Facts don’t matter

Rob Bennett Contributor
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The Boston Globe reports today that facts don’t matter in political debates. Studies show that, once people form an opinion, they go to great lengths to avoid having to revise it. If anything, objective showings that they are wrong cause people to dig in and develop a stronger belief in the idea they initially got wrong. “The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says a researcher.

Five implications:

1) Those who want to win political debates should stop trying to prove their case. Coming on strong will cause people to tune you out. Try to start a conversation. Say “I am having a hard time understanding why such and such is not so” and your listener will be more likely to let down her guard and perhaps open up a tiny bit to possibilities she rejected at earlier times.

2) The article explains that people stick with dubious beliefs because there is a psychological strain associated with revisiting beliefs once thought settled. We need to stop thinking people are dumb because they don’t “get it.” There are perfectly good reasons why it takes time for us to reconsider seemingly settled matters. Stubbornness is to some extent a survival mechanism. We need to show some respect for this pervasive human inclination.

3) It’s silly to score political debates based on which candidate demonstrates a better command of the facts if voters are not swayed by facts. What matters is which candidate best connects emotionally with those who already were inclined to support him or her and which candidate does the least to make those inclined not to support him or her get their backs up.

4) In a world in which facts don’t change opinions, whatever the factors are that do change opinions become more important to political strategists. My sense is that people change their political loyalties only when they can square shifting their support to a new candidate or party with the personal beliefs to which they feel a need to be loyal. President Reagan evidenced a master’s understanding of this when he reassured lifelong Democrats that he himself became a Republican only because the Democratic Party left him.

5) We all need to let it in that a lot of our beliefs about current developments are more rooted in an effort to justify our preexisting biases than they are informed and objective assessments of reality. Conservatives and liberals have “explained” the economic crisis primarily by filtering developments through their biases about the ineffectiveness of government (when it comes to conservatives) and the greed of bankers (when it comes to liberals). There’s no conventional political point pressed by placing the primary blame where I think it belongs — on the overvalued stock market of the late 1990s and the loss of wealth that took place with its inevitable collapse. A positive way to spin the Boston Globe article is to see that there may be solutions to our problems that we do not yet recognize because we are too caught up in efforts to put new problems into old pigeonholes.

Rob Bennett is the creator of a retirement calculator called “The Retirement Risk Evaluator.”