Friday, January 21, 2011

Communication and Debate in the 21st Century

Perhaps there was a point in time when most beliefs and actions were in tune with what could be supported by empirical evidence or logic and those that were not routinely left the collective consciousness. Sadly the importance of such a mindset has waned in the present day. At first these incorrect beliefs could be engaged using financial incentives potentially eliminating conflict between correct and incorrect beliefs. In fact it can be said that some individuals purposely took positions that were incorrect to reap any potential financial benefits associated with ‘changing’ their opinions. However, it appears that even monetary incentives have reached a limit in guiding debate regarding certain topics. If any successful effort is to be made at neutralizing these newly identified psychological triggers it is important to first understand them in order to propose new aspects of debate to eliminate their inappropriate influence.

There are two critical psychological elements up for discussion. The first is characterized by the term ‘Sacred Value’. The following materials can provide a basis of understanding for what a sacred value is and how it has been researched.1-4 From these studies it was concluded that a Sacred Value could not be bought (negotiated away through a monetary incentive); the very notion of even attempting to exchange money for the value in question normally will anger the individual possibly even solidifying the importance of the value.

So the first question to ask is why does this reaction occur? The researchers offer no definitive explanation, but one possibility may follow this logic: money can be viewed as something with universal value; this type of value could imply psychologically that offering money for something equates to desperation. With non-sacred values money (at least some denomination of money) typically has a greater importance than the value, but with Sacred Values the individual ‘recognizes’ the desperation of the act of offering money. The intention of requesting a change in behavior means disagreement with the value and when taking into account the desperation of offering money the belief in the superiority of the value is strengthened. Another possibility is that offering money can be viewed as a quick-fix or lazy, a means to win the negotiation without actually understanding the position of the other party. For non-sacred values such tact is fine because of the superiority of value element argued above; however, Sacred Values are held in such reverence that failing to even attempt to understand their significance is viewed as an insult.

The research on Sacred Values suggests that cost benefit analysis (CBA) can still be an effective tool for increasing probability of reaching an accord when more sterile language is used in an attempt disarm the volatile nature of Sacred Value language triggers;1 however, when thinking about the application of a CBA there appear to be some caveats. First, there has been no deterministic analysis regarding overall quantitative effect, there is no differentiation regarding if using a CBA will increase the percentage for agreement by an average of 2% or 20%. Second, general CBA is not well designed for time-gap comparisons (giving up something in the present for future benefit), which are commonly applied in negotiations, especially those that involve Sacred Values. Third, CBA arguments have a tendency to breakdown difficult to compare benefits along monetary lines, which could spark the aforementioned hard-line tendency when involving Sacred Values, thus the need for tact. Fourth, while the preliminary data may demonstrate an unknown percent increase in negotiation tact with CBA, there is little information regarding differentiation between Sacred Values, but it stands to reason that based on their psychological standing that associating a ‘cost’ to a Sacred Value would be difficult.

Another strategy proposed by researchers is that a Sacred Value can be negotiated more effectively if the other negotiating party is willing to negotiate on one of their Sacred Values in exchange.1 The problem with this strategy is what if there is no Sacred Value to offer in exchange or it is not appropriate to offer one in exchange because of the Sacred Value in question is based on a false premise.

Another strategy, not discussed by the researchers, for addressing negotiations would be to look for Sacred Value contradictions. It can be rationally concluded that there are two types of Sacred Values, primary and secondary. Primary Sacred Values can be defined as values which have long-standing in an individual’s beliefs and are the basis for other beliefs. The most relevant primary Sacred Values have to do with religious beliefs. Secondary Sacred Values are those values that were once non-Sacred Values, but due to long-standing or self-serving interests have transformed into Sacred Values. Due to their inherent and genuine importance primary Sacred Values are held in a higher esteem than secondary Sacred Values. Therefore, if one can utilize the basic tenets of a primary Sacred Values against a secondary Sacred Value, the secondary Sacred Value will more than likely lose its ‘Sacredness’.

