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Thursday, March 8, 2012

How to Win Political Arguments

Posted By on Thu, Mar 8, 2012 at 8:30 AM


Does posting political shit on Facebook ever affect the political opinions of people you're friends with who don't agree with you? I mean, even if my right-wing friends don't read all the anti-Santorum shit that I and half of my other friends are posting, is there any, like, ambient awareness of Santorum's awfulness created in them by the fact that there's so much of it that they have to ignore?

It's not very likely. There's a hefty amount of psychological research that indicates we base our opinions on our beliefs, as opposed to, say, thoughtful, logical consideration of facts and ideas. So if, for instance, I believe that Rick Santorum is a godsend GOP presidential contender, then my brain is going to be most receptive to information that confirms this belief and reject information that doesn't. This is called "motivated reasoning" and it's kind of an asshole.

Researchers are busy trying to figure out why we're so damn stubborn, especially about information that's easily proved false. (Hello, birthers!) Interestingly, one method they've come up with involves self-esteem. From The Boston Globe

"People who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you'll listen -- and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won't. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are." 

So, in fact (heh), what you're doing on Facebook might have the opposite intended effect, if those who disagree with you react emotionally to your posts.

Our tendency to read shit that reinforces our own beliefs is made worse by the medium. The viral aspect of social media's constantly humming stream makes it that much easier to spread false or misleading information. It's like Abraham Lincoln once said: "The trouble with quotes from the Internet is you never know whether they are genuine." Basically, there's an endless amount of misinformation readily available on Facebook and elsewhere to fortify whatever beliefs you already have, from undocumented "aliens" to the extraterrestrial variety, all with very minimal effort.

If you think this is just a problem that pertains to the idiots of the world, you'd be wrong. Hear me out! A 2006 study from the American Journal of Political Science noted that the more politically sophisticated you were in your thinking, the less open you were to new ideas and information. So, there goes that.

Does this mean that no one ever changes their minds? Of course not. But the growing body of knowledge does paint a grim picture of persuasion, especially in matters of political origin. However, take heart! Mittens RMoney (aka Mitt Romney) will probably be a lock for the GOP nomination soon, and we can all forget about Santorum-the-political-candidate, and go back to Santorum-the-fecal-by-product. Any day now.

Social-media mistress Anna Pulley likes to give advice about how to play well with others on the internets. If you have a question about etiquette involving technology, shoot her a question at 

Follow us on Twitter: @annapulley and @ExhibitionistSF or Facebook

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