How to Reach People Who Are Wrong

In the post-Trump era, research suggests the best ways to win people over.

Opinion Columnist

  • March 3, 2021
How to Reach People Who Are Wrong 1
Credit…Mark Peterson/Redux

The Trump years were a time of high passion, of moral certainty, of drawing lines in the sand, of despair at the ethical and intellectual vacuity of political foes. But now it’s time to recalibrate.

From my liberal point of view, Democrats were largely vindicated. From the Muslim ban to the separation of families at the border, from the mishandling of the pandemic to the Capitol insurrection, Democrats’ warnings aged well. Yet one of the perils in life is being proven right.

The risk is excessive admiration for one’s own brilliance, preening at one’s own righteousness, and inordinate scorn for the jerks on the other side. It was the Republicans’ hubris after the 1991 gulf war — won in 100 hours — that led the G.O.P. to march obliviously into the catastrophic Iraq war a dozen years later.

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, has a smart new book out advising us to “Think Again,” in the words of his title. He explores in part what goes wrong when smart people are too righteous, and he offers a paean to intellectual humility.

Research finds that the best people at making predictions (did you know that there are prediction tournaments?) aren’t those who are smartest but rather those who weigh evidence dispassionately and are willing to change their minds.

Likewise, math whizzes excel at interpreting data — but only so long as the topic is banal, like skin rashes. A study found that when the topic was a hot one they cared about, like gun policy, they blundered. Passion swamped expertise.

There are a number of biases in play, including the “I’m not biased” bias. That’s when we believe we’re more objective than others, and it particularly traps intelligent people.

“These biases don’t just prevent us from applying our intelligence,” Grant writes. “They can actually contort our intelligence into a weapon against the truth. We find reasons to preach our faith more deeply, prosecute our case more passionately, and ride the tidal wave of our political party.”

There’s reason to think that American men may be particularly vulnerable to this intellectual arrogance. In one study, teenagers around the world were asked to rate their mastery of 16 areas of math, including three that don’t exist: “declarative fractions,” “proper numbers” and “subjunctive scaling.” Those who boasted of their skill in nonexistent fields were disproportionately male, affluent and North American.

(I sense women and overseas readers of this column nodding sagely to themselves.)

I wonder if we liberals, having helped to preserve American democracy over the last four years, are getting cocky and self-righteous — and the boast in the first half of this sentence might be an example of that.

Both left and right often see the world, indignantly, through a tidy moral prism, but the world is messier than that.

After #MeToo, progressives embraced the slogan “believe women” but struggled when a woman accused Joe Biden of sexual harassment. Some liberals embraced the slogan “defund the police” and hurt the election prospects of Democratic candidates who actually favored alternative social spending. Moving further to the left, utopians in Seattle last year set up a six-block “no-cop zone” that would be free of police violence, but the subsequent shootings there of six people in 10 days confirmed the value of the police. A much-read New York Times article last week chronicled how Smith College rushed to apologize and suspend a white janitor whom a Black student accused of racism; an investigation found no basis for the accusation.

The world is complicated, and we should all be cautious about shoehorning facts into our ideological constructs.

That’s one reason for intellectual humility: The search for truth is bumpy and complicated. My favorite philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin, emphasized that we’re fated to live in a world with competing and incommensurate values; that’s not terrain suitable for grandstanding.

Another reason to recalibrate is that if Democrats want to get things done, they need to win over undecided voters in swing states. And there’s evidence that preaching from the moral high ground alienates those voters. President Biden seems to understand all this better than some others in his party: He gets that every time Democrats brandish their wokeness and wag fingers or call people bigots, they manufacture more Republicans.

“Humility is often a more effective persuasive tool,” Grant told me.

Research suggests that what wins people over is listening, asking questions and appealing to their values, not your own. Grant cites evidence for “complexifying” issues so they become less binary and more nuanced, enabling someone on the other side to acknowledge areas of ambivalence.

Researchers find that it is easier for people to reach agreement on difficult issues if they have been prepped to see the world as complicated and full of grays. It’s a painstaking, frustrating process of building trust, keeping people from becoming defensive, and slowly ushering them to a new place.

All this is tough to do after four traumatic and polarizing years, especially when fundamental moral issues are at stake. But it’s precisely because the stakes are immense that we should try to learn from the science of persuasion and emphasize impact over performance.

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