What You Just Said Hurts My Head

We’re all familiar with the feeling of cognitive dissonance, when suddenly we’re forced to hold two contradicting ideas in our heads. Maybe we’ve just heard unflattering news about someone we respected, or have been presented with facts that challenge a deeply held worldview. As any communications expert will tell you, we tend to deal with this kind of dissonance by simply rejecting the new information as incorrect, unreliable, or purposefully misleading.

NPR recently ran a story on this topic that went a little deeper, exploring how partisan beliefs interacted with challenging facts. Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan and Georgia State’s Jason Reifler began looking into why it is, for instance, that Democrats currently believe the president has little control over gas prices, while six years ago they believed that President Bush could do something to lower them. Republicans have just as predictably switched position on this issue. Partisans, it seems, can reject facts they earlier believed – facts that probably don’t mean much to them, really – in order to stay aligned with their party loyalty.

Party loyalty is one way to describe a more deeply held worldview, but I think an even better term is core values. We belong to certain political parties because they have become a stand-in for those values. So we reject or accept facts that question or support our party loyalty (the president has little control over gas prices) because doing so reinforces our belief that our core values are right. And that we are right. President = party = core values = core identity. So it’s important to us that our party's president does the right thing.

So how do we approach audiences armed with facts that are likely to contradict their firmly-held beliefs? NPR reports:

Nyhan and Reifler hypothesized that partisans reject such information not because they're against the facts, but because it's painful. That notion suggested a possible solution: If partisans were made to feel better about themselves — if they received a little image and ego boost — could this help them more easily absorb the "blow" of information that threatens their pre-existing views?

Nyhan said that ongoing —and as yet, unpublished— research was showing the technique could be effective. The researchers had voters think of times in their lives when they had done something very positive and found that, fortified by this positive memory, voters were more willing to take in information that challenged their pre-existing views.

Interesting, and useful if you’re talking one-on-one and know your subject enough to evoke such specific memories. But what about messaging to the masses? I think the answer is values again. By appealing to people’s notions of what we as a country hold dear, and how those values make us our best selves, we give them a bit of an ego boost.

For instance, the topic of immigration can cause many audiences a fair amount of cognitive dissonance. The dominant narrative tells us that many immigrants are criminals just for being here, and are taking jobs from native-born Americans.  Of course, the facts don’t support either of these storylines. But many an immigration advocate will tell you that simply relaying to folks that being here without papers is a civil, not criminal, violation; or that study after study shows that immigrant workers have no affect on unemployment rates, does not change minds. But what if we made people feel a little good about themselves first? Could they better handle the dissonance?

We could start by reminding people why immigrants want to come here –for opportunity, because of our freedoms, to be a part of something we all love. We can remind people of the other aspirations that most of them believe make this country great: our values of treating people equally and fairly, our values of community and voice, our ambition to make things better and try new things.

Now clearly, those stories can go in a number of different directions and cause their own dissonance, particularly among progressives. Sure, we value equality, but then why do we stand for income and racial disparities? And doesn’t our ambition sometimes cause us to leave whole groups of people behind? No, we don’t always live up to our aspirations. But they’re still good ones. And they do make a lot of people feel good about the country, and perhaps as an extension, themselves.

Like any messaging strategy, opening conversations with values is no silver bullet guaranteed to ease the way for all challenging ideas. But if we know that throwing facts at people doesn’t work (and actually pains them), we need to rethink how we use those facts. Otherwise, they’re not just useless, but actively harmful to the cause.

What You Just Said Hurts My Head

We’re all familiar with the feeling of cognitive dissonance, when suddenly we’re forced to hold two contradicting ideas in our heads. Maybe we’ve just heard unflattering news about someone we respected, or have been presented with facts that challenge a deeply held worldview. As any communications expert will tell you, we tend to deal with this kind of dissonance by simply rejecting the new information as incorrect, unreliable, or purposefully misleading.

NPR recently ran a story on this topic that went a little deeper, exploring how partisan beliefs interacted with challenging facts. Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan and Georgia State’s Jason Reifler began looking into why it is, for instance, that Democrats currently believe the president has little control over gas prices, while six years ago they believed that President Bush could do something to lower them. Republicans have just as predictably switched position on this issue. Partisans, it seems, can reject facts they earlier believed – facts that probably don’t mean much to them, really – in order to stay aligned with their party loyalty.

Party loyalty is one way to describe a more deeply held worldview, but I think an even better term is core values. We belong to certain political parties because they have become a stand-in for those values. So we reject or accept facts that question or support our party loyalty (the president has little control over gas prices) because doing so reinforces our belief that our core values are right. And that we are right. President = party = core values = core identity. So it’s important to us that our party's president does the right thing.

