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12 January 2011 @ 04:58 pm
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Politicos should stop using over-the-top, inflammatory rhetoric. The problem with it is that it inflames people.

But the reason people use it is that inflaming people is a really effective way to motivate them.

Let me string a few concepts together for you:

  1. People do not change their minds because of new facts. Rational arguments don't change minds.

  2. Emotional arguments do not change anyone's mind, but they can make people concerned if they already agree with you.

  3. The stronger the emotional impact, the more concerned you make people.

  4. The more concerned people are, the more likely they are to act.

Ergo, if you want to get all the people who agree with you to vote, join a protest, or sign a petition then your best bet is to manufacture the situation into a crisis.

Let's take this statement: "We need to pass this gas tax because without it critical transportation infrastructure would deteriorate, resulting in even greater expenses in the future because we'll be forced to do even more repairs."

Now contrast it with this: "In 2-4 years there will be a convoy of school buses travelling down I-25. This will be a school trip to see Santa's reindeer at a winter wonderland. It's a school for the deaf, blind, and disabled. That convoy will pass over a 40 year old bridge. If we don't pass this gas tax, the bridge will collapse under the weight of those buses. All of those deaf, blind, and disabled kids will die in the resulting crash.

If you don't vote for this tax, you are killing those children. I've brought them with me today so you can look into their eyes for 5 minutes. Then I want anyone who won't vote for the tax to tell them why they need to die so you can spend $3 less to fill up your Hummer."

Which approach is more effective in getting people to vote? More importantly for talk radio, which one of these will get mentioned in the press, attract more coverage, and get higher ratings?

So you can tell politicos they need to tone down their rhetoric, but that's like telling companies they need to stop polluting or telling professional athletes that it's bad to take steroids. In our culture, appealing to someone's better virtue when it runs counter to accomplishing their goals is nearly fruitless. (Which doesn't mean it hurts to try, but don't get your hopes too high.) We think of people who voluntarily follow their virtue in spite of the limitations it places on their success as heroes, not ordinary people.

Asking the government to regulate speech to tone down its content is entirely too dangerous, and in most cases doesn't fall into the "shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater" example for free speech restrictions.

The alternative is to find a way to get the population to stop responding so well to these kind of emotionally weighted arguments, but I have no idea how to accomplish that.

So though the Giffords assassination appears to have no direct political inspiration from a specific political figure, it's still true that the level of discourse in this nation is often scary. But I remember people having "Assassinate Clinton--and her husband too" bumper stickers back in the 90s, so it's unclear to me that it's gotten worse in recent years.

If we want to change the level of discourse, we need to change our cultural attitudes. The only thing I can think of is modelling the right attitude and refusing to participate in the dialog of madness. Which is hardly anything, but it's all I've got.

Anyone else?
Beemer: Control Towerdr_tectonic on January 13th, 2011 02:33 am (UTC)
(1) is overstating the case. I believe that what the U-Mich studies show is not that facts don't change minds, but that when people in an experimental setting are presented with ostensibly factual statements that don't accord with their worldview, they discount their veracity. That's not a finding about how people think in response to facts; that's a finding about how people allocate trust.

Which is not to say that I disagree with your analysis on the whole. I'm just opposed to the notion that rational fact-based argument is a lost cause.
ng_nighthawkng_nighthawk on January 13th, 2011 02:38 am (UTC)
I hope you're right. It's been the source of much of my political despair in the last year or so. Of course, that's not solely because of one study but because this matches so much of my observations. That said, I also have personal examples of facts and rational arguments changing minds, so it's clearly not universal, even if it turns out to be generally true.

Hmm... let me throw this out. If the only people you trust are people who agree with you, and once someone disagrees with you then you no longer trust them, aren't we in the same place?

To answer my own question, only if the only source of trustworthy information is other people. But I think for most folks that's true of most high-level information?
Beemer: Beem-Ur the Destructordr_tectonic on January 13th, 2011 03:28 am (UTC)
I think it has less to do with source and more to do with presentation.

A reason-oriented thinker sees various features of something like an officially-worded correction as earmarks of honesty, and evaluates the content accordingly. An emotion-oriented thinker is going to be looking for something totally different (I have no idea what), and not finding it in those sources -- but if Joe Talk Radio says something about this important change in the facts about X that you need to know about, that feels Really True.

