Caption: Blackboard image with word “myths” crossed out and “facts” circled (Thumbs/Dreamstime)
Extensive evidence emerged in recent days that Donald Trump pressured and then fired FBI Director James Comey to block the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s administration over possible collusion with Russia. Yet a May 24 poll shows that only 24 percent of Republicans believe that this firing had to do with Comey’s investigation of the administration, in comparison to 60 percent for all who took the poll. An earlier poll on May 11 shows that 24 percent of Republicans believed that Trump’s actions had to do with the FBI’s investigation, while 47 percent of the total poll respondents. Clearly, the evidence that emerged over these two weeks moved the general population to update their perspective to see Trump’s actions as stemming from a desire to hinder the FBI’s investigation. Why did the evidence fail to shift Republicans, and can we do anything to help truth trump politics?
Research on behavioral science shows that we prefer to believe whatever matches our ideological perspective, regardless of the facts. For instance, when presented with accurate information that contradicts their current political perspective, people tend to reject this information and actually feel more attaching to their current political beliefs, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. As a scholar of behavioral science and public activist, I decided to focus on developing research-based strategies to help people whose ideological motivations push them to believe falsehoods to instead update their beliefs toward the truth.
To test and refine these research-based strategies, I have gone on radio shows with radio hosts to talk about controversial topics. As an example, two days after Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, I went on the conservative radio network 700WLW to have an interview with the well-known radio show host Scott Sloan. Sloan is known as a strong proponent of Christian and conservative values, and he had a friendly chat with Trump on his show during the election campaign.
Trump has made a series of claims about why he chose to fire Comey, generally boiling down to Trump trying to ensure competent leadership of the FBI and concerns about what Trump alleged as Comey’s incompetence in handling the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server. By contrast, the Democratic leadership claimed that Trump fired Comey to prevent the latter from digging deeper into Trump’s potential connections with Russia and allegations of collusion with Russia on hacking the US presidential election.
Instead of jumping into the thick of the Comey-Trump debate, at the start of our discussion I established a shared sense of goals for both of us. I noted that we all want our top investigative bodies to be headed by competent officials, and we also all want to ensure that these officials can freely investigate other branches of the government – including the presidential administration – without fear of retribution or obstruction of these investigations. Sloan agreed, establishing that common bond between us, making us allies trying to solve a common problem instead of potential enemies.
Following that, I appealed to his identity and emotions by establishing both of us as truth-oriented individuals. To do so, I talked about how all people are vulnerable to a thinking error known as the confirmation bias, a tendency of our minds to interpret new information in accordance with our past beliefs. Indeed, only 24 percent of Republicans believe that Trump fired Comey in part to disrupt the Russia investigation, while 75 percent of Democrats believed that. Then, I talked about how since Sloan and I have mutual shared goals both of ensuring competent leadership and of preventing obstruction, we need to figure out effective ways of addressing the confirmation bias. One effective way to fight the confirmation bias involves evaluating the opinions of people who both have the most information and have political motivations to support one side, but fail to do so or even support the other side. Sloan agreed that this seemed a reasonable way to address the confirmation bias.
Next, I pointed out that pretty much all Democratic members of Congress and a number of prominent Republicans expressed concerns over Comey’s firing, such as Senator John McCain. Sloan countered that McCain is known as a maverick who occasionally breaks ranks, and is part of a broader group of Republicans who are not fond of Trump. In my response, I highlighted that plenty of other Republicans who generally toe the party line and even supported Trump actually came out to express concerns. For example, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who heads the Senate’s Russia investigation, stated that he was “troubled by the timing and reasoning” of Comey’s firing, which “confuses an already difficult investigation for the Committee.” So did a number of other influential Republican Senators, such as Bob Corker. He chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and stated in response to Trump firing Comey that “It is essential that ongoing investigations are fulsome and free of political interference until their completion.”