So how do we approach audiences armed with facts that are likely to contradict their firmly-held beliefs? NPR reports:

Nyhan and Reifler hypothesized that partisans reject such information not because they're against the facts, but because it's painful. That notion suggested a possible solution: If partisans were made to feel better about themselves — if they received a little image and ego boost — could this help them more easily absorb the "blow" of information that threatens their pre-existing views?

Nyhan said that ongoing —and as yet, unpublished— research was showing the technique could be effective. The researchers had voters think of times in their lives when they had done something very positive and found that, fortified by this positive memory, voters were more willing to take in information that challenged their pre-existing views.

Interesting, and useful if you’re talking one-on-one and know your subject enough to evoke such specific memories. But what about messaging to the masses? I think the answer is values again. By appealing to people’s notions of what we as a country hold dear, and how those values make us our best selves, we give them a bit of an ego boost.

For instance, the topic of immigration can cause many audiences a fair amount of cognitive dissonance. The dominant narrative tells us that many immigrants are criminals just for being here, and are taking jobs from native-born Americans.  Of course, the facts don’t support either of these storylines. But many an immigration advocate will tell you that simply relaying to folks that being here without papers is a civil, not criminal, violation; or that study after study shows that immigrant workers have no affect on unemployment rates, does not change minds. But what if we made people feel a little good about themselves first? Could they better handle the dissonance?

We could start by reminding people why immigrants want to come here –for opportunity, because of our freedoms, to be a part of something we all love. We can remind people of the other aspirations that most of them believe make this country great: our values of treating people equally and fairly, our values of community and voice, our ambition to make things better and try new things.

Now clearly, those stories can go in a number of different directions and cause their own dissonance, particularly among progressives. Sure, we value equality, but then why do we stand for income and racial disparities? And doesn’t our ambition sometimes cause us to leave whole groups of people behind? No, we don’t always live up to our aspirations. But they’re still good ones. And they do make a lot of people feel good about the country, and perhaps as an extension, themselves.

Like any messaging strategy, opening conversations with values is no silver bullet guaranteed to ease the way for all challenging ideas. But if we know that throwing facts at people doesn’t work (and actually pains them), we need to rethink how we use those facts. Otherwise, they’re not just useless, but actively harmful to the cause.

Framing and the Facts

Here at The Opportunity Agenda, we talk a lot about values, and the importance of building communications around them. In fact, we built a whole organization around six core values that drive our work and the way we talk about it. We do this, of course, because these values matter to us.  Seeing them realized and supported are central to our goals. But as NPR explained recently, leading with values is also a savvy communications strategy. In a story on people's beliefs about climate change, reporter Christopher Joyce describes findings from Yale's Cultural Cognition Project that people form their views about climate change, among other things, based more on their existing worldview - and values - than on the facts presented to them.

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The dismal Democratic messaging of the Lieberman debacle

I know a lot of people right now are furious Joe Lieberman has managed to keep his committee chairmanship.  I'm furious for a different reason.  In fact I'm not even mad at Joe Lieberman at this point or the fact that he managed to keep his chairmanship.  Don't get me wrong, I don't like Joe Lieberman at all.  I mean environmental policy is my highest priority (which he's actually been a leader on) and I still can't stand the guy.  From his crusade on decency standards, to his campaign against Ned Lamont, his foreign policy stances and support for the war, and adding in the 2008 election, Lieberman has always struck me as an arrogant and unapologetic egotist.

What I'm mad about is that once again I watched most of our esteemed Democratic leadership completely fumble the messaging around this whole ordeal and do so from Day One.  And that just scares the hell out of me.  Because while Democrats can get the messaging right campaigning, when it comes to governing they have shown an amazing capacity to just shoot themselves in the foot.  Seriously, they shown time and time again an amazing talent of turning the most white-hat, popularly loved, sunshine, kittens, and apple pie policy issue and into a tale of sordid backroom political maneuvering.

The entire narrative (at least in the mainstream press) on the caucus vote has been on the lines of 'will the Democrats punish Lieberman for criticizing Obama?'  Of course, you'd expect the media to run long and hard with that storyline no matter what message the Democrats were pushing; it has drama, betrayal, anger, all the good stuff of any MSM story.  But the Democrats never pushed any other message - they didn't argue on policy grounds at all.  Every quote, every damn quote, was framed around party loyalty and nothing else.  Not the effect Lieberman would have on Obama's popular if he kept his Homeland Security chair.  Not even a mention of what issues are expected to come before his committee and the effect they will have on the America people.  No, just some complaints about how Lieberman said Obama was inexperienced, and details of secret political machinations.  

