Much has been made of the need for teachers and politicians to make greater use of evidence when practising in the classroom and making policy. Oddly, both sides of almost every debate manage to pull some evidence out of their hat and then lambast the other side for not having done so, while managing to ignore or dismiss the evidence from the other side. How can this always be the case?

In a previous blog I summarised, from Sandra Nutley’s book Using Evidence, the factors at play when we decide whether to accept or reject a piece of evidence:

  • our ideology (is this aligned with my values?)
  • own self-interest (will this finding help me or hinder me? Is it consistent with ideas or approaches that I’ve argued for? Would I lose face if I accepted this idea?)
  • our experiences (does this finding match what I’ve seen or experienced?)
  • our relationships with the researchers (do I know them personally, are they like me, do I trust them?)
  • other people’s perceptions of the researchers (will I gain credibility by listening to their findings? Could these researchers be undermined by others?)
  • our history of engaging with research (do I trust academics, do I see myself as open to research?)
  • our willingness to change (affected by feelings of security, self-efficacy, stress etc.)
  • the way in which the research is written (is this written in a way I can understand, using my normal mode of communication? Is this written in a compelling way that is easy for me to communicate to others?)
  • the traditions and culture of the institution we work in (would this work/be acceptable here?)
  • competing priorities (do I have time for this? Is it a priority to engage with this now? Do I have the resources to engage with this fully?)
  • competing sources of information (would I prefer to accept a different conclusion stated elsewhere? is it easier to get information from another source?)
  • the timeliness of the research (is this relevant to the decisions I’m making now, or is it now conflicting with decisions I’ve recently made?)

There is a huge amount more going on here over and above any coldly rational evaluation of the evidence. It turns out that the dissemination of evidence is a process that is laced with emotions, relationships, trust and values.

Bearing these factors in mind, we then have a stark choice when attempting to put our own opinion across. Do we want to appear to be right to those who already agree (while perhaps persuading some who are undecided), or do we want to change the minds of those who disagree? If we choose the former then we can advance our argument by criticising and demeaning someone advancing the opposing view. This is something that happens very commonly in education debate, e.g.

  • who is responsible for this failure? Who are the guilty men  and women who have deprived a generation of the knowledge they need? Who are the modern Enemies Of Promise?” (Michael Gove in The Daily Mail)
  • Last month I wrote to you about my concerns that your job – not just you – has become a dictatorship. Over the last 30 years our parliamentary representatives have been so willing to hand over more and more power to the secretary of state that we have arrived at a point where you don’t have to listen to anyone apart from yourself. That is, until the egg on your face starts to look as if you need compassionate leave.The problem is this: armed with the power that you have acquired you seem to think that the best way for you to conduct the business of your office is to behave like a shaman.” (Michael Rosen in The Guardian)

This approach to debate is very simple and is likely to shore up support among existing followers. If those in the middle don’t have any particular allegiance to the target of the criticism then they may also be swayed by this form of argument. However, if someone who is otherwise ambivalent feels that their values are in some way aligned with the ‘victim’ of this attack then they are likely to be swayed in the opposite direction. For example, teachers with some small sympathy toward one or more of the criticised academics or feeling even the smallest tug of loyalty toward a teaching union will feel stung by criticism of either of these groups and will tend to turn against the critic. On the other side, those with respect and admiration for even a small amount of current government policy are likely to feel stung by anyone who characterises its supporters as bad people. These ad hominem arguments will often get their advocates a great deal of cheering (from their supporters) and jeering (from their target’s supporters).

The more this tactic is employed by both sides of the argument then the more it is likely to gradually shuffle everyone involved further to one side or the other. It will polarise the debate. I’ve watched this happening in the debate over skills and knowledge that has been taking place on Twitter, with each side characterising the other as having an extreme position that will damage children and usually picking on someone who has been perceived to take a particularly extreme position. For example, there’s a very well-meaning and well-intentioned line of debate that says that Daisy Christodoulou is employed by an organisation with links to Lord Nash and therefore Michael Gove so all of her supporters must be supporters of Conservative policy. On the other hand, the original version of another blog was intended to be very positive and celebratory while referring to the ‘glorious humiliation’ of Guy Claxton when he was perceived to have failed to answer a question. Both of these arguments were made to be thoughtful, reasoned arguments but I would argue they are, essentially, ad hominem and will end up polarising. You can bet that neither is going to do anything to win over hearts and minds of those who disagree!

