The Art of Arguing, and Why You Probably Can’t Win

A few weeks ago, I was on Facebook and dipped my toe into a political debate thread with a bunch of old classmates. I’m sure that’s shocking to everyone; in this time of national tranquility, what could there possibly be for people to debate about? Unheard of, I know. But there I was, sharing my views with people who seemed to me to be astonishingly closed-minded and unreasonable, and who I am sure thought the same of me.

Thankfully, as I was resigned to doing a digital back-away from the thread, a moment of sanity appeared for me in the little box on the bottom right corner of my screen: Facebook Messenger! One of my allies from the debate had sent me a message about the discussion, and he shared a link with me about something called the “backfire effect” (aka the “boomerang effect”). This grabbed my attention both as objectively fascinating in the context of Facebook debates, as well as immediately relevant in relation to market research that we conduct at Six Degrees.

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This cognitive effect, researched and explained in detail by researchers from Dartmouth University, describes a psychological effect in which providing correct, factual information to someone holding a counter viewpoint may not only fail to convince that person of the facts, but can trigger the backfire effect, in which “corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Providing people with factual evidence that is contrary to their pre-existing beliefs can in fact reinforce their factually incorrect position. People will naturally reject evidence that contradicts their opinions, often by dismissing the credibility of the source.

The ramifications of this can be seen clearly in the discourse that dominates the news cycles, but it is also important to note how this phenomenon can influence marketing and advertising, and the ways that brands can anticipate the repercussions through market research. As we conduct message testing research and creative concept testing on behalf of clients, an overarching theme that we hear is the impact of the specific source of marketing being shared.

For example, a physician may hear clinical data or trial results from a sales rep and form a certain perspective about that data that is colored by his or her feelings toward the individual rep. However, hearing the same data points from a peer-reviewed journal article or a key opinion leader in the field often results in different feelings being elicited by the same data. Similarly, receiving information or direction from an unbranded public service announcement can resonate more strongly than that same information being shared by pharmaceutical companies or manufacturers due to pre-existing biases against their credibility as sources.

In the same way that public figures need to be increasingly thoughtful when considering which media they should use to communicate, brands must also consider how consumer perceptions of information sources can impact the way that the information itself is consumed – and be aware of the cognitive biases and effects that all people tend to bring to information processing. In some instances, using an objective third party to act as an intermediary may be a more successful marketing approach than traditional direct-to-consumer campaigns. As the public’s relationship with news and media sources continues to shift dynamically in 2018 and beyond, savvy marketers will find a need to dynamically shift their approaches as well … and take advantage of the learnings from cognitive psychology to improve the effectiveness of their communications.

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Christopher Nagle
Chris has more than 20 years of design and art direction experience with work that spans multiple industries and areas of application. His drive to uncover what sparks the motivations of his target audiences is what has led to a career of not only award-winning work, but work that moves the needle for his clients. Chris’ extensive background working with researchers and strategists has also given him a strong understanding of how to ensure that visual communications are true to the brand while reaching the right audience in the intended manner.

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