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Why political persuasion is so hard

There is a moment from one of the 1992 U.S presidential debates that always sticks in my mind when I think about behaviour change in a political context.

“And that’s why I’m trying to do something about it, by stimulating the export [sic], investing more, better education system”, President Bush Snr finished his long-winded, detailed reply to a question from a woman in the audience who was anxious about the state of the economy.

Clinton, who answers next, takes a different approach.

“Tell me how it’s affected you again?” Clinton asks the woman. “You know people who have lost their jobs and lost their homes?”. She says that she does. Clinton goes on to tell her that it’s affected him personally too, as a Governor of a small state, how he also knows people who have lost their jobs.

This moment goes down in presidential debate history. Clinton also goes on to win the election handedly.

Now, how much presidential debates actually matter is up for, well, debate. But this example does illustrate something important about the art of political persuasion: it’s about a lot more than facts and arguments.

Despite having a huge PR apparatus behind it, the political persuasion industry has been found wanting in its effectiveness. A huge U.S study from 2017 concluded that political campaigns were having ‘minimal persuasive effects’. To understand where our industry can do better, we need to know why it’s so hard.

The first answer can be found in Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a well-established psychological approach to motivation that says ‘autonomy’ is one of the most important factors in behaviour change. Essentially: people are more likely to change a behaviour or a point of view if they feel like they are in the driving seat. So simply telling individuals they are wrong, providing them with facts, or trying to impose our worldview on them is likely to produce resistance as they push back to reassert their autonomy.

Planting the seeds of change – rather than demanding it – is a cleaner burning fuel. Clinton recognised this.

In the hyper-polarised environment of 2022, changing minds is even harder. Individuals are insulated within algorithmic filter bubbles, where they are bombarded with content that frames the world through one narrow lens. Even when targeted ads do manage to pierce the bubble, they’ve got an uphill battle to register any effect. Layered on top of this – and partly fuelled by this – is an increase in political tribalism, where individuals see their political party as a core part of their identity.

On this backdrop: what, if anything, does work?

The authors of the 2017 study concluded that based on their results, a persuasive effect can be achieved when one party or candidate takes an unusually unpopular position, when campaigns invest heavily in understanding where persuadable voters are, or when campaigners contact voters well in advance of the election.

The authors of the same study have also been instrumental in the study and development of something called Deep Canvassing – a conversational technique that helps door-to-door canvassers harness the power of Self-Determination Theory to, among other things, talk people ‘out of bigotry’. A phonebanking experiment in 2020 using this technique found ‘groundbreaking’ results.

Some important lessons for campaign strategists can also be found in Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, where instead of rebutting personal attacks and disinformation, they focused on targeting persuadable voters with ‘counter-narratives’, which could act like an information vaccine to disinformation.

For those reluctant to think differently about political persuasion, one of the co-authors of the 2017 study on political campaigns provides a warning: “Campaigns probably need to get more creative and think more outside the box. Whatever box they are working within now doesn’t usually produce results”.

This article was written by Stefan Rollnick, Head of Misinformation Cell at Lynn.

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