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The Quicksand of Persuasion

The Quicksand of Persuasion


Events in the past few years have tested my faith in the value of rational, dispassionate, fact-based argument as a preferred mechanism to persuade and to motivate action. A sixteen-month campaign for United States Congress, which ended in my loss to Republican Pete Sessions in November, 2010, showed that it’s very hard to change a voter’s mind about much of anything. There’s the “confirmation bias,” meaning that a person pays close attention only to facts and opinion he already accepts and agrees with, and that he tends to discount or ignore facts or opinions which do not fit within his mental furniture. I saw “confirmation bias” every day on the campaign trail, and doing this blog for almost a year has confirmed that people shut down what Al Gore called “inconvenient truth” both with mental earplugs and with more creative strategies.

A Harvard Law School professor, Cass R. Sunstein, has written a book (“Going to Extremes – How Like Minds Unite and Divide“) with evidence that civil discussion between individuals with conflicting ideas and values can lead to more, not less, extreme positions. In one of their experiments, Professor Sunstein and colleagues formed groups of like-minded Colorado residents, with each group consisting solely of people with “conservative” views or with “liberal” views. A group of “conservatives” and a group of “liberals” were then put together to discuss the issue “Should the United States sign an international treaty to combat global warming?” As Professor Sunstein’s tests unfolded, the discussions were “polite, engaged and substantive” and participants treated each other with “civility and respect.”

The results were not the coming together and opinion-moderating a cheerleader for rational exchanges might expect. Instead “In almost every group, members ended up with more extreme positions after they spoke with one another. Most of the liberals in Boulder favored an international treaty to combat global warming before discussion; their enthusiasm increased after discussion. Most of the conservatives in Colorado were neutral on that treaty before discussion; they strongly opposed it after discussion.” Another disturbing result was that opinion sharing within the combined, mixed-opinion pools led to more team-think: “It made both liberal groups and conservative groups significantly more homogeneous-and thus squelched diversity.” All that as a result of controlled, fifteen-minute discussions.

So where does the environmental advocate go? When we started this blog, the prime target was the uninformed and undecided. That’s still a reasonable strategy, but Professor Sunstein’s work suggests that reinforcing existing environmental advocates is important and potentially more productive. We had best leave educating climate change deniers to Mother Nature, whose methods of persuasion are more forceful than ours, and who is unhappy with civilization’s lack of respect. Her powerful tools will eventually convince even the most adamant climate change deniers. Regrettably for all of us, moving the world’s decision makers to real action on climate change is slow, and by the time enough of us climb the difficult paths to sustainable consumption all opportunities to prevent catastrophic climate change may be past. If the die is already cast, we can then all follow the debater’s maxim “better never than late.”

Image by Matthew Bargo (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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