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A new world

Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump, anti-Muslim sentiment at home and abroad, climate change “scepticism” and even the recent Australian federal election result have confounded those who, historically, have been good at predicting these sorts of things.

They also continue to confound communication strategies that are stuck in the ‘facts-will-win-out’ mantra.

The advertising industry has long known facts are only part of the story, yet some politicians, scientists and media professionals seem wedded to the theory that facts, or an education based around those facts, alone is enough.

I argue that a lot of communications campaigns – mainstream media, marketing and social media – have been too caught up in believing that simply educating the public, or ‘dispelling myths’, is enough to win people over. 

That strategy relies on two things: the general community caring enough to use these facts to stand up and shout when the time is right and; literacy blunting and quietening the opposing argument.

Expecting people to stand up and fight (or argue) an issue that really isn’t close to their hearts, especially in this era of apathy, is a dangerous strategy. So is expecting the facts to win out. And here’s why.

Firstly, dispelling myths, or correcting people, can actually increase misperceptions. It’s called the Backfire Effect. 

The Backfire Effect, and many others like it, is based around confirmation bias. Wikipedia has a pretty good definition of confirmation bias, which is the “tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one's pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities”.

The effects of confirmation bias are stronger for emotionally charged issues or deeply held beliefs.

 

It is often assumed literacy and education strategies are based on asking people to weigh up fact against fact, when we are actually asking people to make their minds up on an issue by weighing up the possibility that they, and their beliefs, are wrong.

The mental stress of someone acting or thinking outside their existing beliefs or ideas is a psychological condition in itself – cognitive dissonance. So, we are asking people to do something tens of thousands of years of evolution tells them not to.

Throw in the Dunning-Kruger effect  and you start to get a picture of what comms people are up against.

However, confirmation bias has been around since the beginning of mankind, and we all suffer from it. It’s not limited to those on the right of the political spectrum, or those with little formal education.

So, there must be something more going on. When we were establishing Believe in Bendigo – an organisation set up to counter the anti-Muslim push in the city – we looked very closely at the demographics of people holding those beliefs.

We looked at their backgrounds, their education levels and their socio-economic status, and there were some clear trends– white, working or middle class, high school education or below (or a trade on top), usually at least 40 years old and few older than 65.

Of course there were exceptions, and there always are, including a few younger tradies. While their age was a point of difference, their socio-economic or education status was not. Then there were some who were older. The theory here is these were baby boomers who had not retired as successfully as they had wanted to, were not well off and were struggling. 

It’s important to point out again that these are simply trends within a group and everyone who fits in these demographics do not have the same views.

This group of people were generally heavily anti-government and anti-bureaucracy, refused to accept evidence or data if it disagreed with their own beliefs, clearly did not trust migrants and refused to listen to the facts about climate change, the environment and science in general.

A lot of these trends were also obvious in many anti-council or anti-institution groups and are clearly evident in pro Pauline Hanson groups and in the Brexit and Trump movements.

So, why is all this important. Well, on top of their (and everybody’s) existing confirmation bias about a range of issues, these trends pointed towards something a little more.

Why now? Why at this time in history and on these issues? Two US economists may have an answer.

Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case recently produced a study revealing that over the past 15 years, middle class white Americans have been dying in record numbers, especially those aged 45 to 54. 

Things were even worse for those with a high-school education or worse.

The main causes of these deaths are suicide, alcohol poisoning and prescription drug overdoses. They are killing themselves, quickly or slowly.

A traditional view would be that anxiety and stress around globalisation and technological change has led to the increased death rates, but why, then, weren’t we seeing the same increase in death rates among Hispanic or African American communities?

One answer, these economists discussed, was around expectations.

They suggested that on the whole, white, middle class people are told, from a very early age, that if they work hard and obey the law, they will get ahead. Clearly some, or a lot, have not.

We are seeing for the first time, a generation of people possibly being worse off than the generation before them. If this study is anything to go by, this is causing frustration, depression, despair and often death.

In a post-Brexit speech, London mayor Sadiq Khan said some anti-EU voters had blamed others (in this case migrants) for their own tough lot in life.

Could it be summised, then, that rather than looking inward at the reasons for their struggle, these groups are looking elsewhere and blaming others, based on their own confirmation biases?

These people have seemingly done nothing wrong. They have obeyed the law and worked hard, yet they are victims. They are victims of a changing world economy (manufacturing, industry, dairy), a changing environment (water storages) or social change (migration).

It could be argued in this instance that confirmation bias makes it easier to blame those responsible for the change, or those who benefit from it, rather than adapt or understand it.

It is important to mention here that white, middle-class Australians are not killing themselves in increasing numbers. This may have more to do with the ease in which Americans can get their hands on prescription drugs, but the result remains the same – the perceived victims of change are reaching out for something, or someone, else to blame, and they are doing so on an emotional level, rather than a rational one.

Despite more jobs being created in America since 2009 than all the other G7 countries combined, howls of America’s economy being in a parlous state dominate calls from Trump supporters.

Fears of immigration swayed the recent Brexit vote, despite about 10 per cent of registered doctors in the UK coming from other EU countries, and 63 per cent of EU-born UK migrants having a job, more than the country as a whole.

EU migrants are also more likely to make a net contribution to the UK than migrants from outside the EU, and the UK Office for Budget Responsibility reported in 2013 higher net migration would reduce pressure on government debt over time, because incoming migrants were more likely to be of working age than the population in general.

In Bendigo, the falsehoods and lack of understanding surrounding the anti-mosque push are too many to mention. Grammar errors aside, Pauline Hanson’s political material reads like a parody account.

Social media has given these groups an outlet and an opportunity to find each other and directly communicate. Instead of being a place for the discussion of great ideas and freedom of speech, it has become a portal for freedom of hate speech.

Facebook in particular. More than four times as many people use facebook than any other social media platform. The age demographic that uses facebook the most is 35-54, with 56 million users (more than 30 per cent). 

All this points to a situation where people who feel like (and may well be) the losers, the victims, of a changing world are dealing with it the only way they know how – with emotion.

Truth, evidence and facts are not getting through and any comms strategy based solely on literacy or education –  even the clever or funny use of facts – is clearly not working.

To find out more about this, and what can be done to break through, give me a call or drop me an email.