Why don’t people pay more attention to what shifts views?


by Sunny
27th April, 2011 at 10:30 am    

Activists and campaigners on the left are forever focusing on finding ways to exercise their frustration. However, I always fear they don’t pay enough attention to shifting public opinion.

There’s an excellent blog post by Ethan Zuckerman here that gives me some pause for thought.

In 1986, Hallin introduced the idea that we can understand journalistic ideas in terms of three “spheres”, widely recognized, though rarely articulated. The “sphere of consensus” includes ideas that are so widely agreed upon that they are generally uncontroversial. As Brooke puts it, “Democracy is good, slavery is bad, all men are created equal. Here truths are self-evident and journalists don’t feel the need to be objective.” Then there’s the “sphere of legitimate controversy”, issues we are used to arguing over, like taxation policy, abortion, gun control and capitol punishment, where reasonable people can disagree, and where journalists generally focus their attention. Finally, there’s the “sphere of deviance”, where ideas are deemed unworthy of a hearing. Brooke offers the “pro-pedophilia” position as an example of the deviant sphere

That’s a good way of thinking how thoughts are organised. But then how to forced ideas to go from being ‘controversial’ to a ‘consensus’? That’s the big question.

With increasing polarisation, which is the environment we are in now, this job becomes harder because people have different spheres. Hardcore libertarians think taxation is like violence, while ultra-socialists may consider it as key to a civilised society. I think political discussion on the internet can exacerbates polarisation.

This means the clash of spheres is intense. This leads to even more conflict for two reasons. Firstly, because people end up congregating in areas where others agree with them. That confirmation bias is fed daily and it creates a sense of solidarity and community. People like that. But they start thinking most people in the country share those spheres of thinking.

So when they encounter someone of a different ideological bent, that frustrates and angers them.

Phenomena like confirmation bias (a tendency to overweight information that agrees with our preconceptions) and disconfirmation bias (the tendency to discount information we disagree with) contribute to a pattern of “motivated reasoning”, where our emotions distort and shape our “rational” thinking. Mooney suggests that there’s deep neurological reasons for this behavior – we literally have a hair-trigger “fight or flight” reaction to types of information that challenge our belief systems.

As a result, confronting a highly polarized argument with facts frequently backfires.

So not only is there a problem with polarisation, but people of different ideological bent are highly unlikely to be persuaded easily. Especially when approached with ‘facts’ or ‘logical argument’, which lefties are prone to try.

So there’s a point here about polarisation, another one about how that leads to even more conflict, and why it makes persuading people difficult. I’m just thinking out aloud here. But it does also offer a glimpse into the mindset of people who become intensely polarised.


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  1. sunny hundal

    Blogged: : Why don't people pay more attention to what shifts views? http://bit.ly/fz3P7h


  2. Rachel

    RT @sunny_hundal: Blogged: : Why don't people pay more attention to what shifts views? http://bit.ly/fz3P7h


  3. sunny hundal

    … as I said this morning http://bit.ly/fz3P7h (2/2)




  1. Shamit — on 27th April, 2011 at 11:04 am  

    Brilliant post – I have been arguing the same for years and have never been able to articulate half as well as you have done.

    But I think there is an added impact of polarisation on politics – that is the rise of the independent voter not really to moved by ideological arguments.

    And these voters don’t care too much about political parties but they focus on the leaders and their ability to control the party’s extremes to deliver “centrist” policies and programmes.

    Despite the carricature of Obama in 2008 campaign as a out and out lefty – most independents viewed him as a centrist and which led to massive win.

    Similarly with Tony Blair and finally I think this was best represented in the AV campaign. No to AV surged after David Cameron joined the campaign and he and his party speak with the same voice.

    Whether we agree with him or not is not the matter – but what matters is how voters overall perceive leaders.

    For example, even though the voters are not happy with the government because of the financial squeeze but at the same time they see Cameron as the best Prime Ministerial candidate among the three. While the public sees Ed Miliband as a creature of the Labour party (voices like Kinnock saying we have our party back) does not help) which results in almost 50% of the country thinking let alone being PM he is not suited to be the Labour leader.

    And unfortunately, the forces that got him elected are very very tribal and they want to kill the Tories but that does not play well with the electorate.

    Similarly, most voters think voting YES to AV would give no. 10 Downing street keys permanently to the Labour party because of the so called “progressive” majority and centrists don’t like that.

  2. Simon Davies — on 27th April, 2011 at 11:06 am  

    I once read that the most (only?) effective way to change the mindset of such deeply opinionated people is through someone they consider an authority.

    My (less than half-serious) suggestion is to enlist a bunch of ‘sleeper agents’ to infiltrate the echo chambers of these groups and establish some sort of influence. When the time’s right, they can use this influence to shift the argument in more favourable terms.

    Of course, this couldn’t be a massive shift. More a realignment of thinking. For example, while most ardent climate change deniers will never be convinced about the need for global action to tackle global warming, some consensus may (and that’s a big may) be reached on the need for less dependence on fossil fuels from foreign countries, or a greater emphasis on local, sustainable sources of food.

    This is ambitious thinking though. A better approach may be to give up trying to change the minds of internet fanatics. When you get into an argument with such people, you should be focused not on getting through to them, but on reaching the casual, undecided reader skim-reading your comment or blog post.

    You then need to consider what motivates and what alienates these ‘swing thinkers’. I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that so-called common-sense, self-interest and emotion counts for more than lengthy evidence-based, statistic-heavy arguments that appeal to an ethical level of reasoning far beyond most people’s view of their world (which doesn’t extend far beyond their own noses) and subjective sense of fairness (i.e. what’s fair for ME).

