As communication pros we’ve always had a tough challenge, but drafting and communicating a message these days is more difficult than ever. Beyond the long-standing requirements of clarity, relevance and credibility we now must address the emerging demands for trans-media content, real-time conversation (and adjustment) and targeted delivery across social platforms; all in a context of decreasing trust for leaders and corporations. It turns out that even if we satisfy all these best practices, we still face a major hurdle. Indeed, new research suggests that even the strongest factual messages may not be enough to change minds. Chalk it up to confirmation bias.

If you’ve ever wondered why even the strongest arguments don’t seem to resonate with a particular audience – even when supported with cogent evidence and presented by credible sources – this research by IPR has the explanation. In a recent study IPR author Christopher Graves found that when people are shown evidence they may be wrong, they not only discount that evidence, they become even more extreme in their original belief. […] While it may not have been particularly surprising that people cling to their beliefs to the degree that they filter out any evidence that challenges their beliefs, an unexpected finding of the experiment was a backfire. The study goes into interesting details about the physiology and neuroscience behind this phenomenon. One particularly interesting finding suggests the messenger of information is critical, since outsiders will automatically elicit skepticism: To avoid being rejected from the get-go, you must choose representatives with whom each group feels comfortable, messengers or narrators who send the proper cues that identify them as in-group members. 

Though I’ve long known people initially discount information that doesn’t suit their particular viewpoint or narrative, I was surprised by the lack of importance (or power) that facts have if they go against the prevailing views of the target audience. Furthermore, it appears the more you try the wrong approach, the more you polarize the audience and diminish the resonance of your argument. I suppose this information bias helps explain how seemingly smart, curious individuals can have such different opinions on major public issues (notably climate change) and are not swayed by evidentiary facts that contradict their position.

So what are PR pros to do with this information? I suppose the first decision is whether to throw in the towel and abandon probity and factual evidence as tenets of content. After all, if the facts don’t really make a difference with many people, why even bother? Let’s just jump on the hype bandwagon and sell snake-oil. Assuming we want to maintain our ethical stance and remain committed to telling the truth – in whatever format and channel is most effective – there is a potential path to success.

The IPR research itself suggests that the answer to overcoming strong confirmation bias can be overcome with the following strategy:

  • Affirm/recognize the audience’s core values
  • Argue the position through an emotional narrative
  • Choose an in-house messenger to reinforce, if not carry your message

It’s interesting to note that this roadmap in many ways echoes the increasing focus on influentials and storytelling in successful social media programs. It also suggests that it’s easier to change minds through conversation (and intellectual compromise) than just turning up the volume or frequency of your message.

I look forward to additional findings and guidance from this IPR study. For now, the lesson is that using facts and logic to convince a skeptical audience – no matter the underlying value of the evidence – will not only fail without the right strategy, but will likely backfire and permanently discredit your argument. Another good reminder to think before we act.

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