(ORDO NEWS) — Facts are the cornerstones of reality. At least that’s how it used to be.
However, in today’s ultra-polarized environment, characterized by deep political divisions, heightened social tensions, and a flood of disinformation and fake news, the facts in people’s minds are not as clear-cut as they used to be.
Because of this strange ambiguity in our perception of “facts”, using them to support a moral or political argument about something is no longer a reliable strategy, the researchers say, despite what our own intuition and logic tells us.
Instead, if you really want to have a chance to change someone’s mind on a serious issue, you should talk about something else: Your personal experience.
“Political opponents respect moral convictions more when they are backed up by personal experience,” explains a group led by first author and social psychologist Emily Kubin from the University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany in a 2021 study.
“The perception of truth in moral controversy is best achieved by sharing subjective experiences rather than by presenting facts.”
Relying on facts to convince people with beliefs opposite to our own has a long history dating back to the Enlightenment and its promotion of rationality based on truth and logic. Backing your arguments with facts was once seen as a reliable way to gain respect in debate and win over opponents.
Rationality itself hasn’t necessarily gone out of fashion, but using facts to win respect in a debate is becoming increasingly difficult, the researchers say, given that the facts themselves are so often the subject of controversy today due to the splits in the modern political spectrum.
“The effectiveness of the facts is unclear in specific cases, such as arguing with a stranger about gun rights,” the researchers wrote last year. “The problem is that the facts – at least today – are themselves subject to doubt, especially when they contradict our political beliefs.”
Although it may seem like a paradox, the way to restore rationality and respect in political or moral debates may be to share your subjective experience instead of objective facts – because it is more likely to seem true, plausible to a person who disagrees with you.
This conclusion was based on an extensive study spanning 15 separate experiments in which the team measured and compared which fact- or experience-based strategies cause participants to view moral or political viewpoints as more rational.
In experiments on issues such as gun control, coal mining, and abortion, involving thousands of people and analyzing more than 300,000 comments on YouTube videos, researchers found that arguments expressing relevant personal experience outperformed evidence-based strategies.
“Because personal experience is perceived as more truthful than facts, it creates an appearance of rationality in opponents, which, in turn, increases respect,” the authors explain.
“We hypothesize that this effect is due to the fact that personal experience is not suggestible; first-hand suffering can be relatively immune to doubt.”
Among personal experiences, stories in which people share experiences of personal harm or suffering were the most compelling in terms of earning respect from listeners.
“What you need to do is invite someone to see you as a rational, feeling human being,” senior researcher and social psychologist Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told Inverse when the study was published.
“People need to have conversations that expose their vulnerability.”
This is not to say that facts are completely useless, the researchers acknowledge that the most productive conversations between people with opposing points of view can involve a combination of both personal experience and facts. In fact, some researchers warn that this is not an either-or situation, and it often takes more than one tactic to change minds.
“We suggest that personal experience can be used early in the conversation to build a foundation of mutual respect,” the authors write, “and then facts can be presented as the conversation turns to specific policy issues.”
Ultimately, while the researchers acknowledge that their work still leaves many questions unanswered, they say their findings could show a scalable mechanism to help overcome moral divisions in a society that has unfortunately become very fragmented and “post-truth.” .
“We hope people can take advantage of the results and hopefully have more respectful conversations in an era of extreme polarization,” Gray said.
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