Why Your Conservative Relatives Think The Way They Do and How To Communicate With Them

Why Your Conservative Relatives Think The Way They Do and How To Communicate With Them

I don’t think I need to say it, but I will: this time of year sucks if you have Trumpy relatives. If you’re dreading being forced to sit at a dinner table with them, here are a few ways to understand why they think the way they do and some tips about how to attempt civil discourse with them.

In order to effectively communicate, two things need to happen:

1) a signal must be transmitted, and

2) a signal must be received.

I have found, in my own political communication with those who do not share my viewpoint, that although I am transmitting what I consider to be thought-out, evidence-based ideas, those ideas fall on deaf ears. That is, although I am transmitting a clear signal, my signal is not being received. Therefore, I am not communicating effectively.

My failed communication is partly my fault, and partly the other person’s fault. Let me start by telling you why the other person is at fault, and then I will share some ideas that I’ve been pondering about how to communicate more effectively.

Confirmation bias

First, when talking about how the other person is at fault, we must consider something called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the search for and interpretation of information that conforms to one’s preconceived notion of ‘truth.’ That is to say, the receiver only receives information that confirmshis ‘truth’ and disregards information that does not. (Think of your favorite Fox News viewer here.)

Further, people who rely on an incompetent (or intentionally lying) source usually surround themselves with others who rely on that same source. They all become more emboldened to believe their ‘truth’ together because they are now not alone in their belief.

Further still, there is even some evidence that people get a rush of dopamine (the addiction chemical) when they come across information–true or not–that confirms their point of view.

Unconscious incompetence and Illusion of explanatory depth

Second, we have unconscious incompetence. This describes people who are unaware that they are NOT knowledgeable on a certain topic. (A simple example is someone who points to a guitar and vehemently insists that it is a giraffe – even posting diatribes on Facebook about it.)

The interesting part about unconscious incompetence is that we all exhibit this in one form or another. Consider this: “In a study conducted at Yale, graduate students were asked to rate their understanding of everyday devices, including toilets, zippers, and cylinder locks. They were then asked to write detailed, step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again. Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped. (Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.)

Researchers call this the illusion of explanatory depth. In some domains this illusion is just fine. We don’t need to know the details of toilet ‘flush-age’ or exactly how a cylinder lock works in order to properly use these devices.

However, when it comes to politics or climate change or reproductive rights or LGBTQ rights or vaccinations or the 2nd amendment or an immigrant ban (the list goes on), this illusion of explanatory depth becomes dangerous. Citizens are voicing their opinions, voting, and affecting policy (and posting diatribes on Facebook) on issues which they know little about. But these issues affect the health and safety of others greatly.

So what can we do to communicate more effectively when faced with others’ confirmation bias, unconscious incompetence, and illusion of explanatory depth?

The onus is on us

Like it or not, we who are communicating rational, evidence-based information have to bear the burden of changing how we communicate in order to make our message heard. In other words, we should consider marketing the message. We can do this in four ways:

  1. Appeal to emotion.Understand that merely providing statistics does nothing to open the mind or pierce the intellectual barrier of someone with confirmation bias, unconscious incompetence, or the illusion of explanatory depth. Simply put, citing the statistic that a person’s chance of dying in an airplane crash is one in 11 million, will do nothing to quell the fears of a terrified air passenger clutching his armrests on takeoff. We are emotional beings. (As a side note, appealing to emotion is something that science communicators definitely need to use more of.)
  2. Understand that conservatives and liberals process the world in very different ways.A recent study by John Hibbing at the University of Nebraska (summarized here) showed that conservatives have a stronger negativity bias than liberals do. That is, they focus more on negative stimuli and respond accordingly, suggesting they have more of a “threat-oriented biology.” Furthermore, a 2003 study provided evidence that conservatives also have a “need for certainty” and an “intolerance of ambiguity.” This explains their stance on many issues including gun ownership, immigrant bans, LGBTQ discrimination, etc.
  3. Invoke nostalgia, and the return to a “better” time.Conservatives love the thought of “restoring” America to its former glory. Even if the aim is to restore a glory that never existed. (And we all know that the nostalgia is for a time in which many marginalized people did not have the rights they now have.) Researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany decided to test this restoration bias when it comes to environmentalism. Their recent study found that conservative thinkers donated more to a hypothetical environmental charity that aimed to restore the planet to a previously healthy state, rather than one that favored preventing a future disaster.
  4. Exploit the illusion of explanatory depth.If someone is making an untrue claim, ask for a deeper explanation of the topic. As in the Yale study above, that person may expose their own unconscious incompetence to themselves (thereby making it conscious), and will less fervently defend their view. Hopefully, just exposing their lack of important knowledge will lead them to seek out factual information to fill in that gap. (I know, it’s a long shot.) N.B.: This approach may backfire if engaging in debate on social media, as your debate partner may realize his lack of explanatory depth and provide you with a link to an article from their favorite right-wing blog.

Facts are vitally important to the survival of our democracy. It’s time to start calling out the people who are peddling in the currency of unverifiable information. The old strategy of ‘ignore them and they’ll go away’ isn’t working anymore. Engaging in civil debate with those who are spouting false statements that are not supported by any scientific evidence is a now a civic responsibility. Arm yourself with evidence-based information and the strategies outlined above.


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  • I am glad that you commented on confirmation bias. One thing that bears mentioning is that confirmation bias applies to everyone. Liberals and conservatives. The ultimate take away is that there is not a single one of us (regardless of party affiliation) who is truly open minded. Not me. Not you.

    Let me paraphrase Mark Twain: Deceiving you is not the hard part. Convincing you that I have deceived you is the hard part.


  • In reply to Rick Bohning:

    Well said.

    The author is confirming her own bias in the guise of enlightenment.

  • In reply to Richard Davis:

    Quite correct. I was about to comment that you could say the same thing about liberals as conservatives when I saw your comments. I would remind the author that "studies" are not "facts."

  • It was really interesting to find this story. I think I should post it https://pro-academic-writers.com/blog/how-to-write-a-research-report here.

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