Strategies for Changing the Story

or, “What neuroscience can tell us about political strategies.”

A post a while back by Kitchenmudge got me interested in some discussions about brain differences, and how these might just point the way towards  GUTGWWW (the Grand Unified Theory of Getting What We Want – pronounced “gutgoo”).  It turns out that one of the big obstacles to GWWW is simply that opponents of GWWW have brains that are physically and functionally different from those support GWWW.

Ian Monroe summarized several recent studies on brain differences.  One found a correlation between higher IQ scores and a greater likelihood of holding “evolutionary novel” preferences (e.g. having concern for a broader circle of others, beyond just family and friends, and perhaps including strangers). Another study showed that,  in a sample of ninety young adults, conservatives have a more developed amygdala  relative to liberals (a brain structure activated in some emotional reactions, particularly for memories associated with fear, and for social connectedness). Those on the political left had a thicker anterior cingulate cortex than right-wing thinkers (an area of the brain associated with error detection, reward based learning and emotional awareness) .

These differences in structure between the brains of those who are politically liberal or conservative suggest an underlying cause for some related differences in how liberal or conservative brains process incoming information.  Of course, habits of mind could influence neurological development, or neurological development could affect habits of mind, or both – as with so many complex systems, the arrows of causality point both ways.

Nonetheless, there is some evidence that one characteristic of the thinking of politically conservative folx is that once they have taken a position on something, they are unlikely to be swayed by factual evidence to the contrary. There is even a “backfire effect” among conservatives, wherein facts that contradict a previously accepted idea tend only to strengthen that erroneous idea.

Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger. Joe Keohane,

This is why the repetition of a “Big Lie” is just so damn effective, even against an avalanche of evidence to the contrary… This is why there are still so many climate change deniers and evolution naysayers.

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
-Mark Twain

And folks, we may be in some peril here.

In their 2007 book Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, Nordhaus and Shellenberger discuss the problem of environmentalist’s usual warnings (a.k.a. “The Litany”) as an approach to teaching about sustainability:

For the most part, these environmentalist cautionary tales have had the opposite of their intended effect, provoking fatalism, conservatism and survivalism among readers and the lay public, not the rational embrace of environmental politics. (p. 131)

In other words, fact-based warnings just activate people’s mental immune systems.  It doesn’t matter how scientifically sound your information is.

How do we work around this?  Not by giving them resistant people more facts and evidence, obviously.

So perhaps we need to tell them a new story, a story of a future they would like, then tell them about altogether new approaches to getting there, ones that don’t contain any of the code words that they’ve already conditioned themselves to dislike.

Hmmm, tricky that.  What things do they like that we like too,  things that get us closer to GWWW?  They like community and small-town neighborliness.  They like self-reliance and a pioneer spirit.  They like families, kids, grandkids. They like personal responsibility.  The like the familiar, and are nostalgic about an imagined past.

The great storyteller and sparkling trickster-spirit Caroline Casey once said that she’s a “conservative creationist,” because she wants to conserve the creation.  Can we comfortably fit into such costumes, to appear suitable and friendly, hiding our coyote nature so as not to disturb the sheep?


  1. A good start you’ve brought up here: to find some attractive myths that can be played. The toughest one is jingoism. How do we endorse the best of the ideals Americans preach without giving credence to some “original intent” by the rich imperialists that have always ruled us?

    Anyway, convincing the sheep is only one step in the process. The rulers don’t care what the sheep think as long as they have good, brainwashed soldiers to keep them in line. Convincing the soldiers is the next stage. We might want to look at de-programming strategies, of which I know very little. Police and the military have their own cultures, which can be cult-like to some degree.


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