When people are faced with scientific research that clashes with their personal view, they invoke a range of strategies to discount the findings. They will often judge that the topic at hand is not amenable to scientific enquiry [and embrace] the general idea that some topics are beyond the reach of science.
Anyone who seeks to educate, inform, or influence, take note of these techniques to avoid backfire or unwarranted discounting:
- Affirm people’s values first.
- Frame findings to be consistent with their values.
- Present findings in non-threatening ways.
- Speak with humility.
- Say “discover” instead of “disagree”.
- Decrease in-group/out-group salience.
- Provide an alternate target for negative emotions.
- Teach critical thinking and metacognition in safe settings.
What I really appreciated was the research-based guidance for how to address this resistance to scientific evidence, in the second section of the interview (as summarized above). Misunderstanding the distinction between evidence and belief contributes to the problem, but it may not be so obvious how to highlight that distinction productively. As Munro pointed out, Cohen, Aronson, and Steele’s (2000) research demonstrates one way to resolve this tension, as does some of his own research (which unfortunately didn’t get cited directly in the interview). I think this is an extremely important set of findings because it’s so tempting for people to come down hard on those who “just don’t understand,” lecturing authoritatively and perhaps conveying frustration or even attacking their perspectives. Unfortunately, that can backfire. Instead, this research shows that a gentler approach can actually be more effective. I take heart in that.