Speaking through another's eyes

Matthew Feinberg (U. of Toronto) and Robb Willer (Stanford) have published an article in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that tackles the knotty question of how to change someone’s mind.  Although the topic of their paper is politics, it requires only a small leap to see how the science applies to other forms of persuasion.

The point is rather simple.  People can be persuaded if you frame an argument to them in a way that resonates with their deepest values.  For example, the argument “Same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans who contribute to the American economy and society” significantly increases support for same-sex marriage among conservatives, compared to a message centered on equality.  Both messages resonate equally well with liberals.

Similarly, an argument for increased military spending on the grounds that the military helps disadvantaged youth “achieve equal standing [by providing] a reliable salary and a future apart from the challenges of poverty and inequality” is a persuasive argument for liberals, who otherwise might oppose such spending.

This echoes the strategy Olson Zaltman recommended to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in the landmark study we conducted for them about health disparities in the U.S.  The rub is that making this kind of argument is hard, because it requires you to persuade people by using logic that you may not find intuitive yourself.  It is almost akin to speaking another language.

The Feinberg-Willer article is summarized in the New York Times.