Altogether, about 40 Republican members of Congress have expressed concerns over Comey’s firing, while virtually every Democrat is calling for an independent commission or special prosecutor to evaluate Comey’s firing. This data on many of those in the know – federal lawmakers – who have clear political motivation to align with Trump firing Comey instead broke ranks provides strong evidence that the decision to fire Comey is less about incompetence and more about the Russia investigation than anything else. After some further conversation, Sloan acknowledged the validity of this behavioral science-informed perspective and accepted that the evidence pointed against Trump’s narrative.
When I share about such conversations, many wonder whether they are a fluke, a one-time incident. Not so. In a previous conversation with Sloan, I used similar tactics to talk about the terrorist attack at Ohio State, where I teach. In that terrorist attack on November 2016, a Somali Muslim, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, rammed his car into a crowd of students and then knifed several people before being shot dead by a university policeman.
Predictably, conservatives reacted by condemning Muslims. For instance, the State Treasurer of Ohio and current Senate candidate Josh Mandel tweeted “looks like Radical Islamic terror came to my alma mater today,” despite the lack of evidence. What we know is that Artan expressed fear of Islamophobia in an August interview with the Ohio State student newspaper. He also expressed anger in a Facebook post right before the attack, saying “I am sick and tired of seeing my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters being killed and tortured EVERYWHERE… I can’t take it anymore.” These statements are not characteristic of “Radical Islamic terror,” but reflect fear and anger over the treatment of Muslims.
Like many conservatives, Sloan associated Muslims with terrorism and wanted to persecute them. I approached the ensuing discussion by considering his emotions and goals, meeting him where he was as opposed to where I would have liked him to be. Research suggests that conservatives value safety and security first and foremost, and their negative feelings toward Muslims result from perceptions of Muslims as threats to safety and security. As we began talking, I started by validating the host’s emotions, saying it was natural and intuitive to feel anger and fear toward Muslims, and I felt such emotions myself after the attack, thus creating an emotional bond between us. Then, I talked about how research shows that sometimes such gut reactions lead us astray in pursuing safety and security. For instance, our brains are wired to take shortcuts by stereotyping groups negatively based on the actions of one member of the group, a thinking error known as the horns effect.
We discussed how in 2015, there were seven terrorist acts in the United States, committed by a total of nine terrorists. Six of the nine were motivated, in some part, by Islamic beliefs. A 2011 Pew survey estimated that the United States had 1.8 million Muslim adults. Dividing this number by the six who committed terrorist acts gives you a one-in-300,000 chance that any Muslim you see would commit a terrorist act in a given year. That’s like picking out a terrorist from the number of people in several football stadiums. So using “Muslim” as a filter for “terrorist” actually, wastes our precious resources dedicated to safety and security, and lets the real terrorists commit attacks.
Then, I discussed with Sloan how if we persecute Muslims, for instance through creating a Muslim registry or through heavy policing of Muslim neighborhoods, Muslim communities would be much less likely to help us root out potential terrorists in their midst. So, I concluded, for the sake of making us safer, we shouldn’t antagonize Muslim communities, which so far have been quite cooperative in addressing terror concerns, according to the FBI. Finally, I discussed how rhetoric critical of Muslims and anti-Muslim policies will prod more Muslims to become terrorists. For instance, BBC reports that terrorist groups have used Trump’s rhetoric in their recruitment tapes. I also pointed out the specific comments made by Artan as evidence for this point.
This quite clearly makes us less safe and secure, I told Sloan, and so despite any negative feelings we may have toward Muslims, it’s unwise to act on them. Just like if we hear criticism from our boss and want to scream in his or her face, it may not be the rational thing to do if we value our jobs. Just like we may want to take a second piece of chocolate cake, it may not be the rational thing to do if we value our health. We shouldn’t go with our gut on policies and rhetoric toward Muslims if we value our security. In the end, Sloan agreed with my points and updated his views on Muslims – not because he felt like being nice and generous and kind toward Muslims, but because he valued his security and safety.
