How to Actually Change Someone's Political Opinion

May 22nd 2016

We all have them: friends, relatives, or coworkers who we would like to invite to our political party.

Changing someone's political stance may seem like a tall order but it's not impossible. The key is to abandon certain strategies that don't actually work, like assuming that someone's political opinion is based on lack of knowledge. If you throw a bunch of facts at someone, then they'll have to come to the "correct" conclusion, won't they?

Well no, that's not how it works. ATTN: spoke to two experts about the best ways to change someone's political opinion: Robb Willer, a professor of sociology at Stanford University who has published research about arguing political opinions, and Scott Wunn, the executive director of the National Speech and Debate Association. With their advice, you're going to be winning hearts and minds in no time.

Here are five ways to change someone's political opinion:

1. Put your own feelings aside. It's not about you.

Every time you feel yourself saying "I'ma let you finish but...," stop. Most people try to use the arguments that would work on them. Don't do that. The first thing you have to do is realize that this other person is not you. It seems simple enough, but that's often the first mistake people make in a political argument. "No one gets persuaded and one of the reasons is people on each side tend to argue from the perspective of their own moral values," Willer said. Focusing on your own feelings about a topic — and arguing as if the other person is you — accomplishes very little. In the end, the other person will have the same opinion they started with in the first place.

2. Step out of your echo chamber to figure out what the other person cares about.

Because of the nature of social media and search engines like Google, you may actually believe that the world is mostly like you. That's probably not true. Even if you do have friends with different political values, Facebook feeds you content based on things you "liked" in the past.

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"The people who set up the social media are trying to maximize your time and your clicks," Willler said. "If you're confronted systematically with stuff you like, you'll like your experience online better. It will suppress the stuff you don't like but will also build a silo around yourself." The values that you hold tend to be reflected back at you on social media, so your social media feed isn't necessarily a good place to figure out what people with different values care about. However, the values and opinions of your opposition are things you'll need to figure out if you want to bring them over to your side.

Willer said that Liberals tend to care most about equality, justice, and protection of vulnerable groups from harm.

Conservatives tend to care more about moral and religious purity, sanctity, and group loyalty.

For example, a great way to convince a conservative that same-sex marriage should be legal is to frame it around patriotic gay military members. Willer and his colleagues have used this technique in their research. "Gay Americans are proud patriotic Americans and they contribute to society, and they deserve the same rights as everyone else," Willer said.

If you're trying to persuade a liberal to support increased military spending, there's a strategy for that too. Willer's research team changed their argument to make the same point. "We made an argument for military spending through equality in the U.S.," he said. "The poor can get advantages for college, and in the military the basis for promotions for advancement are clear and based on merit." The argument that advancement is based on merit could appeal to someone who believes in systematic oppression of vulnerable people. With a conservative audience, the argument for military spending focused on group loyalty and patriotism, but with a liberal audience the argument changed to focus on help for the vulnerable.

3. Empathy can be a key emotion for convincing someone of a different political position.

Wunn said that emotions can play a huge part in getting someone to react favorably to an argument. "Others will only respond if they can actually see the effects of what is taking place or proposed, and but many people respond more to emotional appeals," he said. "If they care about the people or issues involved, they are much more likely to be convinced." The radio show "This American Life" did a story about successful canvassing techniques that can change political opinions in a matter of minutes.

A young female canvasser went to the door of a Mexican-American woman who was completely against abortion. The canvasser makes the conversation personal by talking about her Filipino background and experience discussing women's issues with family. The canvasser and the woman connect on their immigrant backgrounds and then the canvasser drops the bomb that she has had an abortion. After the canvasser explains her reasons for having the abortion, the woman changes her mind about abortion access. Willer said that he is familiar with these techniques and sometimes people with negative views of an issue simply have never met someone affected by that issue. He used the issue of transgender rights as an example.

"They're giving people this experience of meeting a trans person and having a person tell them of how these policies affect their lives," he said. "This gives them empathy for that person." When people have the opportunity to hear a person's story and feel empathy for that person, they're more willing to consider a new political view.

4. Focus on connecting a person's values to a political issue, not changing the person.

You're not going to be able to change the fundamental character of a person in one conversation or maybe ever. "It's really hard to change someone's values," said Willer. "People will fight and die for their values." As seen in step two, the goal is to to draw a connection between the person's values and morals and your political position.

Wunn agrees. "A deeply held value may never change," he said. "Sometimes the goal is simply to soften one's views and objections so that you can reach compromise on an issue." Basically, you're probably not going to convince someone who thinks abortion is an immoral form of murder that it should stay legal. However, maybe you can get them to consider abortion in cases of sexual assault.

Wunn said that there are particular political positions that are very difficult to change because they're linked to big moral issues. "Abortion and capital punishment still top the list, as the very definition of life and the value placed upon life are at stake," he said.

5. Don't be rude.

Just because you feel passionately about something does not mean you should insult someone who doesn't agree with your politics.

Also you're not going to change their mind that way. Becoming overly emotional can be counter productive. "Debate teaches you that you can see various perspectives on an issue and persuade others without resorting to name-calling or labeling," said Wunn. Many people take political arguments personally, and so they try to avoid disagreements. "Now, if you disagree with someone, you either look to another website, turn the channel, or unfriend / unfollow them on social media," said Wunn. "That does not promote civic engagement."

Related: Staying positive when you're around toxic people.

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