By Michelle Martin, PhD, MSW
Have you ever had one of those conversations with someone where you try your best to point out the fallacies in his or her argument, and rather than acknowledging the facts, he or she responds with the unchallengeable statement: "I just know what I know, period!"? I sure have, and I have to say, these types of conversations are increasing in frequency, particularly on social media, and they're incredibly frustrating.
The big question I want to address in this blog post is why is it so hard to change someone's mind about something (particularly political issues), when facts exist to prove them wrong? And of course the other way is true as well. Why is it so difficult for us to change our own minds when others come at us with facts to prove us wrong?
There are many possible answers to this question, and I'm going to share a few of my thoughts on some reasons for our collective stubbornness, and seeming inability to compromise on important issues. My hope is that this post will also shed some light on how it's possible that there is such a gap in how people in this country are perceiving the exact same dynamics and set of events so differently.
Operating off the Same Set of Facts
If we have any hope of finding middle ground on the vast number of issues currently polarizing our country, we must to be operating off the same or at least a similar set of facts. And by "facts," I mean hard data—irrefutable information drawn from statistical analysis and empirical research.
But too often, people confuse assumptions (or perceptions or wishes) with facts, just as the U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway did when she suggested in a 2017 interview that then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer wasn't lying when he claimed a far high number of people attended Trump's inauguration than actually did, but was just operating off of a set of "alternative facts."
First, there are no such things as "alternative facts" (or "alt-facts" as they are now being called). There are various interpretations of the facts. There are also varying conclusions we can draw from the facts. We can also challenge how certain sets of facts are determined, and we can even level an argument that it's too soon to know all the facts. But in most situations, facts are facts.
Let's say I am in a discussion with someone about immigration and he states that our borders are being "flooded" by undocumented immigrants and I show him data from the Department of Homeland Security that shows that's not the case. He can perhaps challenge the accuracy of those statistics if he wants to get into the nitty gritty of the government's methodology, but what he cannot do (with any sort of legitimacy) is simply wave off the data, claiming "he knows what he knows," and doesn't care about "my facts."
Unfortunately, there is no point in further discussion if he does this, because he is operating off of false information that is leading to false conclusions. If he won't accept that there is additional information out there that needs to be considered, then attempts at compromise and consensus are futile.
"If it Doesn't Match my Biases, it Doesn't Exist"
Facts are hard. And I don't mean that in a snarky sarcastic way. Facts really are hard, and they get increasingly harder the more passionate we feel about a topic. This is why it's particularly challenging to talk politics with people who vehemently disagree with us. When someone challenges us on our beliefs (biases, hunches, assumptions and feelings), rather than feeling enlightened, all too often we feel invalidated. And feeling invalidated, well, it sucks. We don't like it, so we bury our heads and continue down our merry way, converting our biases, hunches, assumptions and feelings into facts. This way we don't have to feel uncertain about ourselves or feel negated. The more personal the issue is to us, the more difficult it is to accept that we are wrong.
When we allow our hunches (often based on our anecdotal evidence) to drive how we come to conclusions, we will never discover the truth about a situation. Rather, we will just go through life confirming our own subjective biases. There's actually a name of this. It's called confirmation bias--the tendency to seek out "evidence" that supports our biases, while rejecting "evidence" that refutes them. We all have this tendency, and it takes maturity, willingness and a whole lot of critical thinking to move beyond our biases and get to the actual facts.
Allowing facts to drive our conclusions is especially important now, when we're bombarded with so much information (and propaganda) about things that really matter to us. Our president warns us that violence was at an all-time before he took office. Another politician states violence was at an all-time low. Who is telling the truth? Don't take either of their word for it. Go to the FBI Uniform Crime reporting website and check it out for yourself.
It's human nature to believe that we know what we know, and not budge in the face of push-back. It's no fun to be firm in our convictions only to later learn we were wrong, especially if our assertions are rooted in our personal identity and group membership. But if we really want to be fact-based in our beliefs and decision-making, we have to be willing to get it wrong sometimes, and allow ourselves to double-back and correct our course.
Let's say I believe the stereotype that all older adults are poor drivers. I'm driving along on a busy street, minding my own business when "BAM" someone abruptly pulls in front of me and slams on his brakes, almost causing a collision. I look in the car and I see an older adult. "Aha!" I exclaim. "I knew it! Older adults are terrible drivers!"
