What Greta Thunberg knows about winning an argument that we don’t

What Greta Thunberg knows about winning an argument we don’t

How many people remember the words of Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN Climate Action Summit in September this year? Probably not many. But how many remember the phrase:

“You all come to us young people for hope? How dare you?”

I’m willing to bet many more will remember that line.

The same principle applies to Martin Luther King’s now-famous speech delivered in August 1963 at a civil rights rally in Washington DC. Most of us probably only remember the phrase: “I have a dream.”

Martin Luther King was 34 when he delivered that speech, Greta is 16.

Both knew something we don’t – facts never win an argument; emotion does. Both understood the power of emotion but more so, they need to capture that emotion in one or two lines and to repeat them again and again.

For King, he repeated that now-famous phrase eight times; Thunberg repeated her line “How dare you” three times.

Both understood you don’t rally people with facts, you rally them with emotion. That’s not to say you ignore the facts, but you certainly don’t lead with them and here’s why…

What these two orators understood is well researched and it’s not a mistake they chose these words or phrases. They understood the psychology of what they were doing and quite possibly the research.

Simply put they understood the backfire effect.

What is the Backfire effect?

Facts always play an important role, but do they make an emotional connection? Decades of research tells us not – instead, it is emotion, not facts, that sits at the heart of all human decision-making. Thanks to that same research it’s easy to pinpoint what’s missing from the myriad of presentations, communication and marketing campaigns that don’t connect with their intended audience – it’s our confirmation bias and the resultant backfire effect.

Let me explain.

Rather than bring people together, facts polarise them. Why? Because human nature is such that once we adopt an opinion we will draw on anything and everything we can find to support or agree with that opinion, i.e. we interpret or filter everything, including evidence, in a way that suits our view – this is better known as confirmation bias.

Today, numerous studies later, psychologists can confirm we tend to hold onto our beliefs even when faced with compelling facts to the contrary. In fact, the most powerful and unintended outcome of any confirmation bias research was the discovery that not only do we hold onto our beliefs when presented with contradictory facts or evidence, but we become even more wedded to and more extreme in our original belief. This is known as the backfire effect.

Quite simply we cannot handle the pain of being wrong. Instead, we lie to ourselves or reject the evidence presented to us. The backfire effect makes us dig our heels in even further and we end up more convinced our view is right.

The research shows that factual evidence can have the opposite effect – it can strengthen the opposing view.

No surprise then that so many naysayers have a go at Thunberg after her talk. While many may have fallen into the backfire camp, unfortunately, there were some who fell into the ageist camp; they simply could not accept a 16-year-old schoolgirl telling them off.

Well-known neurologist and conspiracy-debunker Steven Novella argues that believers see contradictory evidence as part of a conspiracy.

David McRaney, author of You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself and You Are Not So Smart, goes further. He says the backfire effect is magnified by the internet: “When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel even surer of his position than before you started the debate. As he matches your fervour, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.”

So how do you shift perceptions

If the human brain is wired to not only reject facts that contradict beliefs but also to strengthen existing viewpoints, how then does one go about shifting perceptions or changing people’s minds?

The answer lies in affirmation and emotion, counter-narratives and alternative narratives.

First, you should find the common ground/areas on which you can agree or affirm certain values and only then do you move into arguing the position, but here’s the trick – there has to be a strong emphasis on emotional storytelling as well as calling out and then debunking the myths.

But when you do, bear in mind the research which tells us you should first present the alternative and only then do you openly debunk the myth – not the other way around. It is also wise to give an explicit warning before you repeat the myth by calling it out for what it is.

And remember sometimes it is better to convey this with a visual instead of words. The adage of a picture tells a thousand words is so true.

Maybe it’s time for more of us to take a leaf out of Thunberg’s book,  study the evidence and change our logical facts vs myths approach and start tapping into the emotion of good storytelling. Greta Thunberg clearly understands this yet so many of our businesses and leaders can’t seem to grasp it.


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