Breaking the dialogues of the deaf

You can't change a cult member's perception of reality by showing him facts, but you can win the group to group argument by reducing his group's recruitment opportunities.
Written by Paul Murphy, Contributor

How do you talk to people who just don't want to hear it?

Every time I get into a conversation comparing Windows to any Unix option I discover the same thing: the people who will listen to rational argument already know the right answers, and the people who won't, don't. So how do we get past that?

It's bad in IT where the failure to make rationale choices costs us money, jobs, and opportunities; but it's much worse in politics where choices made in ignorance can lead to national disaster. At both levels, however, the problem is the same: when you try to talk to people whose views oppose your own, the emotional barriers to communication go up as soon as the divergent opinion is detected, and neither side to the discussion ever gets a point past them.

Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance describes what's going on in terms of a simple prediction: that the strength and commitment people put into seeking out confirmatory support for a belief and actively warding off contrary information depends on the extent to which their own previous actions have committed them to the belief.

To show how this works out in practice he adds the observation that if a belief is subject to disproof and strongly "disconfirmatory" evidence appears, then believers will respond by treating the existence of other people with the same belief as confirmatory evidence for their beliefs, while refusing to accept the legitimacy of disbelievers. In the case Festinger was writing about, the failure of the prophecy drew the cult members closer together and re-energized their attempts to spread their beliefs to others - just as the people who spend millions on "desktop security" respond to continuing failure by insisting on their right to spend more millions and vociferously attack anyone questioning the sanity of their actions.

True believers, in other words, value true believers and reject the existence and value of non believers - thus global warming cultists tell each other that they define the consensus and absolutely refuse to countenance the thousands of uncommitted scientists whose results disagree with their position.

Here's a bit from Festinger - which I cribbed from somebody's site to avoid having to type it myself:

"But whatever explanation is made it is still by itself not sufficient. The dissonance is too important and though they may try to hide it, even from themselves, the believers still know that the prediction was false and all their preparations were in vain. The dissonance cannot be eliminated completely by denying or rationalizing the disconfirmation. But there is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced. If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct. Consider the extreme case: if everyone in the whole world believed something there would be no question at all as to the validity of this belief. It is for this reason that we observe the increase in proselytizing following disconfirmation. If the proselytizing proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it."

Thus one of Festinger's predictions about this is that the stronger the disconfirmatory evidence for a belief, the harder the group will work at trying to convince others, and the more emotional its members will get in rejecting people labelled as the personifications of contrary positions - thus my wife, who is very smart and genuinely loves me, will attack me personally and viciously to avoid questioning her absolute certainty that both Mr. Bush and his vice-president are conscienceless morons incapable of coherent thought (or even tying their own shoelaces) who nevertheless managed to steal the presidency, destroy democracy worldwide, directed hundreds of billions in taxpayer dollars to a few equally contemptible cronies, and are now faking climate data from other planets just to protect big oil.

More Festinger, from the same source:

"A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. "We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks. "But man's resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view. "

There's a quick bottom line here for whichever side in a group to group argument is not subject to disconfirmatory evidence: if you can reduce the cult's recruitment opportunities, then the cult will quickly fall in on itself, leaving only a core group willing to cut themselves off from society - thereby making itself both inaccessible to counter-argument and harmless to society as a whole.

In other words, McCain is going to ensure that people from Wright to Khalidi get more publicity than they ever dreamt of, and open source is going to beat proprietary simply by going around getting the job done.

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