There’s a good psychological reason why this sort of tactic is unlikely to win arguments. Firstly, the rational/logical parts of the brain tend to get swamped by the emotional and irrational parts. If you are feeling stressed, angry or upset then you are unlikely to be able to look at an argument on its merit. Ad hominem style arguments cause stress on a number of levels:

  1. Injustice. If we feel that someone who we respect is not being treated fairly then it causes a physical stress response. Indeed a paper I quoted in an old blog noted that “People who perceive others as unfair don’t feel empathy for their pain, and in some instances, will feel rewarded when unfair others are punished”. Therefore, being seen to treat another debater unfairly will mean that a sizeable proportion of the audience will start taking pleasure when you are punished or demeaned.
  2. Status threat. If we feel that a group or person to whom we are affiliated is under attack then we feel a status threat which also triggers a physical stress response. As I quote before: “As humans we are constantly assessing how social encounters either enhance or diminish our status. Research published by Hidehiko Takahashi et. al in 2009 shows that when people realise that they might compare unfavourably to someone else, the threat response kicks in, releasing cortisol and other stress-related hormones”. Therefore an attack on our social standing (even by association) is likely to prompt us in to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mode, unable to listen to logic and reacting emotionally (and usually unfavourably).
  3. Relatedness. This final point refers to whether we feel someone shares similar values to us and is like us. In evolutionary terms it was a survival response. A previous blog quoted: “The decision that someone is friend or foe happens quickly and impacts brain functioning (Carter & Pelphrey, 2008). For example, information from people perceived as ‘like us’ is processed using similar circuits for thinking one’s own thoughts. When someone is perceived as a foe, different circuits are used (Mitchell, 2006). Also, when treating someone as a competitor, the capacity to empathise drops significantly (Singer et al, 2006).”. Therefore by appearing to have different values and go out of your way to show a disconnection from another person’s beliefs you won’t be highlighting a ‘better way’ but instead you will be causing the person to experience physical stress and make them less likely to listen to your arguments with reason.

So, how can we put our arguments across in ways that are more likely to win over others? How can we communicate evidence in such a way that is likely to be listened to logically and favourably? How can leaders communicate initiatives to staff and ensure the maximum chance of them being receptive? It all depends on the framing:

  1. Make the values clear. You need to make it clear that the idea is entirely aligned with the values of your target audience. You should work hard to understand the values and beliefs of those who are listening and demonstrate how your argument is entirely aligned with these goals.
  2. Reduce the emotional temperature. Choose your moment wisely, ensure that there is calm and that people are as open as possible when putting an argument. Lower stress means more open minds.
  3. Give people an ‘escape route’. If you have to persuade someone that they are completely wrong then you will be more successful if you show that their previous actions and beliefs were reasonable given their previous knowledge and would have been a reasonable decision based on information that was available to them before. Once you have allowed people to shore up their ‘I am a good person’ sensation then they will be able to avoid much of the status-losing pain that might otherwise occur when they have to adopt a new position. If you fail to do this then not only do they have to deal with the fear that they have been a bad person and try to square this with their previous beliefs in their ‘goodness’, but they also have to try and deal with holding the old concept in their minds as well as the new one – a double whammy of very painful cognitive dissonance.
  4. Reference trusted individuals. We are more likely to accept a belief if people we trust also accept it. Indeed, word of mouth between trusted peers is one of the most powerful routes to knowledge sharing. You can significantly enhance the likelihood that your audience will accept your premise if you show that someone they respect and feel ‘aligned to’ has also accepted it. Conversely, of course, you will damage your prospects if someone who is mistrusted and not respected is seen to be in ‘your camp’. Choose your spokespeople carefully.
  5. Build relationships. Trust and respect between you and your audience is vital. You need to show that you are willing to go the extra mile, that you listen, that you are receptive, flexible and sympathetic. If you are criticised, resist the urge to hit back (certainly avoiding ad hominem) and find sympathy with your critic’s values. Listen, understand, show respect and you are more likely to get your ideas across.
  6. Respect traditions and culture. Every institution or group has a tradition of listening to certain ideas in certain ways. By understanding how your audience typically receives messages that make the greatest impact then you will maximise the chances of successfully getting your idea across. Jarring, sudden changes to delivery won’t help your cause.
  7. Remove competing priorities and sources of information. Nobody will be able to listen to you openly if stress is being caused from another direction. Teachers won’t listen openly to new research if Ofsted is uppermost in their minds. Politicians won’t be receptive to ideas if they are in fear for their political survival. If others are putting across points at a similar time then  your audience loses their focus and won’t be so receptive.
  8. Relevance. To truly connect with an audience and ensure your message gets to them you need to show that you are connecting your ideas to their values, their current situation and their current fears, concerns and worries. If you can show that your suggestion will reduce stress then you have a powerful lever – we are designed to be very risk and stress-averse. If it seems irrelevant then other fears will dominate and your idea won’t be received openly.
  9. Language. Ensure you use language that is similar and familiar to your audience. Unfamiliar language (e.g. politician speak for teachers, academic-speak for policy makers or teacher-acronym-filled-speak for parents) will immediately make your audience feel that you are different and will arouse the wrong end of the ‘friend-or-foe’ reaction.

To those who are used to arguing very intellectually and claim to be basing their decisions on logic then this may all seem very shallow. However, without an understanding of the cognitive processes that mitigate against successful adoption of ideas then you might as well be shouting in an empty room. It is very hard to start putting yourself in another mindset when making another argument as it requires you to not only hold your own idea in your head but also develop a respect for those who disagree. This is some tough cognitive dissonance but is something you will need to master if you want to make sure you are truly winning over hearts and minds.