In a column he wrote last year, David Brooks said (in essence) that he sees hope for American conservatives. Why? Because there are now new conservative ideas about all manner of things: from climate change to how to help people find employment. You hear this kind of argument a lot. Steve Moore, for example, argues that Margaret Thatcher would not have been possible without the Centre for Policy Studies (a British think-tank). We read (or hear) these kinds of arguments and nod. After all, isn’t that how people make decisions? By looking at the evidence presented them and making up their minds?
Well, no actually they don’t. Most of the time, our intuition controls our decision-making process, which means that (for example) we tend to make silly but completely predictable mistakes when it comes to our finances. And if that wasn’t bad enough, once we have made up our mind, getting us to change it is extremely difficult because we develop emotional attachment to our ideas. I am sure you’ve experienced this in your personal life. Maybe you (like me) enjoy recreational arguments with a politically-minded friend of opposing political persuasion or maybe not. In my case, about once a month my friend and I get together at a nearby coffee shop, rent a table with a couple of coffees, lattes, and maybe a croissant and spend hours … arguing. Our discussions are pretty wide-ranging: political candidates, health care reform, roads, environment, Roe v Wade, right to privacy—frankly I can’t think of a single issue of any political importance that we have not addressed. I also can’t think of a single political issue on which she changed my mind or I hers. And yet we muster all these facts and figures and data—and ideas. To no avail.
And yet, ideas do matter. And we do change our minds—all the time. But why? And how? It turns out that what really changes our minds is not data but stories. If we can identify with a person we are very likely to see things “their way” because his or her story will have become part of our own identity. Remember Vice President Joe Biden getting laughed at because he told us that a TV show changed his mind about same sex marriage? Turns out that’s how our brains are wired to work. We are social animals and, as such, we pay attention to stories. So here’s another example. That friend I mentioned—she it turns out has a friend who was directly affected by healthcare reform because she has a small business. A business that should benefit from healthcare reform. After one of our “sessions” she said she would ask her friend how healthcare reform is working out for her. She never told me the outcome but notice what she (and I) instinctively knew would convince her one way or the other: not the data, but the human story.
Think tanks seem to grasp this intuitively as their papers tend to be a blend of data and philosophy. The latter is our call to action; the former the tools in our armor. Not tools you can convince someone with, of course; tools you can use to implement the policy. People will then (one hopes) benefit from that policy and their stories are what will convince the un-converted.
So in the long run especially, ideas matter a great deal. But in the short and medium run, unless those ideas come with a story to which we can relate, we will worse than not believe them; they will reinforce our already-held beliefs.
Psychologists and political pundits and economists are all right. We need ideas. And ideas can and do change our minds all the time. Ideas we can tell ourselves, that is.