PR Week Op Ed - Communications and polarisation

Writing in PR Week, Laura Osborne, Alex Chesterfield and Ali Goldsworthy outlined the importance of good communication in a crisis and how comms professionals can unwittingly stoke polarisation. 

In a polarised world, comms must be used to counter 'certainty' of peoples beliefs. 

The Government maintained for days that there was no problem – petrol stations, on the other hand, ran dry and unilaterally decided to serve only key workers. Even if there wasn’t a problem to start with, it became one.

A clear lesson from behavioural science applies here: challenging false information doesn’t always work to change our minds or make us question our beliefs.

It can be far more effective to say not that something isn’t true, but that its opposite is true.

Responding to a false claim by saying “We are not running out of petrol” risks people remembering the core part of the sentence – “We are running out of petrol.” That doesn’t happen when a corrective affirmation is offered – for example: "There is plenty of petrol for all."

We’ve thought a lot about what makes us open to changing our minds.

As communicators, we know the limitations of facts, which so often prove poor persuaders.

And yet often in times of crisis it is the only tool that gets pulled from the kit, despite the propensity of facts to reinforce existing opinions, not challenge them.

Brexit is a classic example. Remain campaigners relied on fact-based arguments to win the day – hence believing the visit of President Obama to the UK and his speech in London on the economic dangers of Brexit would be a game-changer.

Dominic Cummings’ key insight, of course, was that it was emotional connection, not fact-based arguments, that would win out.

Research on the relationship between our opinions and facts suggests that opinions come first, and facts are interpreted to support them.

Many of our attitudes are rooted in predispositions established early in life and reinforced by the groups we interact with, so mere information is often insufficient to shift the dial.

Fresh facts can actually make misperceptions worse. Rigorous studies have shown that corrective evidence may work on people who feel unthreatened, but will be resisted by those whose identities are in some way endorsed by the earlier false information.

What’s more, corrective evidence can backfire, causing people with deeply entrenched views to dig in further.

This is why understanding how to communicate in divided times and on divisive issues is so important.

Polarisation is deeply corrosive to society.

Our tendency to divide into ‘us and them’ has consequences far beyond politics, influencing who we marry, who we hire, how we view climate change, our response to COVID-19, our views on vaccination – this list goes on. Throwing facts at the other side doesn’t always help – but there are things that can.

Rather than relying on facts alone, sowing a seed of doubt can open up space for debate. Almost everyone suffers from what is known as the “illusion of explanatory depth” – we tend to think we understand things a lot more precisely than we do.

We’ve all had that experience of being asked to explain something we thought we knew – how a fridge works or why an aeroplane stays in the sky – and have found ourselves coming unstuck.

When we apply this approach to our beliefs, we can find ourselves questioning their foundations, which can make us moderate our stance.

Just as the more confident we become about a view, the more extreme we tend to be, so the more uncertain we become, the more likely it is that we’ll be receptive to an alternative.

This type of critical thinking forces us to slow down our mental processes.

In so doing we move from what cognitive psychologists describe as "System 1" thinking (fast, automatic, intuitive and emotional), to the more reflective, slower and effortful "System 2" thinking.

This transition is particularly important in the context of deliberate misinformation and fake news – the more reflective we are, the less likely we are to be taken in by it.

Communicators, policymakers and politicians know that to resonate, they need to engage the audience.

But sometimes, how that is done can make the difference between worsening a divide or creating the space for a debate.

Apart from offering the Government an alternative way to communicate, this approach can make it more possible for us to tackle the negative effects of polarisation.

After all, we are all part of the problem, which means we can all be part of the solution.

Sign up to our newsletter

Powered by NationBuilder