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How Iowa caucus voters — and polarized Americans — can change opponents' minds

The Seekers cult demonstrates the difficulties in changing minds, which is why taking an aggressive approach to doing so is likely to fail.
A voter shows off various caucus pins on his vest in Des Moines, Iowa
A voter shows off various caucus pins on his vest in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 14, 2016.Al Drago / CQ Roll Call via AP

What does an obscure 1950s cult whose members believed a UFO was on its way to rescue them from an Earth-destroying flood have in common with Iowa caucusgoers? A lot, actually.

The cult made for a landmark case study in how strongly people can cling to their beliefs despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And that truth is important to acknowledge in any effort to persuade individuals to change their minds, as caucusgoers will be undertaking en masse Monday night.

Just like the Doomsday believers, members of today’s political factions display increasingly intense, outward signs of commitment to their causes.

All political campaigns are designed to sway voters to back a candidate and by extension their platform, but the format of a caucus takes that essential objective to another level: After the initial round of voting is held for those contesting the primary, any contender who doesn’t get 15 percent of the support at a given caucus location is essentially disqualified and their voters get the chance to re-vote for someone who did make the cut. That means a lot of the voting process is about convincing people who supported an eliminated candidate to join one of the remaining camps — often key to determining the eventual winner.

The example of the Seekers cult demonstrates the acute difficulties in altering allegiances, which is why taking an aggressive approach to doing so is likely to be counterproductive. Instead, there are much more effective ways to woo opponents to your way of thinking that, not coincidentally, are much more civil. This is not only an important lesson for voters in Iowa but all Americans in this age of political polarization.

The Seekers were a small sect in 1950s Chicago that firmly believed an apocalyptic flood was only months away, but that they would be whisked to safety by a flying saucer headed to another planet. As the prophesied date approached, the believers cut themselves off from society, quit their jobs, gave away their money and possessions and even extracted the metal fillings from their teeth (metal was said to prevent one from being picked up by the flying saucer).

Social psychologist Leon Festinger chronicled the cult’s experience to test his now-famous theory of cognitive dissonance, later published in “When Prophecy Fails.” Festinger predicted that after adherents had made these intense demonstrations of devotion, they would be all but forced to stay their course even when faced with overwhelming evidence of their leader’s failed prediction.

Spoiler alert: The next morning did not bring a flood and the world remained intact. Yet rather than recanting and admitting they were wrong, the cultists redoubled their belief. They saw it as evidence that God had spared the world from disaster, presumably because the small band of believers had prayed so hard and spread so much light. In turn, they continued to proselytize with even greater fervor, confirming Festinger’s hypothesis.

If we were all to take a step back and examine ourselves, we might find that we’re not that different from Festinger’s subjects.

Just like the Doomsday believers, members of today’s political factions display increasingly intense, outward signs of commitment to their causes. That contributes to a bitterly divided socio-political landscape where people treat others who hold differing beliefs with increasing rancor and nastiness: “How can these people continue to follow Leader X? How can they think what they do despite all the evidence suggesting the opposite?”

That helps turn the messages coming from opposing groups into ones that imply that anyone who supports the “wrong” candidate is evil, a socialist, un-American, anti-democratic or worse. While such name-calling and ridicule may be intended to shame the opposing group into recanting, pointing to evidence and shouting — as Festinger clearly showed — doesn’t always do the trick.

Mocking the other side is even worse. Turns out, people resolve their dissonance by either accepting the evidence and adjusting their thinking (“Too many scandals; I need a different leader”) or denying the evidence and standing pat (“It’s all rigged; they’ve had it out for him since Day One”). Mocking ironically funnels people to choose the latter option because the mockers have provided an additional justification to double down (“Why change my mind to agree with a bunch of jerks?!”).

Moreover, these behaviors inadvertently reinforce the name-caller’s commitment to their own beliefs. If you spend enough time resenting others for their beliefs, it becomes extremely difficult to change your own course. What’s the result? The aggressors keep aggressing, the opponents stay entrenched in their own beliefs, and no one relents.

So, how do we change this? While it’s unlikely that everyone can be persuaded to come over to another point of view, there are better approaches than attacking opponents. Instead, have in-person conversations where you don’t start out seeking to change others’ minds, but to understand them.

It’s important to reframe your mindset from “winners” and “losers” to one of empathy for all sides. Work to understand the priorities and values behind others’ thinking. Issues are always more complex than politicians describe them. An empathic mindset searches for the layers of values that drive others’ choices, and that allows for finding common ground. Clean water is important, but some people may prioritize economic stability over the environment. Might there be a plan that protects the environment and promotes economic opportunity?

And not only do people honestly prioritize different topics, but a drive for social acceptance can root them deeply into their stances — to the point where social acceptance can matter more than reason. Before we can encourage shifts in people’s thinking, we need to support their basic need for belonging and acceptance. One highly effective way to convey acceptance, even amid disagreement, is to invite ideas from your opponents and listen to them.

Some of your “opponents” may truly wish to change their minds, but whatever side of an issue they’re on, people hate admitting they’re wrong. So give them an out. Your acceptance and attention to their point of view will give them the security they need to know their thinking was rational given what they knew, and that because the situation has changed, it’s okay to change their mind — and they will find acceptance and fellowship when they do. (Perhaps the need for acceptance and community drove some of the Doomsday believers to the cult in the first place.)

The 2020 election is here and unfortunately it will be full of vitriol from those looking to get elected. But voters in Iowa, and beyond, don’t need to behave how the politicians do. Instead, Americans should stop the name-calling, practice empathy and accept that even after giving it our best effort, not everyone is going to see it from our perspective and that this diversity of thought is ultimately what makes America great.