Tue, May 03 2011

Why we’re wired to be polarized - and what to do about it

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

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Filed under:   Marketing essentials •

I recently posted about David Brooks’ new book, The Social Animal, which says emotion is the foundation for reason in guiding behavior.  Because of how we are wired, we need emotion in order to arrive at reasonable decision-making.

Now comes a Mother Jones article that shows just how powerful we are wired:  We fight information in conflict with our feelings and embrace friendly information tightly.  “We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself,” says the article.  (Hat tip to Six Pixels of Separation blog for calling attention to the article.)

Social psychologists have long documented our discomfort with cognitive dissonance.  That’s really what this article is reinforcing: the idea that our brains can’t stand trying to hold conflicting ideas simultaneously.  When presented with information that conflicts with deeply held beliefs, humans tend to reject it or turn it into support for our position.  We’re wired to explain away what we don’t want to accept.

If you are in the business of persuasion—and all nonprofit marketing professionals, executive directors and fundraisers ARE - this is critical to remember. 

The implication is that you won’t win over naysayers with data.  If you are trying to convince a doubter, head-on argument, evidence and data are useless.  People will find a way to interpret the data to justify their preexisting beliefs.  They are likely to end up even MORE entrenched in their position.

No wonder our country is so polarized.

So what should you do?  I come back to the advice I always give.  In the words of a mentor of mine, don’t tell someone to value your cause.  Show how your cause relates to their values.

My colleague Alia McKee recently shared how well this works, citing the example of a small town in Kansas.  Climate skeptics—people who don’t believe in global warming—have begun to embrace energy saving tips when they were couched in terms of energy independence and defending the status quo of a strong America.  There was no fight over proof of global warming - just resonance with values and real social change.

Don’t lead with the facts if you want to persuade.  Lead with your audience’s values so the facts have a fighting chance.  Create a friendly emotional foundation for the data.

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