January 15, 2018 Pearson Blog: Why Do People Think Such Nutty Things, and How Can We Talk With Them Anyway?

By Carol S. Pearson


Fights over conflicting viewpoints, including those between young adults and their parents, are common in life. Now, in the U.S. and elsewhere, the political opinions of different groups have begun to ossify, so that it is difficult for citizens to hear one another or have civil discussions about areas of disagreement. If this continues, solutions to major problems will not be found, or a seesaw effect will take over, where one political party will just erase what the last one did, with the net result being chaos. If we hope to live in any kind of democracy or otherwise shape the future of our countries, we need to be able to talk with our fellow citizens and develop consensus about crucial issues in order to influence our leaders. The skills required to do this also can help us apply social intelligence in other parts of our lives, leading to better relationships in our families, friendship networks, and workplaces.

The Power of Stories Told to Us To Determine Our Beliefs

The challenge in talking with those with whom we disagree is that our most vehemently held attitudes often are based on what we are told by others, so we are less able to critique what we hear. Most of us are more complex thinkers in areas where we have direct experience. A farmer is likely to understand multiple causality in farming—success depends on the soil, proper planting and care, weather, control of pests, etc.—but may think in more simple and judgmental terms about someone they do not know who is in poverty, especially if he or she also is told that poverty is caused by people making bad choices. A poor inner city child might know many ways to use old newspapers, while a suburban kid would assume that you read them and recycle or just throw them away.

I know about applied psychology, and you know about whatever you focus on. We are all smarter about those spheres where we have our own experience and where our focus of attention has been. Most if not all of us are dependent upon the news media, our friendship networks, and people we trust and admire to give us the big picture of what is happening in the larger world. In the U.S., many of us think that health care is a mess, but we love our doctor; we believe that American education is failing, but we love our local schools; we fear that all politicians are corrupt, but we like our own representative, and so on. Thus, we end up disagreeing with one another about larger realities that we learn about second hand.

We also have been beset by fake news, as is the case in many other countries. This leads to a pressing need for us to learn to decode what is true and what is not, and how we can help others do the same. Some of our better media outlets are beginning to identify overt lies or mistakes about the facts. However, the larger issue is much more complex than that. Getting the facts and data correct is helpful but does not solve the entire problem: Perceived truth comes down to “facts + story.” Most of us focus on the facts we notice but assume that the story we have been told about them is true.

An Example: the Climate Change Debate

Many people in the U.S. challenge facts about climate change that are accepted in much of the rest of the world based on the story they are told about them. For example:

  • Scientist Story: We have studied the facts and concluded that some part of climate change is caused by human activity and can be alleviated if we move quickly. We have come to this conclusion from seeking out the narrative that best fits all the facts.
  • Pro- Story: If we have faith in science and in human agency, we, as citizens, believe the scientist story, so it is our perceived truth.
  • Anti- Stories: If, as some of our citizens do, we challenge the idea that humans have a role in climate change, we may base this belief on one of the following stories: “weather is in God’s hands,” or “these changes are part of a natural cycle,” or “climate change is a conspiracy perpetrated by the Chinese.” Some even go so far as to disavow any concern for the environment more generally.
  • Both pro- and anti-climate change positions also can simply be a result of which political party people belong to or what kind of religious group, if any, they affiliate with, and what other members of the group they identify with all seem to think.

So, let’s say you are on the pro side on this issue and want to convince those on the anti side to take needed action. Talking more about the data alone would not convince those skeptical about climate change. To know how to even start, it is a good idea to figure out what plotlines are running through the mind of the person you are talking with.

The religious argument might be countered through referencing scripture, the natural cycle story through risk analysis (what happens if you are wrong?), and the conspiracy theory through exploring who is actually benefitting from propagating this narrative. If the opinion results from trust in authorities or the desire to be one of the group, sharing information about authorities and rank and file members of the pro-climate change side in the group they identify with might work well. In talking with any climate skeptic, it also might work to ask what harm would come from cleaning up the atmosphere. Putting them down as “climate deniers” just gets their backs up.

Decoding Archetypal Stories

It would be helpful to all of us if journalists understood the distinction between facts and story. Decoding what story is being told implies an action plan for any given issue being discussed. They could address spin by asking follow-up questions about where that narrative takes us down the road. For example, in the U.S. we are being told that Americans are in a culture war with one another. But where does that lead? To demonizing and trying to defeat one another rather than learning from each other. Similarly, if you see yourself as in a war story when you talk with others who hold views different than your own, do you then just want to win, or are you willing to listen?

Getting curious about the story being told and the facts noticed can help us listen to one another and communicate our beliefs more civilly. This might include saying, “The facts that seem most important to me are these _____, and the story I tell myself about them is _____.” (Fill in the blanks.) Generally, most people will cast themselves, or those they admire, in the role of the central character of the story being told. The plotline will suggest what they might be faced with (what they notice) and what they then might do. Three examples of the types of stories important to the U.S.’s current national plight:

  • The Warrior (often present in Republican policies) pays attention to facts that are threats, and its plotline says: protect yourself and defeat the opposition.
  • The Caregiver (often present in Democratic policies) notices human needs, and its plotline says: meet them.
  • The Explorer (the founding narrative of the U.S.) notices that life is getting boring, predictable, or oppressive, and its plotline says: take a journey—literal or metaphorical—to get to a better place.

Whatever country you live in, you likely can find some name for a pattern of thinking that allows you to identify the stories that predominate in your political debates or interpersonal conflicts.

If we want to communicate with someone who does not agree with us, we may need to tiptoe a bit. Most of us fall prey to confirmation bias, so that no matter how good the opposition’s arguments are, we mentally dispute them, thus reinforcing what we thought in the first place. This prevents us from adopting a learning mindset that provides the curiosity needed to expand our horizons. Even if you never change your mind about the issue you are talking about, such a stance will help you understand others much better than before. Keeping an open mind by recognizing what stories we are assuming (and perhaps naming them) can allow us to listen more carefully to the stories others are telling.[1]

Achieving a Happy Outcome

Archetypal (i.e., universal) narratives can help us predict outcomes. The same main character can follow a plotline toward a happy or tragic ending, depending on how well the story matches the situation. You don’t want to be acting as if you are in the Warrior story when you go out on a date or a Lover story when someone is coming at you with a knife. Staying with the example of climate change, a Warrior might be drawn into action by seeing it as a threat, while a Caregiver might be moved to do something out of empathy for the human and environmental cost of inaction, and imagining how preventive actions might become a great adventure could intrigue an Explorer.

Most of all, any of us can escape feeling continually frustrated by the stupid things we think others believe by enjoying the process of observing what facts they notice and the stories they tell about them. At the very least, we can learn to understand humankind better and sometimes feel more compassion for others who are different from ourselves. Doing this actually could come in handy. The stories we hear others tell can expand our situational flexibility, beginning with curiosity about what might happen if we tried living that plotline we learned from them in some situation where it just might help.

[1] To find some archetypal story names, check out my books Awakening the Heroes Within or What Story Are You Living?, or just make up your own names for the stories you tell and hear.