When people are set in their beliefs, it can be almost impossible to change their minds. So, how does persuasion work when your audience has a closely-held belief?
Many think presenting solid evidence will do the trick. But audience members often justify their original beliefs or behaviors in the face of facts. A paper from the Institute of Public Relations (IPR) mentioned a 2011 Georgia State University experiment that recorded this “backfire effect.” Experiment participants “reported feeling even more convinced and determined … after seeing evidence contradicting their views.”
Why won’t facts work?
It may seem like such people are being deliberately pigheaded. The truth is, they’re in the grip of a psychological defense mechanism. The paper states that people’s identity and self-esteem are often tied to their viewpoint. So, “attacking their view amounts to attacking them as a person.” As a result, their mind automatically shifts into defense mode.
Also, facts that disprove people’s viewpoints often cause them to experience cognitive dissonance. That’s the mental discomfort resulting from holding two conflicting beliefs or values (e.g., a smoker who wants to be healthy). Cognitive dissonance can even lead to reduced self-esteem and self-worth. Also, the mental discomfort can be so extreme that the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, which monitors physical pain, activates.
These two factors result in people rejecting solid evidence or telling themselves whatever’s required to ease their discomfort.
What does work?
According to the IPR paper, persuasion in such cases involves first affirming the audience’s core values. Researchers found that people are “more willing to reconsider their views” when they feel “particularly good about themselves.”
Next, present information in a way that stirs the audience’s emotions and imaginations. It’s also a good idea to have that information delivered by someone your audience sees as an in-group member.
Of course, not everyone who disagrees with you has cognitive dissonance. Sometimes, they have valid information that counters your message. This blog post covers cases where the facts are undeniable.
The purpose of this post is not to help you manipulate others. But you can use it to understand what’s happening in such instances and how to be heard.
The infographic below provides a quick overview of how to overcome the “message resistance” hurdle.
Kelle Campbell is a content writer for e-learning and B2B software companies. Contact her to discuss your next project.