Notably, Sloan retained information from our conversations and integrated them into his later commentary. For instance, afterward in his show, Sloan discussed how statistically speaking, any given Muslim has an infinitesimally small chance of being a terrorist. Neither does Sloan feel that our conversation was a “gotcha” game, as he invited me to his show four times already.
Sloan is far from unique: Bill Cunnigham is another prominent conservative talk show host who had Trump on his show, is ranked 27 among “Most Important Radio Show Talk Hosts” in America by Talkers Magazine, and is known as a strong supporter of Trump. Cunningham’s show invited me to talk about Trump’s allegations that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower in the 2016 presidential election.
While I intended to first connect emotionally and establish shared goals, unfortunately Cunningham did not offer me the time to do so. The show started off with a question that was somewhat unexpected for me: Cunningham asked me if it is true that the NSA tracks keywords that might cause it to passively surveill people. Certainly, I replied, based on my knowledge of the NSA’s surveillance. Cunningham then asked whether Trump might then be accurate in his claim that he was surveilled. Thinking fast, I replied that if Trump had claimed that the NSA passively surveilled him, Trump might well be accurate – but this would not be newsworthy and it is not what he said.
Specifically, I cited the details of Trump’s tweets, such as “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” and also “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” With the specific details of these tweets as the center of our discussion, I highlighted that Trump specifically called out Obama personally for wiretapping Trump Tower, and compared the situation to McCarthyism and Watergate. I pointed out to Cunningham that these comparisons and the active placing of blame on Obama resulted in the storm of media coverage, and Cunningham concurred.
Then, I used a strategy from behavioral science known as consider the alternative. I asked if Trump truly had evidence of Obama ordering Trump Tower wiretapped, would Trump have simply tweeted about it as he did, without providing that evidence? He is the president, after all, and can have access to any information he wants. Next, I asked Cunningham to imagine himself in Trump’s place: what would he do if he suspected Obama wiretapped his headquarters in the election. Having thought about it, Cunningham stated that he would have gathered the FBI and NSA directors in his office, and get them to give any information they had about this matter. He would not have simply tweeted about it, and then provided no further information. Thus, by the end of the interview, although it got off to a rocky start, these behavioral science strategies resulted in Cunningham acknowledging that Trump behaved inappropriately in tweeting his allegations about Obama without providing any evidence. In all cases, it is highly likely that our conversation on these radio shows swayed some of their conservative audience to change their perspectives as well, due to the credibility of Sloan and Cunningham among their listeners.
You can use these same strategies in your everyday conversation with conservatives or liberals who let their ideological perspectives cloud their evaluation of reality. What it takes is establishing shared goals with the other person, engaging emotionally by calling for a mutual orientation toward truth, and incorporating into conversations information about how our minds are likely to lead us astray, and how to address these problems. An excellent way to encourage a mutual orientation toward the truth and bridge the political divide is to get all participants in a conversation to take the Pro-Truth Pledge, a recent behavioral science instrument designed to reverse the tide of lies in our public sphere. I had interviews on both conservative and liberal shows where the hosts took the pledge, which then shaped our conversations in a highly productive manner oriented toward an accurate evaluation of reality
For example, a liberal candidate for Congress who took the Pro-Truth Pledge posted on his Facebook wall a screenshot of a tweet by Trump criticizing minority and disabled children. After being questioned on whether this was an actual tweet or photoshopped one, the candidate searched Trump’s feed. He could not find the original tweet, and while Trump may have deleted that tweet, the candidate edited his own Facebook post to say that “Due to a Truth Pledge I have taken I have to say I have not been able to verify this post.” He indicated that he would be more careful with future postings.
I hope these strategies empower you to help facts trump ideology!
P.S. Want less lies in politics? Take the Pro-Truth Pledge, encourage your friends to do so, and call on your elected representatives to take it!