Well first, I can't possibly know how well or poorly every single older adult drives, so right from the get-go, I'm operating off of an assumption. Second, I had no reason to pay attention to the other 15 cars with older adults driving in my proximity, so they didn't factor into my decision-making. I only had a reason to pay attention to the one older adult who cut me off, and then I used that one experience to confirm my broader bias.
Had I approached this experience as an objective researcher, I would have sought out the perceived age of all the drivers in my vicinity, noted that among the 20 cars near me, 15 were driven by people I assumed were older, and when one cut me off, I would have conducted a statistical analysis of the total number of drivers near me, and calculate the proportion of all drivers, and those who were older to the one who cut me off. I also would have to factor in all the times that younger drivers cut me off, that I normally ignored, because I don't hold a bias about younger people's driving. After calculating all these variables, I would have to determine that statistically speaking, this one experience with an older adult driver did not confirm my bias.
Pretty cumbersome, right? Since most of us aren't roaming around thinking like statisticians, this type of decision-making is pretty much impossible. But what isn't impossible is to leave room in our thinking for other possibilities and be willing to consider information that contradicts our biases in our decision-making process.
Our Politics are "Us"
One of the reasons why it's so difficult to change a person's mind (including our own mind) about anything political is because politics is personal. Politics relates to our way of life, and reflect our core values. So one could say that our political identity reflects our self-identity (and visa versa). In fact, research shows that when someone attacks our politics (by telling us we're wrong about something), it feels just the same as if they were attacking us personally. Our brains are hardwired to protect us physically and psychologically, so when we feel attacked, we hunker down, dig in our heels, and get really stubborn.
Our self-identity makes us who we are: mothers/fathers, women/men, student, lawyer, extrovert/introvert, religious, conservative, liberal, etc. When someone asks you to describe yourself and you say "I'm a Catholic, Mexican-American, student, who loves to surf" or "I'm a fiscal conservative, Evangelical pastor and husband to one wife, and father to three kids," or "I'm a triathlete, musician, and lesbian attorney" you've just described your various self-identities. Identities develop over time and are based on our self-perceptions, experiences and values.
When people attack our politics, they are attacking our values, which is pretty much the same as attacking our self-identities. I've never understood people who say they "don't talk politics." Politics to one person is another person's life. Same-sex marriage may be "just politics" to you, but I can guarantee you that to a same sex couple, it's about their very way of life.
Our identities should be solid, but not rigid. Rigid self-identities are fragile, and they don't allow for personal growth. We should be able to handle someone challenging our political stances and belief systems, even if that means shifting our self-identities a bit. Rigid identities keep people from accepting factual information if that information threatens their political stance, and self-identity.
For instance, if someone who is ardently pro-life were to read the research on how public health and social programs can reduce abortion rates far better than legal remedies, why wouldn't they just accept this information with relief and shift gears from promoting criminalization of abortion to support for public programs? Because their identity is rooted in their perception of themselves as being a part of the pro-life movement, and accepting a new reality would likely threaten not only who they see themselves as, but also potentially their group memberships. If they shift their thinking on the most effective response to unplanned pregnancy, does this mean they are no longer "pro-life"?
The same goes for other issues as well. What if President Trump's stance on international tariffs is effective in the long run? If a member of the resistance movement is at some point confronted with factual information to that effect, will they accept it and agree that in this area, Trump knew what he was doing? Or would they be more likely to refute any evidence of effectiveness and develop an alternate explanation that didn't challenge their self-identity as a resister? According to research, the latter would be a far more likely approach
Perception is Not Reality
We all have biases. Everyone of us. That's basically what a hunch is—a bias. Biases come from our life experiences and the lenses that we use to make sense out of the information we encounter in life. We have an experience and we attach meaning to it, which is why two people can have the same experiences (e.g., growing up in the same household) but come to very different conclusions about what those experiences mean. If my partner raises his voice during a conversation with me, I could interpret that as either passion or anger, depending on my past experiences, including things that happened during my childhood.
Biases are made up of a combination of assumptions and personal interpretation, but they are not facts. And yet, we are all guilty of making that leap from assumption to fact. "I'll bet you anything he/she ____!" can become "I know for a fact that he/she _____!" in a matter of minutes, unless we make an effort to keep our assumptions in check.