The other question is how threatening the counter-fact feels. Is it presented in a way that seems to recognize and shore up the credibility of trusted sources, or undermine them? Depends on the fact, the sources, the presentation, and what you're looking for. I think most of the "backfire effect" comes from presentations that are neutral from a rationalist perspective but very threatening if you perceive them emotionally.
Beemer: Grr! Sunglasses!dr_tectonic on January 13th, 2011 02:47 am (UTC)
I think in about 8 months, it's going to be time for some tough love when it comes to emotional thinking.

You're right about modeling correct attitudes and refusing to participate in dysfunctional dialogue. But I'm also going to give good old-fashioned social pressure a try: I'm going to start treating emotional rhetoric with open amusement. I figure embarrassment is a pretty strong lever for changing behavior...
srotu27srotu27 on January 13th, 2011 04:15 am (UTC)
You and I have been down this road before, so let me recommend, once again, Dan Ariely's behavioral economics work, especially his newer book. It's not on this topic, per se, but it is on patterns in irrational behavior and gives some insight into eliciting desirable behavior.

Second, I think it's a mistake to write people off because they're not persuaded by your mode of discourse. To me, we spend too much time patting ourselves on the back for how sensible we are and what idiots everyone else is. And it gets us bloody nowhere. We're none of us perfectly rational in every matter, and we get there honestly enough. Emotional responses are often borne out of fear or pain. So to reach people who think that way, you usually have to understand, address and/or validate their pain/fear. Once you've done that, you can often point out that their rhetoric isn't serving their endgame. That's what I do with my mom, an avid talk radio listener. I point out that she gets all upset about things she has no power to change, and saving her energy for things she can do something about is more productive. I've also pointed out to her holes in her argument (we don't often examine our arguments once we've decided). For example, when she pointed out that a recent candidate for Senate was targeted by the media (and he was), I pointed out that the nature of politics these days means that candidates who will succeed will have savvy advisers. If the candidate made bad choices of advisers, if he disregarded advice from his party, if he didn't make use of the experts he had available, that he might not deserve to win. It might be a sign that he wasn't prepared for the office. She's starting to hear me.

With that said, I know my own reputation for rationality is not beyond reproach. Ng_nighthawk, I think some of your points about acting out of superegos and cultural change are well-taken.
srotu27srotu27 on January 14th, 2011 12:47 am (UTC)
Ariely's more recent book The Upside of Irrationality, the name of which escaped me yesterday as I wrote this on my phone. Not that his other book (Predictably Irrational) is not as good--- I'd say it's better, in some ways, just that the newer one is marginally more topical.
srotu27srotu27 on January 13th, 2011 04:32 am (UTC)
The other thing I'd say is that it doesn't necessarily take inflammatory rhetoric to make worthwhile change-- look at people growing their own food in personal and community gardens. Look at people biking to work. These are not low-effort changes we're making. They're fairly high cost, high-sacrifice changes. You can say they are the result of politics of fear, and that's not entirely untrue, but I don't get the sense that these voluntary and significant changes are a result of fear of global warming so much as they're a tale compellingly told, about trade-offs that pay off at many levels.
castleclearcastleclear on January 13th, 2011 10:24 pm (UTC)
I think a number of interesting points have been raised in this thread; and I like how your friends think and write, NG_Nighthawk. Modelling and "being the change" seems to be the best if not only rational course of action, tho' Dr T's suggestion of "tough love" and how he said it brought a smile to my face. Derisive humor is often effective in deflating the overblown; that said, I wish Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, SNL et al were able to reach the "untouchables" captivated and spellbound by Fox News. I sympathize with your sense of political despair - I've ranted about it often enough in my own journal. It's also why I continue to post to the IUUJ on rare occasions. Ultimately, what does anyone have any control over, except possibly, hopefully themselves?

I found this link at a friend's journal also on LJ, since a number of us here in Minneapolis are discussing similar if not identical issues. It may not be entirely germane to this discussion, but I offer it to you nonetheless: http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2011/01/what-is-violent-rhetoric#more-18397