As contrast, take the chairmanship dispute between Waxman and Dingell.  Waxman has come out with a powerful message that he'll best be able to help Obama enact the agenda he promised and that the American people want.  That message has worked well in the media, and while there are always political maneuvering tidbits in each article, most of the stories I've read have mostly focused on the policy issues behind this challenge.  In short, the Waxman-Dingell dispute has been grounded in issues affecting Americans and comes off as a principled argument relevant to American's real world concerns (just imagine how the media narrative would have changed if just one Senator had dared mount a challenge to Lieberman's chairmanship).  

By focusing on the party's workings versus the party's mandate, Democrats ended up backing themselves in a corner, which is precisely what allowed Lieberman to keep his committee.  Expel Lieberman and the first act of the new Democratic majority would be seen as pure political retribution, something the independents, young and infrequent voters so successfully courted by the party this last election, just can't stand.  Maybe that couldn't be helped regardless of what messaging party leaders used.  But they never even tried to fight it, guaranteeing that they'd concede to Lieberman in the end.

The conciliatory prize is that by not expelling Lieberman, the Democrats have put forth a good message: We are the party of inclusion.  It's a prize we have to settle for, but it's still powerful stuff, especially considering what we can expect to see from the Republicans for some time to come.  Having lost almost everything but the South and 'militia' areas of the Northwest, and having no moderate nonprofit infrastructure left, the Republican message for the next few years will be determined by it's most orthodox and ideologically conservative members.  Of course, Lieberman might still wreck important legislation with his powerful committee assignment, but hey at least we got a good message out in the end...

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Crowdsourcing the Obama message

This week, Chris Bowers at OpenLeft has been encouraging readers to run their own media campaign. The idea is very simple: at a fairly low budget, anyone can set up a simple Google ad campaign, targeted geographically and by keyword. Bowers has been running two ads - one against McCain, the other against Palin - in his native Pennsylvania, and thinks he can reach a lot of voters on a fairly low budget.

The commenters at OpenLeft have been ecstatic about the idea, and I think it is exceptionally clever. In addition to the first order effects - exposing anti-McCain messages to a lot of voters in swing states - the campaign could also have an indirect sway over the campaign's own messaging strategy, by demonstrating in a quantifiable way the messages that work (and receive a lot of click-throughs) and those that don't. I suppose that's a long shot with this campaign, but it's nevertheless a possibility.

In any case, I'd be interested to see if someone could take this idea to the next level, and make the decentralized media campaign idea a bit more social.  For example, would it be possible to set up a website which allows people to set up all of the parameters for a Google Ad campaign - the keywords, the geographic target, and the message/link which appears - and then to aggregate all of those campaigns on the website in some interesting way?  There are a lot of different ways to do this - e.g. breaking down ad campaigns by state, tag-clouding the chosen keywords, and showing aggregate click-through and impression statistics.  This kind of aggregation could be augmented with comments (suggesting refinments and tweaks to existing campaigns) as well as team fundraising pages, allowing site visitors to support one campaign or another monetarily.  It's also possible to maximize and quantify the impact of a campaign like this by targeting all of these ads at an action-oriented microsite, which takes a user through the steps of signing up for Obama's email list, giving a small donation to the campaign, signing up for My.BarackObama.com, and so on.

This sounds, to me, like a good example of a simple business idea that could be modestly profitable, since after all the main point of this project is to sell Google ads.  Technologically, this should be a relatively simple mashup of a community platform like Drupal with the Google Adwords software development toolkit.  With relatively low costs, it should be possible to set the transaction costs - on top of the raw costs for the campaign itself - at a sufficient level to generate relatively decent profit margins.  Besides the constant problem facing any social web platform - will anyone show up? - the only difficulty, as many OpenLeft commenters have already alluded to, is whether such an endeavor would run afoul of campaign finance rules, and whether or not Google Ad purchases would be considered campaign contributions.  My guess is that this kind of project would have to be organized as a 527, or under the auspices of one.

If something like this doesn't take shape between now and Election Day, it's probably a worthwhile organization to develop, even so.  Beyond the immediate need to go on the offense against McCain, as Chris points out, it's important to help develop and test messaging for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot, in an environment that's not controlld by the campaigns themselves.  More than that, with Google beginning to sell offline media ads in newspapers, radio and television, there's no reason to restrict an ad campaign to Google Adwords (although it's much more gratifying, as real-time metrics are available.)  Any takers?

Disclosure: My company worked on a small technical/design project for Open Left last year.

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