A secondary means of applying this contradiction strategy may be through finding common ground between the two parties apart from the particular Sacred Value that is/will become an issue. Normally it stands to reason that a shared Sacred Value can be identified from those commonalities even if it is as basic as a religious based tolerance for the sanctity of life. Finally that shared Sacred Value can be used to generate an argument between the shared Sacred Value and Sacred Value at issue forcing the individual/group to strip one of those values of its sacred characterization.

Another important aspect to addressing Sacred Values is how one identifies them without first having to interpret the emotional response when offered a monetary amount to reconsider it? There does not appear to be some special hard and fast method of identification; the best way may be simply to observe the subtext of responses when an individual is in a debate. The overall ferocity with which certain points and beliefs are argued can create an outline of understanding relative to what has a high level of significance and what does not, but the analysis must be cautious as some values may have received an ‘artificial’ Sacred Value standing which have to be separated from primary/real Sacred Values.

Sacred Values are not the only sticky problem in debate and negotiation. Another psychological development has been the identification of the Backfire Effect5 (note that this backfire effect is not the same one as sometimes described in the increased level of outrage when challenging a Sacred Value). The backfire effect is a term describing how an individual reinforces currently held beliefs by dismissing evidence that contradicts those beliefs. A significant part of this mindset comes from the psychological imperative that most humans find it difficult to accept being wrong even when obviously wrong, thus a sense of cognitive dissidence is utilized to neutralize any information, factual or opinion-based, which would challenge these views.5

A concerning element to the above existence of the backfire is the suspicion that the conscious mind in some way does not even recall the argument upon realizing the contradiction between it and currently held beliefs. Furthermore this rejection seems to solidify the currently held beliefs under some form of internal response that the beliefs ‘defeated’ the challenge brought by those rejected facts. Basically when the backfire effect operates in response to neutralize the contradictory information the brain can process the results of the backfire effect as: the incorrectly held beliefs were more factually accurate than the contradictory information regardless of whether or not they actually were. Another troubling aspect of this backfire system seems to be the demonization of the individual(s) that present these contradictory facts significantly inhibiting their credibility in future discussions. Note that it is important to acknowledge that not everyone has a backfire effect and even those that do, do not utilize it to reject all contradictory information relative to any held belief.

One of the most prominent examples of the backfire effect seems to occur within the realm of climate science and the rejection of human driven global warming. Despite an overwhelming amount of evidence arguing in favor of the validity of humans changing the climate due to the excessive release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere there is still a strong contingent of individuals that reject this notion. The ‘blame the messenger’ aspect of the backfire effect may also explain why climate scientists are so loathed by those that reject human driven global warming. So the pertinent question is what can be done to neutralize the backfire effect?

The first element to developing a strategy is to attempt to deduce the overall breadth of the backfire effect. While the overall applicatory influence of the backfire effect is powerful it does not appear to act as a protectorate on all challenged beliefs. Two immediate possible explanations jump to mind regarding this lack of ‘coverage’ for the backfire effect. First, the effect only protects highly important beliefs such as the aforementioned Sacred Values. This rationality is possible, but seems unlikely because there are a number of values, especially in the political arena, which cannot be rationally viewed as Sacred Values, but are still protected by the backfire effect.

Second, the effect may be tied into complexity. The more complex the topic the higher the probability that the brain can associate, whether true or not, some level of uncertainty in the ‘facts’ which facilitates the ‘escape’ or dismissal of these facts if they do not mesh with currently held beliefs. This explanation seems to have more validity than the first because most backfire-protected beliefs have a level of subjectivity to them, which can foster the necessary uncertainty. For example no one experiences the backfire effect when performing basic numerical arithmetic.

