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Anne Toomey

January 24th, 2023

Facts Don’t Change Minds – Social Networks, Group Dialogue, and Stories Do

1 comment | 56 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Anne Toomey

January 24th, 2023

Facts Don’t Change Minds – Social Networks, Group Dialogue, and Stories Do

1 comment | 56 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

There is often a presumption amongst scientists that communicating the evidence on a given issue is on its own persuasive enough to change minds. Anne H. Toomey argues thinking in this way itself ignores evidence from other fields of research and presents four ways by which researchers can engage with findings from the social sciences to better communicate their work.


Scientists are often taught to “just stick to the facts” when communicating their research findings, particularly on controversial topics. “Sticking to the facts” seems like solid, simple advice, and moreover it is grounded in science’s values to be as objective and evidence-based as possible.

However, it is counterintuitive (and not a little ironic) that by “sticking to the facts,” we ignore a wealth of evidence on effective science communication. In our zeal to communicate the evidence of science, we neglect the evidence of science communication.

For decades, science communication centred on the sharing of the “products” of science. Scientists are encouraged to “get the word out” by giving public lectures, sharing results on social media, and talking with reporters. On the surface, these approaches make sense. We seek to broadcast our messages to as wide an audience as possible – after all, these are global issues we are facing.

But, these strategies are based on a “deficit-model” of science communication. Whereby, the primary problem is that people don’t have the information needed for effective decision-making. This model has been largely dismissed in the fields of science communication, policy studies, and cognitive science, and replaced with more holistic models that emphasize the role of emotion, values, and instinct, rather than that of information. However, “deficit” approaches to science communication are still alive and well in many fields, including my own discipline of conservation science, where passionate and dedicated researchers spend countless hours trying to communicate the facts of global environmental crises. Although well-intended, these efforts do not often result in desired changes in policies or practices, a situation that aside from being bad for our environment, contributes to the increasing sense of hopelessness experienced by many environmental scientists and practitioners.

So if “sticking to the facts” doesn’t work, what does?

1. Tap into the power of group intelligence

Cognitive science increasingly recognizes that the human mind is a social mind. Research has found that people are much better at arguing for their point of view than they are at making logical conclusions based on evidence. Group dynamics – especially groups that incorporate diversity of thought – are essential for improving our ability to solve problems and find solutions, improve argumentation skills, become less polarized when confronted with arguments that challenge their own, and reduce confirmation bias.

“deficit” approaches to science communication are still alive and well in many fields

One approach to incorporating these findings into science communication is to create structures where scientists can engage with different publics and stakeholders through back-and-forth dialogue. For example, most researchers are familiar with the benefits that scientific meetings and conferences provide (and often, the conversations in conference hallways and hotel bars are the most productive spaces). Scientific communities and societies could create similar opportunities for researchers to engage with key stakeholders through multiday “public science” meetings, where presentations from practitioners and/or policy-makers could be held alongside conventional talks, offering formal spaces for transdisciplinary conversations.

2. Tell stories and evoke emotion

Humans are story-telling creatures, and stories are often fun, engaging, and emotionally powerful. Research in neuroscience has found that oral storytelling triggers different cognitive processes than facts, thus reducing the incidence of negative thoughts and feelings that are often generated when presented with new and challenging information. Research also shows that we are better at remembering stories with context and narrative as compared to facts, and this quick recall can support effective decision-making in high-stakes situations.

Scientists can partner with artists, poets, and screenwriters to craft creative approaches to communicate their research. A fun example of this is the annual Dance Your PhD contest, in which doctoral candidates are given the challenge of communicating their PhD through dance. Similar approaches could be developed for scientists at more advanced stages of their career, allowing even the most seasoned researchers to tap into the power of storytelling, creativity, and emotion in new and novel ways.


3. Change behaviours, not minds

We often focus our communication efforts on trying to persuade publics on the “right way” to think. But research suggests that it is incredibly difficult to change minds, especially on controversial issues. There is much exciting new work that points to the potential of forgoing our obsession with getting people to think differently, to focus more on getting people to act differently. This research suggests that instead of targeting individual attitude change, seeking to change physical and social environments to support behavioural changes may in turn lead to shifts down the road in beliefs, identities, and future actions. In other words, rather than changing minds to change behaviours, this body of scholarship suggests that we should change behaviours to change minds. For example, increasing accessibility to and comfort of public transportation options may result in fewer driving miles, and increase public support for shifting subsidies from highways to rail.

4. Use social networks rather than national media platforms

Scientists get understandably excited when their research is shared on big media platforms, such as national or international news coverage. But, studies on how information spreads questions the value of high visibility for generating change. This scholarship suggests that while big media platforms and social media can help to get an idea “out there,” such visibility rarely result in widespread behaviour change. Rather, where ideas can affect change is through tapping into smaller social networks by means of strong social ties, which provide safe spaces for innovation to occur within one’s social network. This can support the uptake of new ideas that can then spread to other social networks once they are established. For example, to increase adoption of solar panels in a city, it would be more effective to target most homeowners in a single neighbourhood, rather than spreading the message thinly across multiple neighbourhoods.

We need evidence to guide us, and in science communication this means that we need to base our approaches on a deep understanding of what works and what doesn’t. The fields of cognitive science, policy studies, and science communication offer exciting and innovative ways to communicate research. Let’s dive in and see what a change we can make.

 


This post draws on the author’s article Why facts don’t change minds: Insights from cognitive science for the improved communication of conservation research, published in Biological Conservation.

The content generated on this blog is for information purposes only. This Article gives the views and opinions of the authors and does not reflect the views and opinions of the Impact of Social Science blog (the blog), nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Image Credit: LSE Impact Blog via Canva.


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About the author

Anne Toomey

Anne Toomey is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Science at Pace University and the co-founder of Participatory Science Solutions LLC, a social-impact research consulting company based in New York. Her work focuses on developing creative ways of using scientific research to help solve real-world problems.

Posted In: Academic communication | Climate Impact

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