Why is it so hard to persuade people with facts?

An effective way to correct people’s false beliefs is to approach them directly with the evidence. However, such disputes can sometimes  backfire , causing people to take refuge again in their original position.

A new study  published in Discourse Processes  suggests why: when people read information that puts their identity in check , it causes feelings of anger and dismay that make it difficult for them to put new facts on board.

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Previous research had  suggested  that one of the reasons why changing minds is so challenging is that exposing someone to a new perspective on an issue inevitably awakens in their minds the network of information that justifies their current perspective.

An arms race ensues: when the new information complex overcomes the old , often through the integration of some of the existing information (yes, yogurt contains bacteria, but bacteria can be useful), persuasion is possible. If not, the attempt fails, or even is counter-productive, when the old perspective burns even more fiercely in the person’s conscience.

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However, the new research led by Gregory Trevors was motivated by the idea that the pullback effect may not be on which side is winning this mental arms race. Instead, these researchers believe the problem occurs when new information threatens the recipient’s sense of identity . This triggers negative emotions, which are known to impair understanding and digestion of written information.

Trevors’ team tested their theory with a study of genetically modified foods – a subject fraught with misunderstandings. The researchers assessed 120 participating students for their prior knowledge and attitudes towards genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their need for dietary purity, as measured by items such as “I often think about the lasting effects of the food we eat”. This was intended to explore the importance of food purity for the participants’ sense of identity. The researchers specifically wanted to find out whether this identity factor would influence how people felt when their beliefs were challenged , and whether they would meet or resist the challenge.

After the researchers gave participants scientific information written to directly challenge anti-GMO beliefs, those with the highest scores on dietary purity rated themselves as having the most negative emotions while reading the text, and in a follow-up task, they criticized GMOs more. Crucially, at the end of the study, these participants were actually more likely to be anti-GMOs than a control group that received scientific information that did not challenge beliefs: in other words, the attempt to change minds with factual information had been a backfire .

In further analysis, the researchers directly tested the claim that the identity factor had disrupted the new information learning from pro-GMOs, but there was no evidence for this. Although negative emotions were weakly associated with less post-test learning in a small questionnaire, participants at all levels of dietary purity performed at a similar (poor) level.

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So we can reasonably conclude from this study that threats to a person’s identity resist resistance to making new factual arguments , and we know that negative emotions seem to play a role, but we need more research to fully understand why this leads to a “counterattack” effect.

If persuasion is at greater risk of counterattack when identity is threatened, we may wish to frame arguments so that they do not strongly activate this concept of identity, but others. And if, as this research suggests, the threat of identity causes problems through the stirring of emotion, we may wish to postpone this rupture until later:

Rather than telling someone (to paraphrase the example in the study) “you are wrong to think that genetically modified foods are made only in laboratories because …”, the arguments could first describe cross-pollination and other natural processes, giving time for that raw information was assimilated, before calling attention to how it is incompatible with the person’s crude belief – a stealth bomber and not a point blank range, so to speak.


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