The effort to combating the backfire effect can boil down to two different debate techniques, The Sherlock Holmes or Anabolism. The Sherlock Holmes can be best summed up with one of the more famous quotes from Holmes, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Basically the idea is to demonstrate the basic fallibility of other available options thus rendering no choice but to accept a single primary point as correct. Taking the example from above for the ongoing argument about the validity of global warming, The Sherlock Holmes method is probably most famously applied by John Cook and associates at Overall the Sherlock Holmes method is well suited for arguments where individuals have a strong grasp of how to use probability and ample information is available for verification.

Anabolism, taken from the term in biology, focuses on supporting the validity of the overall argument by building a simple, unarguable and factual basis of support. For example if someone is learning how to do derivatives for the first time a knowledge of basic operators like multiplication and division makes understanding the operations of derivatives more effective over just ‘trusting’ the math book and/or instructor. The use of Anabolism in the discussion of human derived global warming would involve first introducing the inescapability of the Greenhouse Effect. Then confirming that human actions do in fact release additional carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Finally connecting the dots between the Greenhouse Effect and those additional carbon emissions to finish the picture of climate change due to human actions.

Realistically there appear to be four reasons individuals would reject arguments against human driven global warming: Ignorance, Lack of Intelligence/Confusion, Self-Driven Short-term Interests and Fear. A fifth reason that could be included is ‘direct contradiction to personally held beliefs’, but the inclusion of this reason is questionable. The reason is that there is no rational direct development of a contradictory belief. It is difficult to rationalize someone somehow developing a specific ‘humans do not drive global warming’ belief because of the specificity of the belief; there needs to be an attributable element, ‘humans do not drive global warming because…’. The lack of a direct independent origin demands an indirect cause, which is largely derived from one of the aforementioned four reasons.

Depending on which of the four rationalities is utilized to question the validity of global warming a different argument technique must be applied. Inquisitive ignorance is probably the most benign when it comes to reactionary hostility and a potential backfire effect. An ignorant individual simply needs to be given the facts, more than likely through the Anabolism method to be convinced of the validity of global warming. Application of the Sherlock Holmes method is risky because exposing an ignorant individual to the possibility of many different variables, regardless of their validity, may spawn unforeseen consequences and promote an unexpected backfire response. If the ignorant individual asks a questions that addresses an element outside of those presented in the Anabolism method then that question should be answered, but overall ignorant participants should be shielded from as much irrelevant information as possible to ensure the lowest probability possible for confusion.

Lack of Intelligence/Confusion is a tricky element because when an individual is not able to understand a situation on its facts and/or merits he/she is likely to be taken in by familiarity and non-relevant credibility of those discussing the issue. Political pundits take advantage of these individuals to disseminate their beliefs even if they are not experts in the field and their argument has no genuine logical or factual information. Unfortunately this reality is also a prime environment for the generation of the backfire effect and possible pseudo-Sacred Values.

Information bombing these individuals, i.e. the Sherlock Holmes method, is almost guaranteed to fail because it simply provides a load of factual information that these individuals do not have the capacity to absorb and sort into relevant and cohesive thoughts and conclusions. In a lot of respects such a strategy simply creates a ‘he said’ - ‘she said’ type argument where the individual will favor the argument that conforms to his/her beliefs regardless of its factual nature. The better argument methodology would be the Anabolism method where simple to understand scientifically valid information can build a bridge to understanding the more complex issues involving global warming.

In the case of those characterized with Self-Driven Short-term Interests little can be done. Those that fall into this category are not ignorant of the situation nor are they confused. These individuals simply value their place in society and feel that place would be compromised if the necessary steps to mitigate climate change were taken. Overall there is no effective argument because any current strategy to mitigate climate change has no short-term benefits that exceed those benefits already being acquired by these individuals. The significant long-term benefits of mitigation are of little negotiating importance because they are not guaranteed unlike the currently acquired benefits and they typically take too long to materialize to the magnitude that would rival the current benefits. The only real strategy to deal with these individuals is to isolate them and slowly strip them of any power and influence until the long-term benefits of climate change mitigation policy exceed their short-term benefits provided by the current system.

