The Most Effective Way To Persuade Opposing Side On Political Issues (Based On Science)

“Well, yes, I think you’re right,” said no one ever during a political discussion on Facebook. Obviously, I am exagerating, but it is true that convincing people to change their mind on political issues is extremely hard. Especially since humans are wired to be irrational[1], and even double down on their beliefs when faced with contradictory evidence.[2]

Seriously. In 2006, Brendan Nyhan at the University of Michigan and Jason Reifler at Georgia State University created fake newspaper articles about controversial political issues. After participants of their experiment read the articles, the researchers gave them real articles explaining the truth and correcting the misconceptions from the fake ones. For example, one fake article contained information about American corps finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The second, real article said that the U.S. never did find weapons of mass destruction. As expected, war supporters leaned more towards the first article, whereas people opposing the war tended to agree with the second one. What’s interesting though, is that even after war supporters learned that the first article was untrue, and that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they reported being even more certain that the weapons were there.

This effect is called the “backfire effect” and has been confirmed in numerous other studies.[3][4][5]

Want to hear something even crazier? Conspiracy theorists will believe pretty much anything you tell them. They cannot tell when they are being trolled. In a study conducted in 2014 at the University of Toulouse, researchers measured interactions (likes and shares) of conspiracy theory websites’ users. They found out that these users couldn’t actually tell the difference between “real” conspiracy theories and a satire of such. And the satire was usually pretty ridiculous. For example, a claim that chemtrails have been chemically analyzed and it was found that they contain VIAGRA.[6]

However, there is hope. It’s not like people never change their minds. They just need to be persuaded in the right way.

Recently, a sociologist from Stanford has found an effective way of persuading the opposing side on political issues.[7]


The key is to appeal to the moral values of those holding an opposing position, instead of appealing to the moral values of an already convinced group. This way of framing an argument increases the apparent agreement between a political position and the target audience’s moral values.

“We found the most effective arguments are ones in which you find a new way to connect a political position to your target audience’s moral values,” Rob Willer, said.

Let’s look at an example. One of the controversial issues is same-sex marriage. In the experiment, Willer showed that conservatives are much more likely to be persuaded when the argument refers to patriotism—“same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans…[who] contribute to the American economy and society.” Referring to fairness and equality was much less effective.

Also, the liberals were much more likely to change their minds on, for example, military spending, when the message fit their moral values.

“Moral reframing is not intuitive to people,” Willer said. “When asked to make moral political arguments, people tend to make the ones they believe in and not that of an opposing audience–but the research finds this type of argument unpersuasive.”


[1] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
[2] Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32(2), 303-330.
[3] Silverman, Craig (2011-06-17). “The Backfire Effect”. Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved 2012-05-01. When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.
[4] Kuhn, Deanna; Lao, Joseph (March 1996), “Effects of Evidence on Attitudes: Is Polarization the Norm?”, Psychological Science, American Psychological Society
[5] Taber, C. S., & Lodge, M. (2006). Motivated skepticism in the evaluation of political beliefs. American Journal of Political Science, 50(3), 755–769.
[6] Bessi A, Coletto M, Davidescu GA, Scala A, Caldarelli G, Quattrociocchi W (2015) Science vs Conspiracy: Collective Narratives in the Age of Misinformation. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0118093. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118093
[7] Feinberg, Matthew, and Robb Willer. “From Gulf to Bridge When Do Moral Arguments Facilitate Political Influence?.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41.12 (2015): 1665-1681.

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