I was surprised to see John come to see me during my office hours. He never engaged in class or showed any interest in coming to visit me, even though I'd encouraged students to do so.
He sat down and proceeded to denounce my lecture the day before on global climate change. In his view, the science on global climate change was a hoax and part of the vast liberal conspiracy against businesses. He told me how his dad lost his job at a factory that moved to Mexico, placing blame on government regulations -- including pollution control -- that made it too expensive for the plant to operate in central Ohio, where I teach at the Ohio State University.
Those of us in academe face such situations regularly -- whether in our professional activities or our private lives with friends and family members. How should we handle them?
What Not to Do
Our typical response as faculty members is to present the facts and argue about the quality of the evidence. But studies suggest that doing so is generally not effective in changing people’s minds on charged issues. Research on the confirmation bias shows that we tend to look for and interpret information in ways that conform to our beliefs. Our emotions are much more powerful than our reason, and we tend to go with our gut when perceiving new information.
John can choose either to deny his beliefs and past experience with his dad’s job loss or to ignore the facts that I was sharing in my lecture. The widespread criticism of academe as excessively liberal furthers his tendency to do the latter. It matters little to him that I present a balanced and nonpartisan perspective, am a proud member of the Heterodox Academy (which promotes political diversity on college campuses) and took the Pro-Truth Pledge as a public signal of commitment of being held accountable for sharing accurate information.
Moreover, research on a phenomenon called the backfire effect shows that when we are presented with facts that cause us to feel bad about our identity and worldview, we tend to dig in our heels and refuse to accept those facts. In some cases, presenting the facts actually backfires, causing people to develop a stronger attachment to their incorrect belief.
An Effective Approach
Rather than presenting the facts and arguing about their validity, we need to use research-based strategies on how to get people who deny such facts to update their beliefs toward reality. My research deals with how to promote truth seeking, rational thinking and wise decision making. I practice what I preach by going on talk shows with ideological hosts to get them to update their beliefs. And I recently published a book on this topic, The Truth-Seeker’s Handbook: A Science-Based Guide. One of the strategies described there can be summarized under the acronym EGRIP -- emotions, goals, rapport, information and positive reinforcement -- which provides clear guidelines on how to deal with people like John.
If someone denies clear facts, you can safely assume that their emotions are leading them away from reality. While gut reactions can be helpful, they can also lead us astray in systematic and predictable ways. You need to deploy the skill of empathy -- understanding other people’s emotions -- to determine what emotional blocks might cause them to stick their heads in the sand.
You will have to identify the relevant emotions at play based on the context of each individual situation. In John’s case, it was relatively easy through active listening to figure out his emotions: anxiety about job security, compounded by his dad’s experience. I confirmed my suspicions by using curiosity to question him about whether he was concerned that government protections would inhibit his ability to find a job, and he answered, “You’re damn right I’m worried about that.”
Next, you should establish shared goals for both of you -- crucial for effective learning. With John, I talked about how we both want people to secure jobs in the current uncertain economic environment, and he strongly agreed. I also said how we both want him and his friends and family to stay healthy, and he agreed with that as well.
Third, build rapport. Using the empathetic listening you did previously, a vital skill in promoting trusting relationships, echo their emotions and show you understand how they feel. In the case of John, I told him I understood his feelings of worry and anger. I also told him I was worried about his health and the health of other students, due to the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by pollution.
Fourth, move on to sharing information. Here is where you can give the facts that you held back in the beginning. John already had the science on global warming, so I instead focused on government policy. I talked to him about how, while I did not know the specifics of his dad’s situation, I could truthfully state that the government sometimes makes unwise policies that result in harmful outcomes. Next, I pointed out to him that the number of clean energy jobs in Ohio is growing, and much quicker than overall job growth; given bipartisan support, the trend will likely continue. Then I highlighted how, since manufacturing jobs like the one his dad had aren’t coming back, he could secure a good financial future for himself in the green energy field.
Likewise, he would also help protect his health and the health of those he cares about. As a bonus, he wouldn’t have to deny scientific studies. After all, as I told him, the scientists are simply finding data, and government officials and business leaders are the ones who decide what to do with it.
The key here is to show your conversation partner, without arousing a defensive or aggressive response, how their current truth denialism will lead to them undermining in the long term the shared goals we established earlier: a research-driven approach to addressing thinking errors.
John was surprised and moved by this information. He agreed that green energy might well be a good future for him. He confessed he was feeling mental strain due to denying scientific findings and was relieved to see that believing in science did not have to mean he would not find a job. I offered positive reinforcement for his orientation toward the facts, praising his ability to update his beliefs. Doing so is very valuable as a research-based tactic of encouraging people to change their sense of self-worth to align with truthfulness through associating positive emotions with doing so.
It’s also important to note that, after having this experience with John, you can bet I changed my lecture on this topic. I integrated the information about green energy jobs and also revised other lectures to address in advance student anxieties about not finding employment and similar predictable fears. Likewise, I invited students to come see me after class if they had concerns about anything I presented, especially on charged topics.
In fact, the EGRIP approach is best used in a one-on-one or small-group setting rather than a lecture. I hope it helps you address similar situations with students, friends and family, or anyone else who holds misguided beliefs.