Fear is an interesting opponent because of its associated emotional tenor. The manifestation of fear as an impediment primarily occurs one of two ways: fear of change in general or fear of accepting the potential consequences of inaction or insufficient action. The emotional element that accompanies fear makes it difficult to use facts and logic to accept the coming reality associated with a changing climate and more than likely maximizes the influence of the backfire effect. Fortunately these particular elements of fear are no different from other events where fear plays a role, especially for those that simply fear change in general.

For those fearing change there are two elements that should help alleviate the fear. First, one should ask the individual in question about another time when he/she was afraid and how that individual overcame the fear. Simple reminders that fear is conquerable can be a powerful self-motivator. Second, illustrate how the individual’s life will be similar to the present even during and after the change to a lower emission environment, focusing on simple everyday tasks and events. One key element is not to oversell how easy the transition will be, but to focus on the minimal nature of the overall change.

For those fearing accepting the potential consequences of climate change most environmentalists attack this fear by using fear through the suggestion that if nothing is done to mitigate climate change then the future will be much worse. While popular and accurate, the method of using fear to attack fear is extremely hit-or-miss with its success largely dependent on the personality of the individual. One may respond as intended with the fear of consequences from an unmitigated future climate overcoming the ‘fear paralysis’ currently limiting the ability to act. However, others may have created a desensitized fear ceiling where they are only affected by fear to a certain point and additional fear beyond this ‘paralysis’ point is immaterial. Others still may view this fear-based argument as spurious due to a lack of credibility given to the environmental movement as a whole.

These ‘counter-mechanisms’ are probably why environmentalists have not seen much traction in overcoming individuals hesitant to act due to fear. A better means to deal with fear is demonstrate a detailed and transparent plan of attack to deal with emission reduction. The environmental movement has either not done this or not advertised that such a detailed numeric exists because they still resort to the above fear-based argument or trot out plans that talk about wedges, but do not discuss in specific detail how society is going to go from point A to point B; how is society going to build that x million MW of ‘insert alternative energy source here’? Simply hoping that the free market is going to get the job done in some mysterious way will more than likely result in failure. This lack of specificity continues to be a problem for environmentalists in convincing the general public of the dangers of climate change and the plausibility of a mitigation and remediation-based response, for the public is like business they like to have a plan and see what is in front of them so effective predictions can be made regarding the future. Without this certainty fear and confusion have a much higher probability of being relevant detrimental factors inhibiting the steps required for action.

While the issue of human driven climate change was used as the example for the secondary part of the discussion relative to the backfire mechanism, the two problems of Sacred Values and backfire are relevant in any topic of discussion. The climate change example did highlight the importance of general simplistic background information when entering into a negotiation. Limiting the amount of information to what is immediately relevant is important when explaining a complicated issue and attacking the backfire effect. Unfortunately the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ method does not appear to be an effective persuasion tool relative to the reasons one may reject human driven global warming, yet it appears to be the method most preferred by the environmental movement. Overall a critical component for the continued evolution of society will be the abandonment of incorrect ideas; one aspect of that goal is to employ discussion strategies that will better allow individuals to recognize and accept being incorrect and how to adjust their value system to eliminate the incorrect mindsets and adapt those mindsets that do not conflict with reality.

1. Ginges, J, et, Al. “Sacred Bounds on Rational Resolution of Violent Political Conflict.” PNAS. May 1, 2007. 104(18): 7357-7360.

2. Tetlock, P, et, Al. The Psychology of the Unthinkable: Taboo Trade-Offs, Forbidden Base Rates, and Heretical Counterfactuals.

3. Dehghani, M, et, Al. “Emerging Sacred Values: Iran’s Nuclear Program.” Judgment and Decision Making. 2009. 4(7): 930-933.

4. Baron, J, and Spranca, M. “Protected values.” Organizational Behavior and Decision Processes. 1997. 70: 1–16.

5. Nyhan, B, and Reifler, J. When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. 2006.

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