When town hall participant Karl Becker got the closing question in the second presidential debate, I was thrilled to see him ask the same question I had submitted to the openquestionforum.org the prior week. Some viewers may have laughed at the naiveté of our kindergarten-level suggestion to name something positive about your opponent. But not behavioral scientists.
It often feels impossible to change people’s minds on an issue. Most attempts to persuade backfire and make the gulf between groups of opposing views an even wider chasm, filled with toxic verbal sewerage. You’d think 21st-century educated humans might consider evidence and adjust their views accordingly. But behavioral science shows that the more facts and evidence you bring to the argument, the more adversarial things become for most humans, and the farther off you push any reconciliation.
There are many names for this phenomenon: confirmation bias; motivated reasoning; and backfire effect. Some of the earliest research into motivated reasoning even demonstrated that two rival groups watching the same video take away opposing conclusions.
But what Karl and I were getting at is a tactic known as “affirmation.” It may be one of the only ways to begin to melt rigid opinions just enough to enable some flexible discussion. Here’s what it is and how it works — whether in politics, or at the office, or in negotiations.
When we hold a point of view on an issue, it is rarely just an academic thing devoid of emotion or meaning. Usually it helps define who we are, what we believe, and which group we belong to. When someone confronts you or challenges that belief, at a below-conscious level you feel they are challenging your identity and your brain readies you for an assault on your self-esteem.