How to Talk to a Fox News Viewer
Those on the Left need to stop ignoring the science of Influence & Persuasion
TBP, November 22, 2018
As noted in 2018, I enjoyed playing with this concept so much that I created several versions of it. Below is my favorite “no holds barred” variation on a theme, just in time for Turkey day. Enjoy.
The midterms are over, Presidential elections are 2 years away, and Thanksgiving Day is here. If your family is anything like mine, you have a few Fox News viewers in the crowd. Rather than allow politics to ruin your Turkey Day, some timely advice might help save your holidays.
Stop rolling your eyes: Fox News continues to be the most watched cable news channel in America. It is extremely influential, even if – or perhaps, because – its viewers are so much less informed than those who watch other channels or watch no news at all. Fox News misinform as it entertains, so much so that it has garnered its own Wikipedia page of controversies and errors.
Laugh all you want, you smug, Ivy League-educated, coastal elites! Your own arrogance is preventing you from using the latest advances in influence and persuasion sciences to affect the Q-Anon crowd’s belief system. Of course, it’s ridiculous, but so is wasting your breath.* Your rejection of academic research makes you no better than the anti-vaxxers and global warming denialists, who also ignore Science with a capital “S.”
You read that right: I just compared America’s liberal elite to the mouth-breathing flat-Earthers. Why? Trump proved to us that at least 30% of the electorate deeply believes things at odds with reality. You so-called Elites continue to snidely wag your fingers as you condescendingly lecture them, having precisely zero influence over their beliefs.
Behavioral Economics has taught us the ways cognitive psychology can help.1 Our task of bringing reality to our family members is made easier by this scholarly research. Start out by recognizing the immense difficulty of changing a person’s mind. Improve your odds by understanding how people, regardless of ideologies, create their own subjective model of the universe.
Follow this advice, and all will have a more pleasant holiday – no matter what news channel they watch:
1. Understand Cognitive Dissonance: The mechanism that allows people to ignore facts inconsistent with their ideology or worldview.2 Psychologists know how much time and energy3 go into creating each person’s model of the world. Given that huge investment, we are extremely reluctant to change our models. It is a species-wide exercise in the “sunk cost fallacy.”
Your worldview includes your self of sense, ideology, and conceptualizations of your tribe. Anyone who bluntly challenges this naturally encounters fierce resistance.4 To persuade your Crazy Uncle Murray, it’s best to not require him to renounce views he has held most of his adult life. A more effective approach is one that allows his giant investment in creating his model to be (mostly) preserved.
2. Beware the Backfire Effect: When a dependable lifelong belief set is presented with contradictory facts, what happens is the Backfire Effect. Academic research has found that merely presenting info that challenges our worldview serves only to harden those previous positions. Not only aren’t our beliefs “corrected” by fact-checking, but the attempt at “correction actually increases misperceptions.”
President Trump understands this all too well. When he gaslights the public — Toronto Star and the Washington Post have tracked thousands of the specifics — he relies on the media and all you silly elites to finish the job for him. Every correction simply extends the news cycle another day; each new fact check only convinces the folks who heard the original false statements that they were accurate.
It is astonishing but true: when your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger. Facts may be stubborn things, but minds are even more stubborn. Former President Gaslight understands this all too well.
3. Let Socrates Help: OK, you now know lecturing people won’t help. If you want to actually change someone’s mind, follow the script first laid out 2,400 years ago by Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy.
Never one to sermonize his students, Socrates led them through a structured argumentative dialogue instead. He asked them questions. He helped them consider their underlying beliefs and knowledge. The process forced students to think critically about their own belief systems. It led them to better hypotheses by helping to identify and eliminate those that were weak or problematic.
The benefit of this cooperative dialogue is that when individuals reach a conclusion on their own, it more easily modifies their model of the world. Therein lay the difference. The Socratic method avoids both the Backfire Effect and Cognitive Dissonance. Finding the answers by yourself, even with that assist from Socrates, allows new conclusions to be incorporated into models more easily. The only drawback is that it requires thought, preparation, and patience.
4. Emphasize Your Tribe: Famed psychologist Robert Cialdini, author of the best-selling book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” and all around expert on persuasion (see our MIB interview here) notes how important it is to emphasize you are of the same tribe. He calls it the Convert Communicator:
“I used to believe what you do – I was against the ACA. But then this happened to me, and it changed my mind.” Cialdini uses the example of a healthcare issue to an opponent of ACA (Obamacare). “I was in your shoes, I believed what you do – until my child got sick, and but for the pre-existing coverage mandate of Obamacare, we would not have gotten treatment. That experience led me to change my views.”
It is hard to reject somebody who shares your beliefs. People are more willing to be open to a person who used to believe what they do, but life events changed that perspective. Cialdini is surprised that the two major parties have not deployed this systematically.
5. Never Argue from Outliers: Trump has fringe followers who are clearly racist; he has a long history of issues with race; his sexism and misogyny have all been well documented; (his dog whistles to anti-semites are more complicated). However, be cautious when making assumptions about all of the folks who voted for him.
When we analyze why people vote for a given candidate or party, political science informs us the biggest drivers are economic and/or security priorities.5 A Pew Research Center poll found that for “Trump supporters, 90 percent call the economy very important to their vote.” That suggests that other factors (no matter how uncomfortable) are not the key determinant of individual voting.
This is true across parties and drives many voters. Other factors simply have a lower priority and are either downgraded or ignored. I know that my sister is not racist and that my brother is not anti-semitic – yet they both voted for Trump in 2016, primarily because of their economic priorities.
What compounds this is the Availability bias: “That which comes readily to mind is more representative than is actually the case.” Given how much coverage was garnered by the Access Hollywood tape or the Charlottesville White Supremacists march, it is very easy to paint Fox News viewers and Trump Voters with the horrible attributes of those groups’ worst members.
Don’t make that assumption. It’s both lazy and ineffective. There are ways to raise this issue without accusing family members of being anti-semites or misogynists. “I wish his rhetoric was less encouraging to the worst elements in society” is a much better phrase than “All Trump voters are racists.”
For a better holiday dinner, try giving your family members the benefit of the doubt . . .
Whether you believe, as I do, that America has a Fox News problem or not, there is no reason for politics to ruin your holiday get-togethers. Use what we have learned from behavioral economics to enjoy your family get-together. Happy holidays!
MiB: David McRaney on Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion (October 1, 2022)
What Is In Your Control? (September 27, 2022)
When Narratives Collapse (November 18, 2022)
The Uncertainty Monster (July 21, 2022)
1. As we have shown, Investors who have a faulty model of the world or believe in alternative facts end up quickly punished in the markets; politicos who buy into falsity may lose an election two or four years down the road.
The key difference between investing and politics is the speed of the feedback loop. Investors who believe “Fake News” go broke pretty quickly, while some who believe in magical thinking never seem to suffer the consequences of their foolishness. I am looking at you Arthur Laffer!
2. Note: I have held the title of “Director of Twitter Cognitive Dissonance” since 2009
3. By Energy consumption, I mean literally: The brain only weighs about 3 pounds but it consumes 20 percent of the energy of the body.
4. A variation of this is the Upton Sinclair quote: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
5. Health care and “Senior’s issues” (including Social Security and Medicare) all made the top four issues regardless of party affiliation. These are arguably also economic concerns.
This was originally published TBP, November 22, 2018. A shorter, less snarky version of this was published at Bloomberg, November 20, 2018. All of my Bloomberg columns can be found here and here.
*. To quote Robert Heinlein:
“Never attempt to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.”