Everyone has the experience of trying to convince someone of something. It could be for something as trivial as renting the movie you want, to something as important as deciding on whether or not to give your child a vaccine. Strongly-held beliefs can be incredibly difficult to shake, but how might one be able to do so effectively? One of the most widely-used strategies is probably the most ineffective – yelling “No, you’re wrong!” or calling them names. As astronomer Phil Plait once said in a speech during a skeptic conference in 2010, yelling at or insulting people won’t persuade them. New research is suggesting that, in fact, if you really want to persuade someone, you should agree with them to the extreme.
Israeli psychologists recently came out with fascinating study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, on how to persuade people on some of their most emotionally-charged beliefs. What’s more emotionally-charged in Israel than the conflict with Palestinians?
Half of the 150 Israeli participants were shown video clips relating the conflict with Palestinians to Israeli-held values. The other half watched neutral TV commercials to serve as the control group. From the Sydney Morning Herald:
Instead of pointing out how the conflict stood at odds with Israeli values — a common approach in persuasion — the experimental videos illustrated how the conflict was consistent with many participants’ beliefs, taken to their extreme limit.
“For example, the fact that they are the most moral society in the world is one of the most basic beliefs of Israeli society,” Professor [and co-author of the study, Eran] Halperin said. So when the researchers showed participants a video that claimed Israel should continue the conflict so that its citizens could continue to feel moral, people reacted angrily.
“You take people’s most basic beliefs and turn them into something that is absurd,” Professor Halperin said. “For an outsider, it can sound like a joke, but for them, you are playing with their most fundamental belief.”
Intuitively, we would assume that showing extreme versions of ideas that confirmed their already-held beliefs and opinions would be met with further reinforcement, but that was not the case.
The researchers found that over a period of months leading up to the Israeli elections in 2013, the repeated exposure to the Palestinian-conflict videos made participants’ attitude weaken, compared to the control group. This is because the videos portrayed their own beliefs as irrational or absurd. This could explain why viewers of satirical news programs are so often against the things being satirized. That is to say, the content of those programs may be responsible in forming some of those beliefs, rather than the notion that only the people who have those beliefs choose to watch those programs in the first place.
Regardless, not only did the control group report a 30% in willingness to re-evalute their beliefs on the Palestinian conflict compared to the control group, but these effects persistent even a year after the study concluded. More people in the conflict-video group also reported voting for moderate/neutral parties – such as those who favoured taking measures like reducing Israeli settlements in the West Bank – than their counterparts in the commercial-watching control group.
As interesting as these results may be, keep in mind that the videos were disturbing to the participants in the control group. Therefore, in a laboratory setting where researchers have control over the viewing habits of the participants, it’s easy to have them engage in passive viewing. However, in the real world – especially in a country with the freedom and rights seen in Israel – it would be difficult to have people sit through a video that disturbs them. If it is disturbing, they would likely stop watching. Therefore, this is a tactic that won’t be easily used for manipulations in free, democratic countries. Furthermore, even if this was the case, keep in mind that some of the participants actually did take the videos as they were, strengthening their views with a suspension of critical thinking.
Professor Halperin, from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, said that there are many “psychological barriers that prevent societies from identifying opportunities for peace.” Indeed, the point of this study (which was conducted well before the recent regional conflicts) can be understood in the study’s title: Paradoxical thinking as a new avenue of intervention to promote peace.
This study serves as a reminder that the way to persuade often flies in the face of what people would call “common sense.” For example, we know now from studies on anti-smoking efforts that particularly salient messages can actual yield the opposite effect. For example, a 1999 study from the Swiss Journal of Psychology found that high school smokers who strongly self-identified as smokers were actually more defensive when exposed to anti-smoking campaigns, thereby reducing the effect of such a campaign.
Our understanding of psychology is constantly expanding, but laypeople often don’t reap the benefits of such knowledge, when it would certainly be in their best interests to do so. The next time you think about persuading someone about their long-held beliefs, you might want to reconsider how much you should disagree with them.