Social Influence

Changing the Body Politic

Le Page vetoes bill allowing life-saving drug for opiate overdose.

Men will be using the bathroom with your daughters and wives!

The ACA drives up unemployment.

Abortion causes breast cancer.

Hillary Clinton did Benghazi!

United Fucking States of Fucking Stupid! Rage against the infuriating conservative machine! Snark and condescension all around! Belittle and shame!

Is there a different approach? One that might have a chance of changing minds and creating agreement?

Can the US be smartened up? Can we reverse the pandemic of fatuity?

Maybe, just maybe, we can if we understand some of the very human tendencies that drive people to cling so stubbornly to notions that have been easily and clearly disproved.

Fundamental Brain Things

There are a couple of ideas that are foundational fundamental to making these obvious errors difficult to change and one that might help:

  • Mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are nerve cells that fire when you see someone else doing something. When these neurons fire, it is as if you are doing the thing that you are watching someone else do. So, if you see someone else smiling, it is as if you are smiling. When you smile, your mood is lifted. You feel happier.
  • Emotional decision-making. Here are a few fun facts about the brain to help drive the point home: The human brain is about 2% of the total body weight yet uses approximately 25% of the body’s oxygen and 70% of the body’s glucose! So, to conserve energy and resources, the brain has developed shortcuts. One of these shortcuts is to rely on emotional reactions to make decisions. Emotions are fast and thinking is slow. Emotions are always in operation, thinking only when needed. When we encounter something, we have an immediate emotional response. If that emotion is satisfying, we are likely to accept it without thinking, meaning without thinking too carefully about it.
  • Surprise. The brain uses the feeling of surprise to help direct its attention to what is important. If you can imagine being a hunter-gather on the savanna, the thing that kills you usually surprises you just before the big moment. If you are so habituated to something in your environment that seeing it there doesn’t surprise you, it mustn’t be so important. If there is something new, though, you are surprised, and you focus on it.

Your Drunk Uncle


Who’s the drunk uncle?

How are these two ideas foundational to the tendency to accept erroneous information as true and to resist correction? Think about the last drunken argument you had with your very conservative uncle at Thanksgiving. He said, “Hillary did all the Benghazis!” You said, “nuh-unh.” Your mother warned you both to shut the fuck up. And it was off to the races.

Mirror neurons suggest that anger begets anger. You respond angrily to your intensely stupid drunk uncle because he’s angry! And, he responds angrily to you because you are angry. It is that simple.

The lesson is to save your anger for times it is useful. It ain’t helping you in the hand-to-hand combat we have to do with conservative ignoramuses if we are to turn this thing around. It is only making things worse.

Now, here is a puzzler: When you confront lies with facts, the entrenched true believer just digs in deeper. This is because of emotional decision-making. Challenging long cherished beliefs will only trigger an emotional defensiveness. Everything will be challenged tooth and nail. Nothing will be accepted. It will all be rejected. All emotion, all the time. Fight to the death! You’re trying to tear the country down. You’re jealous of our freedoms! I want my country back!

Let’s face it: emotions feel good. Righteous indignation has got to be one of the most satisfying emotive states god ever created. Condescending to those utterly ridiculous obtuse contrarians is a pleasure rivaling that of orgasm. None of it will win an argument, though, nor help to correct the wrongs we so long to correct.

Your drunk uncle is not your casual armchair political observer; he has a lot of ego wrapped up in his beliefs. Admittedly, he may not know much, but he knows what he likes. And, he’s heard it all over and over again: guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Obama is a Kenyan Muslim. The homosexual agenda will destroy America. There is strong emotion wrapped up with these beliefs because there is personal identity wrapped up in them. He is now identifying as the conservative nincompoop. And, he will be standing up for what he believes in! He won’t be pushed around by the liberal agenda any longer.

If these beliefs become entangled with God, it can cause them to be even more stubborn. It cannot be emphasized enough: if you truly believe that your god is omniscient, then that god is always correct. ALWAYS. ALWAYS IN ALL WAYS. So, to disobey the omniscient god is go against absolute correctness. Unfortunately, god does not often actually talk to us mere mortals, but if you believe strongly enough, you will feel as if god has spoken to you. And, funnily enough, god will tell you exactly what you were thinking. You find that you and god are in exact agreement.

We are emotional decision-makers, so those emotions feel right. You get worked up over life starting at conception, and it feels right. If it feels right, then the spirit has moved you. God agrees with you! It is completely circular, and it is completely unassailable by frontal assault.

Now, your drunk uncle is absolutely convinced that he is absolutely correct because in one way or another, god, the omniscient one true god, has told him that he is right. His whiskey-addled brain is absolutely sure that he is correct.


Here is where one of those fun brain facts actually comes in to help. Nothing grabs the brain’s attention like surprise. Donald Trump is for trans people using the bathroom of their choosing and not of their birth certificate. Hillary Clinton thinks that some criminals ought to be murdered by the state. Paul Ryan says he was wrong about the poor being takers. Bernie Sanders thinks that some gun mongers ought to beyond liability. These are surprising political stances for these folks to take. That surprise will help disarm the defensive mind. As long as you’re acting as your drunk uncle expects you to act, then he doesn’t have to listen to you. As soon as he encounters the unexpected, he is off guard and vulnerable to the truth.

You may have heard of the controversy surrounding a study by LaCour and Green concerning canvassing about marriage equality. You may have heard of a follow up study by Broockman and Kalla that corrected the methodology of the first study.

While LaCour and Green were full of shit, Broockman and Kalla were full of spunk! The latter two demonstrated that minds could be changed if empathy was built. Their canvassers didn’t argue with whoever answered the door and disagreed with them. That would be expected, mirror neurons and emotional-decision making would kick in and no one would change anything.

Instead, they asked questions about the respondent’s marriage and compared it with their own. The respondent is surprised by the tact the canvasser is taking and so pays closer attention. When the respondent, then, starts to realize that the only real differences between her marriage and the canvasser’s is the gender of the spouse, they began to see things differently. They begin to see the canvasser as someone like them.

It takes careful planning so that you can begin to engage with your drunk uncle about gun rights or Benghazi or trans peoples’ bathroom rights, but it can be done. Disarm your opponent with surprise, use mirror neurons to engage in a friendly conversation, and evoke an empathy-based emotional decision, and you’ll get a lot further down the road of changing your drunk uncle’s mind on Hillary’s emails.

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