If there’s anything as American as a presidential election itself, it’s the inevitable debates with loved ones that come along with it.
Take, for example, New York Observer editor-at-large Ryan Holiday’s recent open letter to his father about presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump. Holiday begs ― urges ― his dad to reconsider voting for the candidate in the fall (rightfully so) by laying out all the reasons he’s unfit to be president, including his horrific comments on women and attitude toward the Muslim religion.
“Dad, please don’t vote for Donald Trump,” he concluded in his post. “Everything you’ve taught me about what is wrong in the world is everything that man represents.”
Holiday’s effort is valiant but is it in vain? All of these open letters, social media pleas and arguments with distant relatives this election cycle pose an important question: Is it really possible to change someone’s mind on an issue?
Unfortunately, scientific evidence points to no.
The frustrating reality of people’s opinions
A 2014 study conducted by political scientist Brendan Nyhan found that educating subjects on a hot-button issue didn’t change their opinion of it if they had the opposite viewpoint. In fact, presenting the evidence made those individuals dig their heels in more.
Nyhan and his team used the divisive issue of vaccinating children as their topic of focus. The researchers examined almost 2,000 parents who had at least one child under the age of 17.
Researchers provided the parents with several pro-vaccine pamphlets. One was from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said there was no scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. Another was a Vaccine Information Statement paper that laid out the dangers of certain illnesses like the measles. The third included photos of kids who suffered from a vaccine-preventable illness. The last was a story about a child who almost died from the measles.
Those who were against vaccines sadly didn’t change their opinion about them seeing the campaigns. Rather, the educational tools backfired and the pamphlets decreased the subjects’ intent to vaccinate and increased the misperceptions around vaccines.
This suggests that even facts don’t change someone’s opinion once their mind is made up. In other words, convincing your loved ones that they shouldn’t vote in favor of a specific candidate ― even if you arm them with all the evidence why ― could be a fool’s errand.
The right way to make your case
All hope isn’t lost when it comes to convincing others to change their tune ― but it is an uphill climb.
The key? Understanding the other side of the issue. You have a better chance of making an impact if you present your reasoning with knowledge of both sides, according to Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University.
“Particularly in this age of social media where everyone is in a cocoon, the most important thing to do is to listen,” he told The Huffington Post. “Find out what the person’s reasoning is and what they consider legitimate sources of facts before attempting to change their mind. That will make your argument more effective and also make the person you’re talking to more likely to listen because they will feel listened to themselves.”
“Find out what the person’s reasoning is and what they consider legitimate sources of facts before attempting to change their mind.”
This strategy goes back to being cognizant of feelings versus facts, as evident in Nyhan’s study. And follow-up research shows that it may work: A 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that tapping into a person’s emotions (i.e., presenting subjects with personal photos and stories about vaccination) was more effective at garnering positive attitudes toward vaccines than presenting hard evidence (i.e., showing subjects statistics and research on vaccines).
So, ultimately, the more aware you are of the other person’s personal investment and the more you approach it from that angle, the more likely you’ll be able to make your argument stick.
“Pay attention to the person’s emotions and honor them before wading in with Excel charts and reference books,” Humphreys advised.
Holiday does this quite well in his open letter. He writes that he understands his father’s reasoning behind wanting to vote for Trump, which is that his father has “a profound and real distrust towards Hillary Clinton.” He then points out that there are other solutions (taking Trump’s glaring flaws into consideration, voting for someone else, not voting at all). By expert accounts, it’s the most effective way to make a point.
Let’s just hope it works in this case.