December 14, 2017

Account for Social Facts

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:

For those defending the reality of human-induced climate change, it is a familiar datapoint: A consensus of 97 percent of climate scientists supports the conclusion that our species is contributing to global warming and other effects on the climate. Climate change skeptics, of course, have their own consensus: a “Petition Project” including some 31,000 who say there is “no convincing evidence.” The latter has been debunked on the basis that signers to the document don’t have to be climate scientists, or necessarily scientists at all. But one might be understandably cynical about whether either side’s consensus figure is going to be convincing to the other. After all, attitudes like these tend to have a documented self-sealing nature, since the presentation of information that might threaten my worldview tends to create a motivation to debunk that information, and that exercise of motivated debunking just makes the original belief even stronger.

Based on recent research, however, there might be an exception to this self-sealing belief system. Based on recent findings of researchers from George Mason and Yale Universities (van der Linden, Leiserowitz, & Maibach, 2017), when presented with information of a consensus, study respondents are more likely to shift their own views in the direction of the perceived norm. Not all of them will do that, of course, but a substantial number, particularly among conservatives, do seem to be influenced by the consensus. This finding, described in a recent release in ScienceDailypoints to a rare bright spot on our current ‘Alt-Fact’ horizon, and it carries some implications for the legal persuader who will sometimes need to win over the skeptical judge or juror. 

Consensus Still Works, Especially for Conservatives

Even in a modern world where persuasive resistance is strong, highlighting the “social fact” of consensus can change perceptions. The researchers recruited a nationally representative sample of 6,301 citizens to participate in the experiment. Embedding the messages among a host of other issues to prevent people from guessing at the purpose of the study, the researchers measured judgments of the consensus regarding global warming before and after exposing them to the 97 percent figure.

What they found was that the information made a difference, and actually a big difference among educated conservatives: “Introducing people to this consensus fact reduced polarization between higher-educated liberals and conservatives by roughly 50 percent, and increased conservative belief in a scientific accord on climate change by 20 percentage points.”

One possible reason why it works is that it aligns with the kinds of community-based beliefs that tend to make people hard targets for persuasion, suggesting that, “If society has arrived at an answer, who am I to question it?” The study’s lead author, Dr. Sander van der Linden explained, “Our findings suggest that presenting people with a social fact, a consensus of opinion among experts, rather than challenging them with blunt scientific data, encourages a shift towards mainstream scientific belief — particularly among conservatives.”

And Especially for Higher-Educated Fact Finders

Another interesting facet of this research is the interaction with education. Lawyers and others with an advanced education sometimes fall victim to the assumption that those who dig in deeply on their motivated beliefs and resist persuasion do so because they aren’t as educated or aren’t as smart. 

Actually, the opposite seems to be true. As I’ve noted beforegreater education and higher levels of science literacy actually increased polarization. greater sophistication actually supercharges motivated cognition, making the smarter ones actually harder targets for persuasion. The researchers also found that relationship in this study, noting that “a more conservative ideology coupled with higher education results in less acceptance of climate science.” However, the most interesting result is that the consensus appeal worked best with exactly that group, fully neutralizing the negative interaction between conservatism and higher education. 

So the best practice is to hold on to a belief that beliefs can be changed. “We caution against the conclusion that communicating facts about contested issues is necessarily ‘polarizing,'” professor van der Linden concluded, “Our study suggests that even in our so-called post-truth environment, hope is not lost for the fact. By presenting scientific facts in a socialized form, such as highlighting consensus, we can still shift opinion across political divides on some of the most pressing issues of our time.”

So Find Your Social Norms

The implication for practical legal persuaders when thinking about how jurors and judges are likely to resist a message that might be seen as cutting against their own beliefs is this: consider consensus. The logic of law might tell you, “Just the fact that many or most people believe something does not make it true,” and that is valid. In a courtroom, there’s the requirement to provide proof and not just popularity. At the same time, decision makers are sometimes motivated to discount that proof because it threatens a current belief system. In that context, it makes sense to think creatively about how your position in litigation might be supporting a norm that is already supported by a large part of the decision maker’s relevant social group. “Instead of trying to change deep-rooted beliefs about contested issues,” van der Linden argues, “it may be easier to correct people’s perception of the norm, as societal norms help set standards against which people evaluate the appropriateness of their beliefs and behaviors.”

Other ‘Alt Fact’ Posts: 


van der Linden, S., Leiserowitz, A., & Maibach, E. (2017). Scientific agreement can neutralize politicization of facts. Nature Human BehaviorISSN 2397-3374 (online). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-017-0259-2

Image credit:, used under license
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