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When facts don't matter: What persuasion is really about

Lee Carter

Today, on the news and in social media, there is much bemoaning that “facts no longer matter.”

By that, people mean that in a world where we have “alternative truth” and “truthiness” and consistent falsehoods being disseminated, facts no longer have the power to change minds. But I have to let you in on an industry secret: They never did.

In 1972, after news of the Watergate break‑in made headlines, then-President Richard Nixon still won reelection by a landslide because the facts at the time were open to interpretation. Just three years later, researchers at Stanford did the first study proving that people cling to their irratio­nal opinions, even in the face of irrefutable evidence that they are wrong.* The hundreds of studies that followed prove that people actu­ally dig their heels in when presented with facts that contradict their beliefs. If you want to change minds, facts alone have never been enough.

The reasons are rooted in behavioral science. At a biological level, our brains aren’t hardwired to look for facts. Instead, we rapidly and automatically process opinions we agree with as if they are facts. In the study “That’s My Truth: Evidence for Involuntary Opinion Confirma­tion,”** researchers Michael Gilead, Moran Sela and Anat Maril showed not only that our opinions are change-resistant, but that we actually involuntarily reject facts that contradict our existing opinions.

To compound this, all humans suffer from confirmation bias. We search for information that confirms our opinions. And we cherry-pick the facts that support our point of view.

Our desire to confirm our existing beliefs also leads us to mini­mize or ignore data that doesn’t fit our preferred view of the world. We can quickly dismiss factual information that does not agree with our worldview by labeling the new facts as somehow erroneous or limited. Said another way (shamelessly stealing from a former col­league): When confronted with facts that don’t fit inside our frame, we throw away the facts and keep the frame (which is easier and less ego- threatening than getting a new frame).

But people don’t just reject evidence that challenges their beliefs, they go even further. Studies of the often-quoted backfire effect demonstrate that when people reject evidence they don’t like, their support for their original position gets stronger. In “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,”* Elizabeth Kolbert writes that scientists have deduced that the vaunted human capacity for reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight: “Provid­ing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they sim­ply discount it.”

Reading all this might make you feel hopeless. Don’t be. All this tells us is that facts alone won’t set us free. They won’t tell our story. And they won’t change hearts and minds. Decision- making is rarely a rational process. If you want to truly connect with others and shift their thinking, their behavior, their buying habits, or their voting practices, you must engage in a process that goes far beyond hitting them with statistics or study results.

This book is about persuading people to change their minds. It’s not about appealing to your base or preaching to your choir. It’s about engaging with someone who doesn’t yet know you, agree with you, or sometimes even like you. It’s about the very difficult challenge of overcoming your audience’s human instinct to stick to their exist­ing position. It is about giving people a reason to listen and then providing them with the right information in the right way so they can alter their existing point of view.

All success, in life and in business, is based on the skill of persua­sion. Put simply, you can have the best product, the best plan, the best policy, but if you’re not telling your story in a way that connects and resonates with your audience, none of that matters. You will not persuade people to choose your company or follow your lead.

My question to you — and often to my clients — is which is more important: having a good story to tell, or telling your story well? Most people will immediately say that having a good story to tell is much more important. They will say that what matters is being a good company, having a good product, doing a good job. I agree that those things are important. But are they enough? Does the best prod­uct always win in the marketplace? Does the best strategy always work in practice? How you tell your story is just as important as having that good story to tell. My job and the job of my firm is to ensure that companies, issues, and people who have an important point to get across are able to tell their story in the best way possible. That is what persuasion is all about.


.  * Lee Ross, Mark R. Lepper, and Michael Hubbard, “Perseverance in Self- Perception and Social Perception: Biased Attributional Processes in the Debriefing Paradigm,” Jour­nal of Personality and Social Psychology 32, no. 5 (December 1975): 880– 92.

** Michael Gilead, Moran Sela, and Anat Maril, “That’s My Truth: Evidence for Invol­untary Opinion Confirmation,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (April 2018): doi: 10.1177/ 1948550618762300

*** Elizabeth Kolbert, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” The New Yorker, February 27, 2017; https:// www.newyorker.com/ magazine/ 2017/ 02/ 27/ why- facts- dont- change- our- minds.

Reprinted from Persuasion: Convincing Others When Facts Don’t Seem to Matter by arrangement with TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019, Lee Hartley Carter.

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