.” The subjects were asked to consider the discrepancy.

It should be no surprise that partisans denied obvious contradictions for their own candidate that they had no difficulty detecting in the opposing candidate. Yet both Democrats and Republicans responded objectively to contradictions for the nonpolitical control targets, such as Hanks.

Throughout all these questions and answers, the subjects were observed with functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to see what parts of their brains were active. Here’s what Clinical psychologist Drew Westen (author of The Political Brain) and his researchers found:

"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory, who led the study. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” . . .

Once partisans had come to completely biased conclusions—essentially finding ways to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted—not only did circuits that mediate negative emotions like sadness and disgust turn off, but subjects got a blast of activation in circuits involved in reward—similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix, Westen explains.

"None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,” says Westen. “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.”

This is the way everyone’s mind works—it’s not a phenomenon limited to politics. For example, I first believed that people hear what they want to hear, and then I went looking for studies to support my view. (See Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises, a long and very convincing academic article by Raymond S. Nickerson.)

Let’s put it another way. Think of an elephant. George Lakoff tells us that when we hear the word elephant it activates preconceptions in our heads—we are reminded of what an elephant looks like, how one sounds, and perhaps even how one smells. But our preconceptions depend on who we are. For example, when you heard that Wal-Mart was opening up health clinics or offering low-cost prescriptions, this is how you reacted: if you liked the Wal-Mart corporation before, you thought this new information was entirely believable; if you despised Wal-Mart before, your reaction was, “This is some kind of scam to help the company, not the employees or customers.”

Come on, let’s admit that we all have biases! It’s not a criticism. In fact, it’s reasonable for people to formulate beliefs before they “know” all the facts. No one can know everything. But to understand how to communicate our political ideas, we have to remember that everyone has preconceptions.

So the way to persuade is to understand your audience’s preconceptions and where you share common ground with them. Start from a point of agreement and provide voters with a bridge from their preconception to our solution. Show that our policy is consistent with some values that they already hold dear. (There’s lots more about this in our book, Voicing Our Values.)

Finally, keep in mind that in politics we are always trying to get people to do something: to vote, to volunteer, to contribute. If they vote for our ballot measure or send the letter we want sent to their legislator, it doesn’t actually matter if they hold contradictory beliefs in their minds. In fact, the goal in politics is not to change people’s beliefs about facts (which is often impossible), it is to get people to take action on our behalf. That’s usually accomplished by getting them to understand that we share their values.


Download Books