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Persuading the Unpersuadable: Pre-Session Post

I’m blogging today from ScienceOnline, the annual science bloggers’ conference in Raleigh, NC.

Today I will actually be co-moderating a session (streaming live at the ScienceOnlineLive website at 4:00 EST!) with HuffPost senior science correspondent Cara Santa Maria. Our session is titled “Persuading the Unpersuadable: Communicating Science to Deniers, Cynics, and Trolls.” I will be writing a longer post after the session with some more information about what is discussed, but I encourage everyone to follow along on Twitter using the ScienceOnline hashtag (#scio13) and the specific hashtag for our session (#TrollTalk).

Within the session, I will be mentioning some specific “Persuasion Tricks” (aka “Jedi Mind Tricks”) from the social psychology literature that can help us sneak our message into some skeptical minds. As Cara and I are really hoping to limit the amount of “lecturing” that we do and keep the focus on discussion/conversation, I will not be going into as much detail as I could during the session. Rather, I’m going to be directing folks to this page at the beginning of the session (hello, participants!) so this page can be used as a quick reference for what I will be talking about.

Here are the main points that I’d like to touch on:

1. The Sleeper Effect. If you hear a message coming from a source that you don’t trust, you’ll discount the message and you won’t take it seriously or believe it. However, if you don’t know what the source is when you first receive the message, and you only get the source information after, you will still think the message is bad when you receive it. But over time, the “message” will become dissociated from the “source,” and you will forget over time that the message came from the untrustworthy source. As a result, even if you reject the message at first, it will become more persuasive over time if you find out about the source after receiving the message. This can be used to your benefit if you know that you are dealing with a community that specifically distrusts scientists. As science communicators, we tend to think that attributing things to “science” or “researchers” makes them more credible, but this won’t be the case for science skeptics. If you opt instead to relay the information before citing the source, you might find the message sinking into this audience more over time.

See also:

Kumkale, G.T. & Albarracín, D. (2004). The Sleeper Effect in Persuasion: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin, 130, pp. 143–172.

2. Fear Appeals (or, be careful about your attack strategy). Generally, scare tactics actually do work – so if you are trying to get an impassioned message across, emphasizing things like how severe a threat is and how susceptible people are to it can work really well. However, research on fear appeals suggests that there are two crucial things that you absolutely must keep in mind. (1) Make sure you include an efficacy message – don’t just scare people, tell them what they can do about it to help them cope. (2) Fear tends to backfire when the thing you are “scaring” people about is really personally relevant to them. If something is really personal to somebody (e.g. it’s a core moral value or a deeply personal topic for them), don’t try to scare your message into them. It will engage defensive reactions, and it will likely backfire, either having no effect or possibly leading people to go even further to the opposite extreme.

See also:

Witte, K. & Allen, M. (2000). A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns. Health Education & Behavior, 27, 591–615.

3. The Foot-In-The-Door Effect. As any good salesman could tell you, if you’re trying to get someone to agree to something big, start small and gradually raise the stakes. Once you get someone to agree to a small, easy request, they’re more and more likely to continue agreeing to successively larger requests. If you know that you’re trying to convey a message that will be difficult to swallow, start small – don’t plop the big message right there in the lede. Start off with messages that you know any audience will support, and build from there. You’re more likely to “ease” your audience into agreeing with you.

See also:

Freedman, J.L. & Fraser, S.C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 195-202.

4. Social Proof (or Informational Social Influence). As anyone who has been to high school can tell you, people are incredibly susceptible to the power of social norms. We often look to others as a metric for what we should do, both informationally (what is correct) and normatively (what is accepted/valued). In fact, descriptive norms (what people do) are often more influential than prescriptive norms (what people SHOULD do). With this in mind, you can use the power of descriptive norms (e.g. simply stating what people typically do) in order to subtly communicate the value of your point. For example, saying that “most people indicate that they believe in climate change” should make people more likely to believe that statement, without you having to overtly state that they *should* believe it. We may also get into possible implications that this has for the tone of an article’s comments section.

See also:

Cialdini, R.B. & Goldstein, N.J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 591-621.

I will be back with a more detailed post on each of these four points after the session, with descriptions of relevant studies and more details about what was discussed in our session. Stay tuned to #scio13 and #TrollTalk in the meantime!

From the Archives: The Making of a Tough Mudder

This piece was originally posted in December 2011, about 1 month after I completed my first Tough Mudder. I’m re-posting it now, for no reason other than the fact that I completed my second Tough Mudder today (pictures immediately below), so it seems appropriate!









In November 2011, I participated in my first Tough Mudder.

Officially billed as a “hardcore, 10-12 mile obstacle course designed by British Special Forces to test your all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie” (and unofficially billed as “probably the toughest event on the planet”), you can imagine that it was hard to stand there, jumping up and down to keep warm (did I mention that this took place in November…in Indiana?!) without thinking about all of the social psychology going on around me.

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