The British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports on a new study by Gregory Trevors and his colleagues. They examined why we fail at times to persuade people with factual evidence. Why don't fact-based arguments change minds? In the past, researchers have posited that a "backfire" effect can occur when you confront someone with information that challenges their pre-existing views. Why? They have argued that people begin to recall all the information supporting their existing position. An "arms race" occurs in their minds, as they retrieve all the data that rebut the new factual evidence being presented to them. Trevors takes the research on this backfire effect one step further. That work hypothesizes that, "When people read information that undermines their identity, this triggers feelings of anger and dismay that make it difficult for them to take the new facts on board."
Trevors and his colleagues conducted an experiment with regard to genetically modified foods. 120 students participated in the study. The scholars first tested "how important food purity was to the participants' sense of identity." Then the researchers provided the students with scientific data contradicting their views in opposition to genetically modified foods. Here is what they found:
"After the researchers gave participants scientific information worded to directly challenge anti-GMO beliefs, those with higher scores in dietary purity rated themselves as experiencing more negative emotions while reading the text, and in a later follow-up task, they more often criticised GMOs. Crucially, at the end of the study these participants were actually more likely to be anti-GMO than a control group who were given scientific information that didn’t challenge beliefs: in other words, the attempt to change minds with factual information had backfired."
What's the lesson here? You have to understand WHY people hold certain beliefs. If those views are deeply tied to their identity, then fact-based arguments alone will not prevail. In fact, they might backfire. What can you do differently? Here is the advice offered in the Research Digest article:
If persuasion is most at risk of backfire when identity is threatened, we may wish to frame arguments so they don’t strongly activate that identity concept, but rather others. And if, as this research suggests, the identity threat causes problems through agitating emotion, we may want to put off this disruption until later: Rather than telling someone (to paraphrase the example in the study) “you are wrong to think that GMOs are only made in labs because…”, arguments could firstly describe cross-pollination and other natural processes, giving time for this raw information to be assimilated, before drawing attention to how this is incompatible with the person’s raw belief – a stealth bomber rather than a whizz-bang, so to speak.