Changing People’s Minds on Social Issues

We usually think that when it comes to social issues, people are usually set and it’s very difficult to change their minds, especially on a issue that’s so entrenched from their cultural upbringing.  A new study shows that a specific 20 minute conversation can change that.  Through this conversation, the person would not only change one’s mind, but would also have a spillover effect onto friends and family members.  So what do you do?  You have them converse with someone who’s directly affected by the issue.  The study was using gay marriage as an example:

Participants were randomly divided into three groups. One received house calls from specially trained LGBT Center canvassers who advocated gay marriage. Half of the canvassers were gay; the other half were straight.

A second group received visits from the same canvassers, but the canvassers discussed the benefits of recycling — not the topic of gay marriage. In these visits, the canvassers did not reveal whether they were gay or straight.

The third set was not visited by canvassers.

The gay marriage canvassers asked voters what they enjoyed about being married (if the subjects were married) or the benefits they’d witnessed in the lives of married friends and relatives (if they weren’t). Gay canvassers then revealed their own sexual orientation and explained that they longed for the same benefits the interviewees had described, and straight canvassers discussed how they hoped a close relative who was gay could enjoy the benefits of marriage.

The average length of these conversations was only 22 minutes, but the visits had dramatic effects.

In follow-up surveys three days later, the researchers found that attitudes were unchanged among the voters who discussed recycling and those who weren’t visited by the interviewers. But among those who spoke with canvassers about gay marriage, support had jumped eight percentage points.

Three weeks later, those who conversed with straight canvassers went back to their original position: gay marriage should be banned.  Those who talked with gay canvassers, however, had an total attitude shift where they supported gay marriage.  In fact, the support grew seven percentage points when the Supreme Court handed down its decision to let Californians allow gay marriage.

On a personal note, I notice that when I discuss polyamory to my classes, most of them are dissuaded, even through rational arguments.  When I bring in an advocate of polyamory where they can converse and talk to someone in the flesh, I notice that their tone has softened, and most of them actually support polyamory.  Of course, I haven’t kept up with my former students to see if they still support it, but conversing with someone who’s directly affected by the issue is the main key to change people’s minds on a social issue.

The group who did the study hopes to do another one on abortion and undocumented immigrants.


About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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