    Forgive the long comment and naked cynicism. I’m also brain-dumping here. But I find this is a very interesting topic and a great post.

  3. cjcjc — on 27th April, 2011 at 11:08 am  

    Why have you placed ‘facts’ and ‘logical arguments’ in inverted commas?

  4. Kismet Hardy — on 27th April, 2011 at 11:12 am  

    That’s a good way of thinking how thoughts are organised. But then how to forced ideas to go from being ‘controversial’ to a ‘consensus’? That’s the big question.

    The small answer is: some people feel special and important by taking on opinions made by others that sound special and important.

    Others don’t care so much.

  5. ukliberty — on 27th April, 2011 at 11:12 am  

    For many years I have liked the idea behind E-Prime (Wikipedia on E-Prime),

    “… use of E-Prime [may lead] to a less dogmatic style of language that reduces the possibility of misunderstanding and for conflict.”

    “a version of the English language that excludes all forms of the verb to be. Hence, E-Prime allows neither conjugations of to be (am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being), nor archaic forms (e.g. art, wast, wert), nor contractions (‘s, ‘m, ‘re).”

    “The E-Prime versions communicate the speaker’s experience rather than judgment, making it harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact.”

    (hat-tip Robert Anton Wilson)

    That is why I litter my posts with ISTM (it seems to me), AIUI (as I understand it), and so on, rather than stating things as fact.

    Well, I try.

  6. ukliberty — on 27th April, 2011 at 11:12 am  

    HTML fail, sorry.

  7. Rachel — on 27th April, 2011 at 11:22 am  

    Taking it back a bit, too many people not interested in “politics” at all, or they are really as will fight to death to have bins collected every week but dont connect that with politics, or the need to take part in political activity. Many I know are too tired to be involved or think, work takes so much out of them no energy to think, so likely to vote on automatic pilot.
    Interestingly this year out canvassing have so far only had one “they are all the same”-door slam, people much more interested and willing to talk. Suspect this is the Clegg effect to a degree, peoples beliefs have been shaken by his percieved betrayals, its woken them up.
    Being poliarised though makes life a lot easier, no need to think so guess its comforting in a difficult complicated world. People not likely to want that disturbed lifes hard enough as it is.

  8. AbuF — on 27th April, 2011 at 12:00 pm  

    That’s a good way of thinking how thoughts are organised.

    And that is an extremely clumsy, self-referential and question-begging way of posing this issue, suggesting that one may have entirely missed the point at question.

  9. Chris — on 27th April, 2011 at 1:22 pm  

    Good article.
    It always frustrates and amuses me how poor many activists are at building consensus, their thinking often appears to be that you can change peoples minds by shouting at them.
    People are more likely to listen if they feel they’re also being listened to.

  10. Boyo — on 27th April, 2011 at 1:49 pm  

    It surely applies as much to the left as the right:- green issues, immigration, good for eg – opposing them bad (if not racist).

    I think you have to take one step further back – to the self.

    Why do people identify with particular groups? What do they get out of them (and their thinking)?

    I would suggest the reason why people polarise is because they have a certain self-image within a group, and therefore to question the values of that group is to question their identity.

    Among the regular commentators here there are certainly people whose evident intelligence is often contradicted by the rigidity of their opinions. The root cause may not be that they are in fact “stupid” but that, subconsciously, they regard an attack on their beliefs as an attack on themselves.

  11. Don — on 27th April, 2011 at 5:05 pm  

    @2

    When you get into an argument with such people, you should be focused not on getting through to them, but on reaching the casual, undecided reader skim-reading your comment or blog post.

    Good point.

  12. Sarah AB — on 27th April, 2011 at 6:58 pm  

    A very thought provoking post. One of my intial reactions intersects with Simon Davies’ comment – I am always particularly struck by an argument which goes against the grain of what I expect the speaker to say, based on their other views. I also agree with Simon’s point about casual, undecided readers – which is why I might bother arguing with someone even if I know they’ll never change their mind. And it helps a lot if people are civil – I don’t think I’ve ever had my mind changed by people who shout and swear – so I should note that I *have* changed my mind (a bit) about some things following discussions on this blog.

  13. Optimist — on 28th April, 2011 at 12:44 pm  

    These ‘sphere of consensus’ to me sound very much like the ‘identity tribes’ from another recent report. They had some ridiculous names like ‘Confident Multiculturalists’, ‘ Identity Ambivalents’, ‘Latent Hostiles’ and so on.

    But one young man sets himself on fire somewhere in Tunisia and all those so called ‘spheres of consensus’ get smashed to pieces. All over the Arab world and North Africa where people for years had believed that nothing will ever change are now overthrowing once mighty dictators and setting about to govern themselves in better ways.

    To me it shows that people change their views through struggle – it may be an old fashioned view but seems to prove itself right time and again.

    Once racist white workers, when joined on picket lines in a common struggle by their black and Asian co-workers often change their views at a lightening speed.

    I still remember the Grunwicks strike in 1976 when sometimes more than 20,000 coal miners turned up to support a handful of Asian strikers, mainly women. This had lead to rather exasperated comments by the then chairman of British Leyland, Sir Richard Dobson, saying,‘You can’t tell me that the ordinary British worker is passionately concerned that a number of blackish people in north London are being underpaid.”

    Yes, Sir Richard, they were, and they had turned your cosy, racist world upside down, because they were in a common struggle, and were smashing the ‘spheres of consensus’ on the way !

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