Why we believe and don’t believe – communication implications

It is very sobering (although others might say so terrifying as to drive you to drink) to realise what your ordinary United States citizen believes. On the other hand some of it has prompted research into how this can guide communicators on framing messages.

Both Yuval Noah Harari in his new book, Homo Deus, and Carter T. Butts in an article in Science (21 October 2016) on why people don’t believe scientific findings, give insights into one aspect of this – US attitudes to evolution.

The Gallup organisation has been doing research on this for about three decades. Harari cites the 2012 findings which show that: 15% of the Americans surveyed accepted that humans had evolved through natural selection. 34% believed that there may have been evolution but that God had actively guided it. 46% said God had created humans within the past 10,000 years. 25% of MA/PhD’s (presumably the latter in theology) didn’t believe in evolution and 46% of those with a BA ditto. The data cited by Butts show that  between 40% and 45% of Americans believe that humans were supernaturally created in the past 10,000 years has been consistent (although creeping up a bit in contrast with what secularists would hope) for the past 30 years.

Butts says: “A natural interpretation of this finding is that US science education is failing to reach nearly half of the population and that widespread belief in recent human origins reflects basic scientific illiteracy. However, the reality is more complex: Many of those who reject evolutionary theory are aware of the scientific consensus on the subject and such rejection is not always associated with scientific literacy.”

Furthermore similar findings have been found for beliefs around anthropogenic climate change. Butts cites an explanation for this – the Friedkin-Johnsen model which can be used to model attitudes as well as beliefs in empirical propositions and addresses the problem of how you look at “ways that belief dynamics can shape personality” rather than looking at beliefs as “cognitively independent”. In essence, most research on the topic tends to reinforce the simplistic contemporary description of the echo chamber effect but Butts’ discussion gives it much more complexity and context – an understanding of which is becoming increasingly important to communicators.

Another way of looking at beliefs is discussed in a paper (Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change) in Advanced Science News Global Challenges. The ABC online has a good summary of the research, of which the blog’s friend Ed Maibach, was a co-author. The paper recognises that reality and truth are not a simple answer to misinformation about topics such as climate change which has been described as a process in which “misinformation spreads through a population as a metaphorical ‘contagion’”. This is closely related to the meme concept.

The authors look at various ways to ‘inoculate’ the public against the contagion on the grounds that the “rate of cultural transmission, or infection, may be slowed through a process known as attitudinal inoculation.” This approach has been fruitful in health and political campaigning. At the risk of over-simplification again – just presenting information about scientific consensus has some impact on attitudes but when it is received (as it is in the real world) alongside misinformation the impact is minimised. However, you can pre-emptively ‘inoculate’ people to the misinformation if you start with a warning about “politically motivated attempts to spread misinformation.”

In simple terms it may be better – counter-intuitively to strictures about the key message – to start with the misinformation on a topic associated with the reason why the misinformation exists and then move on to your message. Politicians try this on regularly in crude terms – so and so is in hock to the unions, the banks, the energy lobby or what not. But there is a ritualistic air to this which reinforces the faithful while having no impact on the doubters. It is probably far better to focus on the motivations in a more specific way using the old media training formula of main point, because, example. This is not so useful now TV appearances have gone from 60 second to 30 second to 15 second grabs but it is great for radio and other outlets.

For instance, if the blog was formulating messages around climate change it would use the formula in the following way. Main point: “Exxon Mobil and other huge energy companies have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars financing campaigns – just as the tobacco business did – to make people doubt the truth of the scientific consensus on climate change to help protect their profits . Because: “They do this because they know there are people and politicians who will take up their fake news to protect them and win their support.” Example: “That this is happening is proved by the current investigation into Exxon Mobil for misleading investors about the impact of climate changes on their company.”

The same approach can be, and is, used in many political campaigns. Undermine the credibility of an opponent by ascribing a malign motivation; give a concrete example; and then make your point. The art, of course, is doing it in a compelling frame rather than a ritualistic way.

By the way, there is some good news (difficult as that is to believe) on the US climate change attitude front of which more in a coming blog. Ditto Harari’s new book which is as thought-provoking and informative as his previous best-seller. For all communicators it is also worth reading Harari’s explanation of how subjective views can dictate objective reality. And if you doubt it look at the fate of the Cathars or the history of the Crusades. And once again thanks to John Spitzer for the Science article.