It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or something else—if you are a reasonable person then you must be wondering what the hell hardcore Trump supporters are thinking right now. From wearing shirts that say, “I’d rather be a Russian than Democrat,” to conspiracy theories that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophilia ring out of a pizza joint, it is obvious that Donald Trump and abominable allies have perfected the skill of brain washing those vulnerable to such manipulation. It’s all so bizarre that most Americans have at some point questioned whether someone had slipped them some LSD when they weren’t looking.
If humans were completely rational agents, our beliefs and political attitudes would be based on reasoning grounded in evidence and logic—but unfortunately that’s not the case. Critical thinking is a skill that needs to be taught, and with fiery emotions like anger and fear exacerbating political bias and polarizing the nation, getting people to listen to reason is more difficult than ever.
But completely giving up on the task of converting fellow Americans—even staunch Trump supporters and outlandish conspiracy theorists—into crusaders for logic and reason should not be an option. If you consider yourself a good Samaritan, such an effort should be considered a moral responsibility and an ethical imperative.
While this task can certainly be difficult, the good news is that it is by no means impossible. There are a number of psychological strategies identified by social scientists that can make convincing the irrational more likely.
1. The first step, and the most obvious, is to open up a dialogue.
I often see people saying things like, “You can’t talk sense into racists and bigots.” While it is true that some may have biases too deeply-engrained for them to change, that certainly isn’t the case for all of them. We all suffer from tribalism to some degree, a trait that has been hardwired in through evolution, but many of us have largely overcome this natural tendency thanks to the influence of open-minded others. Staunch religious fundamentalists firmly believe everyone else is going to hell, but that didn’t stop the atheists, agnostics, and moderately-spiritual people from trying to convince them otherwise—and thanks to those efforts, religious extremists have drastically decreased in numbers.
When you engage Trump loyalists in debate, try to respond with meaty content that has greater numbers of sentences and paragraphs, since research shows that one-liners and superficial statements do little to persuade people. Also, it is a good idea to cite reputable sources and provide links to external sites, so that information is recognized as objective, rather than a biased opinion.
2. Avoid using emotionally-charged words and approach them in a way that does not feel threatening.
Emotions like anxiety, fear, and anger exacerbate political bias, so use soft wording and a calm tone, and try to make them feel at ease.
A well-established psychological phenomenon is that when people feel they are under threat, they cling more strongly to their worldviews—cultural and political ideologies, religions, and biases—because those familiar things make them feel safe.
When challenging their views, don’t try to belittle or insult them by calling them dumb or ignorant. Expose them to new information in the way you would introduce an interesting concept to a friend. Don’t try to convince a conservative to become a liberal or take on a new identity—instead try to convince them to simply become a more informed, disciplined, and open-minded thinker. This implies that the persuader is already open-minded and aware of their own biases, which is important.
3. Find common ground and build on it.
I think it is safe to say that most Americans, regardless of political affilitation, want what is best for America. While the Left and the Right have different visions of what a “great America” looks like, there are surely a lot of things that can be agreed upon, such as safety, economic opportunity, and liberty.
Acknowledge facts and be willing to concede a little. America does have a problem with violent gangs composed of illegal immigrants like MS-13, and radical Islamic terror groups like ISIS still pose a threat, both physically and ideologically. Once that common ground has been established, it becomes much easier to explain that these individuals exist as a very small minority, and that most immigrants come to this country for the same American dream of freedom and opportunity that they hold. Support these facts with data from scientific or politically-neutral sources. Show them that you are reasonable, and also willing to change opinions in the face of new evidence.
By carefully building these bridges, we can come closer to agreement rather than pushing one another further away.
Of course, there are limits to how much time and energy one can spend on trying to convince someone who completely refuses to listen to reason. So when is it time to throw in the towel?
Research shows that in back-and-forth dialogues, if a person hasn’t been persuaded by the fourth round, it is likely a lost cause. Move on to the next irrational American that needs saving, because the war against ignorance and intolerance is one we must face head on.
Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.