Despite no evidence to the contrary, a small cadre of "birthers" who have questioned the fact that President Obama was born in the U.S. have managed to keep the media spotlight of distraction on them intensely enough that yesterday the White House released copies of President Obama's birth certificate. Will this end the "debate"? Probably not. When it comes to our deeply held beliefs, regardless of how counter to the truth they may be, and even when presented with contrary proof, we still like to cling to those beliefs.
In Mother Jones, Chris Mooney recently wrote a fascinating and instructive article, "The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science," that explores how our emotions "can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about."
Many of us use "motivated reasoning" in maintaining our worldview, which demonstrates that "our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions." We get new information that conflicts with our values and worldview, and instead of sparking us to think critically and to reexamine our beliefs, we're more likely to find ways to justify our current beliefs and to gravitate only toward memories and "evidence" consistent with those beliefs.
As humane educators and citizen activists, this article offers important information for us to consider. The default strategy for inspiring change has often been that once people know the facts, they'll want to change their behavior. However, studies mentioned in the article have shown that "the standard notion that the way to persuade people is via evidence and argument" isn't the most effective. As they say,
"In fact, head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever."
The conclusion of the article: "If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn't trigger a defensive, emotional reaction." In other words, "lead with the values."
When engaging in conversations with people, teaching courses, writing articles, and educating in other ways, it's essential that we find common ground with their values and viewpoints. So, if we can show how what we're talking about connects to their need for safety or saving money, or how it supports their values of fairness or compassion, or how it helps uphold their religious beliefs or their desire not to contribute to violence or suffering, we can interweave the information we want to share and build bridges to a better understanding of how we all can contribute to creating a humane world for everyone.
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