I came across an article in Nature, Fixing the Communications Failure discussing why people are so seldom convinced by scientific arguments.
There are plenty of examples – climate change, the MMR vaccine, nuclear power and the article discusses how ‘cultural cognition’, described as ‘the influence of group values — ones relating to equality and authority, individualism and community — on risk perceptions and related beliefs’ can be a barrier to getting a message across.
We are told about a famous 1950s psychology experiment, where researchers showed students from two Ivy League colleges a film of an American football game between their schools in which officials made a series of controversial decisions against one side. Asked to make their own assessments, students who attended the offending team’s college reported seeing half as many illegal plays as did students from the opposing institution. Group ties, the researchers concluded, had unconsciously motivated students from both colleges to view the tape in a manner that favoured their own school.
It is argued that cultural cognition causes people to interpret new evidence in a biased way that reinforces their predispositions. The article gives the example of a trial which showed that ‘people who were supplied with neutral, balanced information immediately splintered into highly polarized factions consistent with their cultural predispositions’.
So how can this be avoided?
One method, taking the example of climate change, is to present information in a manner that affirms rather than threatens people’s values. It is suggested that people with individualistic values resist scientific evidence that climate change is a serious threat because they have come to assume that industry-constraining carbon-emission limits are the main solution. They would probably look at the evidence more favourably, however, if made aware that the possible responses to climate change include nuclear power and geoengineering, enterprises that to them symbolize human resourcefulness.
The other suggestion is that sound information should be vouched for by a diverse set of experts. People feel that it is safe to consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it.
So what? Well I guess that whilst the article is aimed at issues of science, the concept of cultural cognition has much wider application – whatever message we may have, we should take note of these ideas – work hard to understand the values driving our audiences perceptions & world view and recognise that folk are more prepared to listen to ‘people like them’.