In this highly polarized environment, it may seem unbelievable that we can use science to get people to go against their ideological blinkers. Plenty of research has shown that political ideology induces motivated reasoning, where people pre-select a certain conclusion and reach that conclusion regardless of the facts. In fact, those who view a politician positively and learn negative information about that candidate on average actually increase their positive evaluation of that politician.
More broadly, research shows that when presented with accurate information that contradicts their current political perspective, people tend to invest more strongly into their current political beliefs instead of changing their mind, a thinking error known as the backfire effect.
However, not all hope is lost. Specific, science-based strategies can be used to help address politically-informed motivated reasoning and get people to update their beliefs to match reality, as I showed recently in a conversation with a conservative radio host about Donald Trump's firing FBI Director James Comey.
Trump has made a series of claims about why he chose to fire Comey, generally boiling down to Trump trying to ensure competent leadership of the FBI and concerns about what Trump alleged as Comey’s incompetence in handling the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server. By contrast, the Democratic leadership claimed that Trump fired Comey to prevent the latter from digging deeper into Trump’s potential connections with Russia and allegations of collusion with Russia on hacking the US presidential election.
First, let’s consider the evidence on hand from an external perspective. We need to recognize that our personal political perspectives will strongly influence us to favor one explanation or the other, regardless of the truth. Thus, conservatives will tend to believe Trump, and liberals to support the Democratic leaderships. Indeed, only 24 percent of Republicans believe that Trump fired Comey in part to disrupt the Russia investigation, while 75 percent of Democrats believed that.
Such disparity comes in large part from the tendency of our minds to interpret new information in accordance with our past beliefs—a thinking error known as the confirmation bias. The confirmation bias and backfire effect constitutes one of several thinking errors—known in the behavioral science scholarship as cognitive biases—that lead to motivated reasoning. Fortunately, we can fight the confirmation bias in such situations by evaluating the opinions of people who both have the most information and have political motivations to support one side, but fail to do so or even support the other side.
In this case, we have seen a number of prominent Republicans expressing concerns over Comey’s firing. Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who heads the Senate’s Russia investigation, stated that he was “troubled by the timing and reasoning” of Comey’s firing, which “confuses an already difficult investigation for the Committee.”
So did a number of other influential Republican Senators, such as Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and stated in response to Trump firing Comey that "It is essential that ongoing investigations are fulsome and free of political interference until their completion.” Representative Justin Amash, who belongs to the conservative House Freedom Caucus, even stated that he intends to introduce legislation calling for creating an independent commission to investigate Russia's interference in the election. Pat Tiberi, a conservative member of the House, expressed potential support for a special prosecutor of the Trump and Russia connection and stated that “the White House needs to come clean.”
Altogether, about 40 Republican members of Congress have expressed concerns over Comey’s firing, while virtually every Democrat is calling for an independent commission or special prosecutor to evaluate Comey’s firing. While some of these Republicans are known for breaking ranks at times, such as Senator John McCain, many others—such as Corker and Burr—are mainstream Republicans who generally toe the party line. This data on many of those in the know—federal lawmakers—who have clear political motivation to align with Trump firing Comey instead broke ranks provides strong evidence that the decision to fire Comey is less about incompetence and more about the Russia investigation than anything else.
Another thinking error playing a role in clouding our judgment is illusory correlation, namely an incorrect—illusory—perception of a connection between two events. Trump’s administration claimed, in a memo by deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that Trump referenced in his firing of Comey, that Comey lost support due to his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. Democrats claimed that Trump fired Comey because of Comey’s investigation into the Trump-Russia connection as part of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections.
One of these is an illusory connection, but which is it? Due to confirmation bias, Republicans will be likely to see the Trump-Russia connection as illusory. Democrats will tend to see the Clinton investigation connection as illusory. This illusory correlation contributes to motivated reasoning.
Fortunately, we can use another technique from behavioral science to correct for this thinking error—consider the alternative. Consider a situation where Trump’s true concerns lay with Comey’s Clinton email server investigation. When would Trump fire Comey if this was the case? Trump would fire Comey when Trump entered office, as Trump did with a number of federal attorneys. Instead,
Trump specifically made a decision to keep Comey in office when he took the presidency, despite knowing about Comey’s handling of the email server. Trump specifically indicated, in a message loud and clear for the government investigative bodies, that he would not pursue any further investigation into Clinton’s email server shortly after he was elected. As late as April 12, long after Trump had access to any secret information about Comey’s handling of Clinton’s email server and any other information relevant to Comey’s pre-election activities, Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network “I have confidence in [Comey]." Given this evidence, it seems quite unlikely that the real reason for Comey’s firing is the Clinton email scandal.