Overcoming our Addiction to Bias While Keeping our Self-Identity in Tact
I recently wrote a blog post about the Central American families separated at the border, and whether it was in fact Democrat's laws that had tied Trump's hands. One of the issues I wanted to confront was the allegation that President Obama had separated families as well. My hunch was that he had treated immigrants and political asylum-seekers compassionately and that he had responded to the humanitarian crisis occurring at the border with respect for human rights.
A part of my assumption was correct: Obama did not separate families seeking asylum (except in the rare cases of abuse, family fraud and trafficking). But what I began to learn as I sought information from a variety of sound sources (e.g., government records, court records, empirical research), was that Obama was not particularly compassionate toward Central Americans immigrants seeking political asylum. In fact, he pretty much responded the same way as President Bush—by placing families together in detention facilities that were no better than prisons. And then the ACLU sued the Obama administration, and the courts forced Obama's proverbial hand.
How can I assert right now that is factual information? Because I didn't draw from left-leaning sources, or right-leaning sources. I dug up the government's court motion in the ACLU lawsuit where an Obama Justice Department attorney argued that if the court didn't alter its position, the government might have to separate immigrant families. Why? Because the administration didn't want to allow Central American asylum-seekers to be free in the community during the one to three years it could take the get an immigration hearing on their asylum case. And the court said no, essentially telling the Obama administration to find another way. And the Obama administration did just that by creating a home monitoring and case management program.
Here's my point: the Obama administration only developed these programs after it was sued by the ACLU, which rattled my perception of Obama, which rattled my perception of myself.
I hated this information and I didn't want to include it. This information shifted my thinking, and it also meant the "other side" was at least partially correct (grrrr). Where the heck was I when Central American asylum seekers and their children were experiencing human rights violations every single day in a prison-like setting? The ACLU was on it, but I was likely celebrating other human rights victories that confirmed my bias that Obama was a pretty perfect president. I still support Obama, but I'm learning to live with the reality that he was by no means perfect. I'm also learning to live with the reality that my bias blinded me to a situation that desperately needed my advocacy.
So what did I do? Well if you read the post you'll see that I included the not-so-flattering information about Obama. Why? Because I'm committed to being factual in both my thinking and writing, and that means that I have to always be willing to allow my hunches and biases to be challenged, I have to give up ground when necessary, and I have to accept a reality that doesn't always perfectly align with my perceptions (and wishes).
So What Now?
If we were all operating off a similar set of facts available to us then we could focus on higher level issues such as whether there was bias in the interpretation of the facts, whether all sets of facts were gathered, and what those facts mean with regard to the particular issue at hand.
But, as much as we might desire a world where everyone does his or her homework, reads non-fiction books and chases down verifiable facts, that's just never going to happen. We cannot bring everyone along on our collective quest for greater critical thinking and fact-based decision-making. Additionally, social media has made it seem easier than ever to obtain information, without having to do any real work. But the truth is that a meme is not a non-fiction book, and just because someone in a position of authority posts something on social media that appeals to our biases, doesn't make it factual.
Social media has allowed people to believe they are experts in areas they actually know very little about. This is not a matter of intelligence, but a matter of education defined in the most broad sense of taking the time to become well-versed in particular areas. And watching our favorite cable news show, or reading our favorite blogs (even this one) isn't enough.
It's okay to have opinions about a broad range of issues, but opinions, even strongly held ones, do not make us experts. Consulting WebMD does not make you a physician anymore than watching a YouTube video on how to change my brake light makes me an auto mechanic. Do you want to know why I don't blog or post about tariffs, despite having some opinions about them? Because I'm not an economist.
The good news is that these human tendencies are not made in stone and we can counteract them with cognitive effort and strategies. Here are a few strategies that I am committed to using on a daily basis:
The only way we can elevate our political literacy in this country is if each one of us can admit that the truth is a complex narrative that must be investigated thoughtfully and thoroughly. The truth about any given situation cannot be succinctly expressed in a 10-word meme, or a 250-character Tweet. If most of us increase our commitment to challenging the simple narratives being bandied about on social media, even the ones that match our own biases, we can survive this current state of polarization. Of that, I am convinced.
Dr. Michelle Martin is a social worker, policy specialist and Assistant Professor at California State University, Fullerton in the Department of Social Work, where she teaches social welfare policy, and researches dynamics related to immigrants, political asylum-seekers, refugees and other displaced populations.