Social Psychology of Stubbornness

We live in an America that is increasingly divided. Liberals believe in liberal truths. Conservatives believe in conservative truths. Each side firmly believes the facts support its own position. Each side is baffled by the sheer refusal of the other side to look at objective reality and come to reasonable conclusions.

    

We like to think that the other side’s bad opinions comes from the news they watch. Liberals are convinced that Fox News has filled the heads of conservatives with lies. The conservative internet has supposedly made things work. Conservatives think that liberals have been completely deceived by the mainstream media.

    

We like to think that if the other side had access to “the complete facts” or “the right facts”, they would change their minds.

    

The actual issue is that people are remarkably stubborn. They have already made up their minds on many issues. New facts and new arguments are not going to change those opinions because those opinions are pretty much set in stone.

    

A lot of our information about this comes from studies done in the 1930s and 1940s. The scholars were some of the sociology greats of the time, among them Paul Lazarsfeld, Elihu Katz, and Everett Rogers.  In those days, the big question in political communications was the impact of radio and newspapers on public opinion. Few people read those studies any more, because who really cares about the effect of radio and newspapers? You, the reader, can be the judge of whether these findings apply in the internet age.

   

The assumption behind the claim that Fox News or liberal media affect political opinion is called the Hypodermic Needle Model. The idea is that the facts and opinion you see in the newspaper or on TV are injected into your brain like a serum from a hypodermic needle. Once you’ve gotten your dose, the drug works on you.

    

What is wrong with the hypodermic needle model?

1. Most people aren’t paying attention. They aren’t watching the show on Fox News or CNN that has the key information that is supposed to change their minds.

2. The people who are watching the news are already fairly well-informed individuals. So they may hear a new fact about Joe Biden or Donald Trump. But they already know 6,000 other facts about Joe Biden and Donald Trump. One fact more or less won’t make that much of a difference.

3. People pick news sources they already agree with. We already knew that conservatives watch Fox or One America. Liberals read Politico or Slant. Those biases existed in mid-century America too, when the original media studies were done.

4. People selectively reinterpret information after they hear it to make it consistent with their pre-existing beliefs.

This is illustrated very nicely by the Hastorf-Cantril study of the Princeton Dartmouth football game. This was a particularly dirty football game where both sides were playing to injure their opponents; there were many, many flagrant fouls. Films of the game were shown to fraternity members at both Princeton and Dartmouth. The students watching the films were told to write down all the fouls they saw. Not surprisingly, Princeton students saw many Dartmouth fouls but not very many Princeton fouls. Dartmouth students saw exactly the opposite.

    

A bigger factor is that people pre-test information they get from the media before deciding whether to accept it or reject it. Elihu Katz studying how people use information from newspapers identified a Two-Step Model of Information.

    

He argued that most people’s friendship networks include opinion leaders: people whose opinions are respected on a given issue. Not everyone gets to be an opinion leader on all things. Among a set of six students living a house, one, the political junkie, might be the current events opinion leader. The tech nerd might be the all-things-computer-related opinion leader. The screaming front-woman in a metal band might be the music-and-entertainment opinion leader. The dullard who was let into the house because they needed a number 6 to make the rent might be the opinion leader on nothing.

    

When news comes in, people check out the story with the opinion leader on the appropriate subject. If the opinion leader signs off on the story, it is viewed as legitimate and believed. If the opinion leader attacks or casts doubt on the story, the news gets dismissed. The thought that it might be good to go to San Antonio to hear Orgoth’s Shield gets dumped when the vocalist gives her opinion on their material.

    

Unfortunately, people’s choice of opinion leaders is similar to their choice of media outlets. They pick people with whom they already agree. So the odds of radical new ideas getting through the opinion leader are relatively modest.

    

That said, people do occasionally change their mind. Sometimes new information gets through. This often happens when a brand new situation occurs that requires people to form a new opinion out of nothing. That said, the process by which people form fresh opinions when they have to start from nothing is not impressive.

 

1. They select information which agrees with what they thought before.

2. If they can not find any such information, they mindlessly imitate high status people around them with their opinion on the issue.

3. They do the least possible amount of work to get their opinion and get the issue resolved. As soon as they have “enough” information to make a call, they stop doing research and consider the issue closed.

   

That severely reduces the window of time in which they could encounter new information that changes their mind.

    

So what do you do if you actually want to change people’s minds?

    

It’s tough, but here are the steps you can take to maximize your chances.

A. Pick a subject they know little about. This reduces the chance that they have a pre-existing opinion.

 

B. Their opinion leaders should know nothing about the topic; better yet, they should be isolated from their opinion leaders.

 

C. For some reason, they have to pay attention to you.

 

D. Your ideas are not that different from what they already believe.

 

E. High status people are already doing what you would like them to do.

 

F. You got to them first before someone else could get to them with a competing idea. Remember, as soon as they have their idea from whatever source, they quit and stop searching for new ideas.

    

Does this apply to people learning about current events from their favorite highly partisan source on the internet?

 

You be the judge.

For More Information

If you are looking for one-stop shopping – meaning a book that contains most of classic studies on the media and political information formation, see Wilbur Schramm’s Process and Effect of Mass Communication. (Illinois, 1971).

 

If you just want to read an article or two, you could try Hyman, Herbert and Paul Sheatsley. 1947. “Some Reasons Why Information Campaigns Fail.” Public Opinion Quarterly 11: 412-23 or Sears, David and Jonathan Freedman. 1967. “Selective Exposure to Information: a Critical Review.” Public Opinion Quarterly 31: 194-213.

 

Hastorf and Cantril’s Princeton-Dartmouth football study has been widely reprinted. Here is an easily accessible version on the internet. https://www.all-about-psychology.com/selective-perception.html

The two step flow of communication was laid out in Elihu Katz’s and Paul Lazarsfeld’s Personal Influence. (Free Press, 1957).

My favorite book-length study of the diffusion or non-diffusion of new ideas is Everett Rogers Diffusion of Information (Free Press, 1962).  I read this book several times as an undergraduate when I was trying to clarify my own ideas about where culture comes from. I still largely agree with it.

The material on how people search for information on topics they are unfamiliar with is not found in the above material. That comes from Richard Cyert and James March’s absolutely brilliant Behavioral Theory of the Firm. (Prentice-Hall, 1963) You want the chapter on “Organizational Expectations”. It starts with an abstract discussion of microeconomics. Ignore that. Suddenly they start talking about how people research material they don’t know anything about. From then on it all makes sense.