Help Those with Opposing Viewpoints Listen to the Facts

“Why Won’t People Listen to Good Ideas?” discussed research showing that those with strongly ingrained views won't mentally process sound evidence presented by the other side. Is there anything we can do to encourage our colleagues to consider solid facts we raise?

First, it’s important to understand why many won’t listen. One reason became apparent in a series of studies starting in 1959. Eminent social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson explains that research began in a southern town deeply divided over racial segregation. Most today clearly recognize the evils of apartheid, but in 1959 it was a burning issue, particularly in the South. Researchers selected people with strong feelings for or against segregation. Then they presented a series of arguments on both sides of the issue. Some were plausible, others were lame.  A survey on the points each recalled was telling. People remembered the logical arguments supporting their position and the illogical arguments that backed the opposing view. 

A number of follow up studies produced similar results. The answer was clear.  People ignored or quickly forgot points that might prove their opinion wrong. They focused on the opposition’s lame arguments because these strengthened their position.  This phenomenon is called Confirmation Bias. Seeking the right answer took a back seat to proving they were right. The highly respected Dr. Aronson explains:

During the past half-century, social psychologists have discovered that one of the most powerful determinants of human behavior stems from our need to preserve a stable, positive self-image.  Most of us want to believe that we are reasonable, decent folks who make wise decisions, do not behave immorally and have integrity. 

Thus, when confronted with factual information that might show us mistaken or foolish, we automatically tend to ignore or dismiss it, focusing instead on any piece of data that might prove us right. 

One study found smokers who tried but failed to quit were least likely to recognize the dangers of smoking. Clearly, dismissing inconvenient facts can prove destructive to individuals and businesses. It’s important, then, to recognize that while those on the opposite side of an issue may ignore sound evidence, we too are fully capable of making that mistake.

Removing the blinders

First, we must realize that every party in a discussion, including us, may display confirmation bias. How can we combat it? One way is to remind ourselves that our willingness to honestly consider all evidence takes moral courage and strength, highly admirable traits. That realization may help us past the tendency to protect our ego by defending a position. Researcher Dr. David Myers recommends that senior managers require their staff members who present arguments to give one good reason why they could be wrong.

To help others avoid ignoring valid evidence, we can try a psychological technique called “labeling.” We could begin a discussion by praising our associates for the open-mindedness and fairness they’ve previously shown. This technique was used to great advantage by former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Communications psychology expert Robert Cialdini, PhD relates,

Before international negotiations began, Sadat would assure his bargaining opponents that they and the citizens of their country were widely known for their cooperativeness and fairness.

Did his technique work? Despite the notoriously entrenched positions in the Middle East, Sadat and former hard-liner Menachem Begin negotiated the only modern peace treaty between an Arab nation and Israel.  I rest my case.

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