What about the Trump-Russia investigation? According to Fox News, a conservative source, the day before he was fired, Comey met with the Republican and Democrat Senators on the Senate intelligence committee, Senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner. At the meeting, he discussed the inquiry into Russian hacking in the presidential election and potential involvement of Trump and members of his administration in this hacking. Burr and Warner both wanted Comey to speed up the investigation, and Comey responded that he needed more resources to conduct the investigation.
Earlier, Comey allegedly made a request for more resources for this investigation from Rosenstein, whose later memo was used by Trump as a reason to fire Comey. Given the evidence of the closeness of the timing of Comey’s requests for more resources and Trump firing Comey, the connection between the investigation into Russian hacking and the firing of Comey appears to be true rather than illusory.
Now, this behavioral science-based conclusion does not favor the conservative perspective, and instead favors the liberal one. Will it mean that conservatives dismiss this analysis out of hand, since it does not match their perspective and would thus fall under motivated reasoning and backfire effect? Or can we use effective behavioral science-informed strategies to help conservatives update toward this science-based conclusion?
My research and public activism concerns how to get people who are ideologically motivated to believe falsehoods to change their perspective. To see if it can be successfully done in this case, I went on the conservative radio network 700WLW to have an interview on this topic with the well-known radio show host Scott Sloan two days after Comey’s dismissal. Sloan is known as a strong proponent of Christian and conservative values, and he had a friendly chat with Trump on his show.
Instead of jumping into the thick of the Comey-Trump debate, at the start of our discussion I established a shared sense of goals for both of us. I noted that we all want our top investigative bodies to be headed by competent officials, and we also all want to ensure that these officials can freely investigate other branches of the government—including the presidential administration—without fear of retribution. Sloan agreed, establishing that common bond between us, making us allies trying to solve a common problem instead of potential enemies.
Following that, I appealed to his identity and emotions by establishing both of us as truth-oriented individuals. I did so by talking about the confirmation bias, pointing out how because of how our brains are wired, the confirmation bias makes it highly problematic for getting at the truth in situations of political disagreement. Then, I talked about how since we have mutual shared goals, we need to figure out effective ways of addressing the confirmation bias, which I outlined earlier in the article. Next, I talked about the specific situation with how federal lawmakers viewed the firing, noting the many mainstream Republicans who broke rank, and no Democrats who did so. After some further conversation, Sloan acknowledged the validity of this behavioral science-informed perspective and accepted that the evidence pointed against Trump’s narrative.
Some might wonder whether this is a fluke, a one-time incident. Not so. In a previous conversation with Sloan, I used similar tactics after the terrorist attack at Ohio State, where I teach, to get him to update away from condemning Muslims and agree that for the sake of our safety, we need to be nice toward Muslims. Sloan is far from unique: Bill Cunnigham is another prominent conservative talk show host who had Trump on his show, is ranked 27 among “Most Important Radio Show Talk Hosts” in America by Talkers Magazine, and is known as a strong supporter of Trump.
Appearing on Cunningham’s show to talk about Trump’s allegations that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower in the 2016 presidential election, I used such strategies to get Cunningham to acknowledge that Trump behaved inappropriately in tweeting his allegations about Obama. In all cases, it is highly likely that our conversation on these radio shows swayed some of their conservative audience to change their perspectives as well, due to the credibility of Sloan and Cunningham among their listeners.
These interviews with staunch conservatives who are well used to debates show the benefits of using behavioral science-based approaches to have reasonable conversations that result in people going against their current values and changing their minds. What it takes is establishing shared goals with the other person, engaging emotionally by calling for a mutual orientation toward truth, and knowing and communicating about why our minds are likely to lead us astray and how to address these biases. An excellent way to encourage a mutual orientation toward the truth and bridge the political divide is to get all participants in a conversation to take the Pro-Truth Pledge, a recent behavioral science instrument designed to address our cognitive biases and more broadly reverse the tide of lies in our public sphere.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is the author of the forthcoming The Alternative to Alternative Facts: Fighting Post-Truth Politics with Behavioral Science. He leads the Pro-Truth Pledge project, designed to reverse the tide of lies in politics, is a professor at Ohio State and President of the nonprofit Intentional Insights.